"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
Moral Laziness and Milan Kundera’s Farewell Waltz
Eyes transfixed, your fingernails dance a repetitive beat on the tabletop. Reclining, but not relaxed, your mind goes through a repetitive pattern of decision >> consequence, alternative >> consequence. This is what moral indecision looks like. You are confronted with a choice, and more than preference is at stake. A moral choice tugs at the trip wire of deeply ingrained values AND our most visceral feelings.
Milan Kundera’s Farewell Waltz depicts several characters in communist-era Czechoslavokia. They each face their own moral dilemma differently. Each of them display a unique emotional response. A woman most likely impregnated by a local man seeks to entrap the famous musician with whom she had a one-night stand. A gynecologist employs dubious means to cure his female patients of infertility. An unfaithful husband continues to disguise his guilt and another illicit affair.
Surprisingly, in each of these scenarios, each decision’s consequence is relatively banal. Despite potentially life-altering implications for everyone involved, these dilemmas don’t bring on the furrowed brow or sweaty palms.
The woman kills her empathy for the ensnared musician; despite her doubt about her baby’s parentage, she does not hesitate over her target. The enticing potential of the famous would-be father seems to remove all doubt, especially when she contemplates his alternative (an intolerably provincial young man who swoons for her).
The woman bypasses the moral dimension of her decisions. Her preferences overpower her will to acknowledge Uncertainty. In other words, her doubt about the truth (combined with her understandable doubt over the true feelings of others) is enough to justify her decisions. And just as in the court of law, reasonable doubt amounts to the absence of guilt. In the common understanding, it means innocence. Most Kundera’s other characters operate in the same way.
But the moral protection of ignorance starts to break down when the stakes are raised. This much is apparent when one of Kundera’s characters must make a potentially life-and-death decision. Behold the pensive, contracted muscles and iron-clad concentration. In this scenario, the seriousness of each decision and consequence is unavoidable and potentially dire.
How does the character respond? His innocence-seeking mind injects his understanding with as much doubt as possible. Will the worst really come to pass? Could he be overreacting? Could others really blame him for what happens?
In a sea of uncertainty, there’s always the potential for a lifeboat.
Sociologists, educators, and hopefully parents know that human morality is not innate–least of all where abstract values are involved (e.g. truth and honesty, loyalty, honor). The capability to make moral decisions with integrity is a byproduct not only of learning, but of practice also. Since these scenarios typically set off deep-set emotions, the intellectual dimension of a dilemma may easily be bypassed or hijacked.
All of this begs the question: if Kundera’s characters are not abnormal in their self-deluding, amoral predilections, just what can defend our better selves from this will to ignorance and moral laziness? If our preferences can so easily overtake our obligations through sheer emotional power, then perhaps we should fight fire with fire:
Perhaps we should consider developing a stronger emotional response for our abstract moral values.
Imagine fire and brimstone, if you must. Imagine John Galt. Imagine Malcolm X. Alternatively, much of the Eastern schools of thought categorize emotion alongside the other trappings of samsara; it’s only a painful attachment to the illusory physical world. Dull your emotions, and you dull your propensity for self-delusion and moral indiscretion.
Pick your poison. Pick your path.