Friday, September 28, 2007

Poetry and Morality

There is a bit of poetry quoted in The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod called The Bells of Hell:

The bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling

For you and not for me;

For me the angels sing-a-ling-a-ling

Death has no threats for me.

Oh death where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling

Oh grave, thy victory?

The bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling

For you and not for me.

- Anonymous, from Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914-1918

I really like this poem. It is simultaneously suggestive of the transhumanist desire to enable individual humans to live forever and of the bravery of the morally correct (i.e. those who apply the ethic of reciprocity to every aspect of their lives) in the face of death. For such a cheerfully pessimistic poem (my favourite attitude, aside from melancholic optimism…) it does carry a darker message as to the motives of those who would destroy themselves to harm and kill others.

The hijackers who flew the planes into the World Trade Centre might as well have been chanting this as they directed the aircraft towards their targets.

This raises a deeper moral question: is it right to kill as a soldier if you believe your enemy is evil? This poem highlights one of the biggest and most insidious problems of a deep faith in an afterlife – it reduces the morality of our actions here and now to a question: what would God have me do?

My belief at the moment is that the real world is far too messy and random and chaotic for us to ascribe an absolute morality to everything in every situation. We should just ascribe the ethic of reciprocity to as many situations as possible, promote pluralism in our discussion of morality, continue to discuss morality, and try to do the best we can.

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