In Amador, Fernando Savater writes in the form of a letter to his teenage son about ethics, morals and freedom in today's society.
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About the Author
Fernando Savater is one of Spain's most well-known philosphers. A former ethics professor, he is the author of Amador, The Question of Life and The Great Labyrinth.
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In Which a Father Addresses His Son on Questions of Ethics-that is, the Options and Values of Freedom-and Attempts to Show Him How to Have a Good Life
By Fernando Savater, Alastair Reid
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1991 Fernando Savater and Editorial Ariel, S.A.
All rights reserved.
What About Ethics?
Some branches of knowledge are studied out of a straightforward desire to know new things; others, to acquire a skill that will allow us to do something, to be useful; the majority, to help us find a job and earn a living. If we have neither the curiosity nor the need to know certain things, we can dispense with them without worrying. There is a wealth of interesting kinds of knowledge without which we can live perfectly well. For example, I regret to say I know nothing of astrophysics or cabinetmaking, in which others take pleasure, but my ignorance has not held me back so far. What I mean is that there are certain things we can learn or not, just as we decide. Since nobody can know everything, all we can do is choose, and humbly accept what we don't know. You can live without knowing astrophysics, or cabinetmaking, or football, even without knowing how to read or write. You live worse, of course, but you can live. Now, there are other things you have to know, because, as they say, they are your life. It's important to know, for example, that jumping from the sixth story is not good for your health, or that a diet of nails and prussic acid will not bring you long life. Nor is it wise to ignore a situation where every time you come across a certain neighbor, you fight with him. The consequences will sooner or later be very unpleasant. These small things are important. There are many ways of living; but there are ways that do not allow us to live.
Quite simply, among all kinds of knowing there is one at least that is essential to us: knowing that certain things suit us, while others do not. Certain foods don't sit well with us, neither do certain kinds of behavior, certain attitudes. Clearly, I mean that they don't suit us if we want to go on living. If what one wants is to obliterate oneself right away, then drinking bleach would be fine, or else surrounding oneself with as many enemies as possible. But for the moment let us suppose that living is what we choose — let's leave on one side for now the considered choice of suicide. Now, certain things suit us, and these we usually call "good" things, for they make us feel good; on the other hand, other things that make us feel really bad we refer to as "bad" things. To know what suits us, that is, to distinguish between what is good for us and what is bad, is a sense we all try to acquire, all of us without exception, because of the advantages it brings us.
As I mentioned before there are things that are good for our health and bad for it. We have to know what we should eat. We have to know that fire sometimes warms and sometimes burns, just as water can sometimes quench our thirst and at other times drown us. Sometimes, however, things are not so simple. Certain drugs, for example, make us feel better, feel confident, but their continuous use would be bad for us. In some respects, they are good; in others, bad. They suit us and don't suit us at the same time. When it comes to human relations, these ambiguities turn up still more frequently. Lies are generally bad, for they destroy our faith in words — and we have to use words to live in human society — and they turn people into enemies. Yet at times it seems useful or beneficial to lie in order to gain some small advantage, or to do someone a favor. For example: Is it better to tell someone with an incurable cancer the truth or to deceive him in order to make his end better? Lies do not suit. They are bad, but sometimes they have good consequences. We have already said that picking a quarrel with others in the main does not suit at all; but can we stand by if a girl is attacked near us, not interfering just because we don't pick quarrels with others? Yet someone who always tells the truth, no matter what, must drive everyone mad; and anyone who barges in like Indiana Jones to rescue a girl who is being attacked might as likely end up with a broken head as go home whistling. Bad things sometimes seem to turn out more or less well, and good things sometimes look very bad. Such confusions!
Knowing how to live is not so easy, since there are various opposing points of view about what we ought to do. In mathematics or geography, there are bright people and ignorant people, but the bright people are almost always in agreement about fundamentals. In living, however, opinions are very far from unanimous. If you are after a life of excitement, you can apply yourself to Formula One motor racing, or to mountaineering, but if you prefer a safer and quieter life, it would be better to get your adventures from the video club on the corner. Some swear that the noblest thing is to live for others, while others demonstrate that it is more useful to contrive that others live for them. Some claim that what matters is making money and nothing else, whereas others argue that money without good health, free time, genuine affection, or peace of mind is worthless. Reputable doctors declare that giving up tobacco and alcohol is a sure way of extending one's life, to which smokers and drinkers reply that with such deprivations, of course life would seem much longer.
At first the only thing we can agree on is that we don't agree with everybody. But think. These differing opinions are in agreement on one thing: that whatever form our life takes will be the result, at least in some part, of what each of us wanted it to be. If our life were something completely determined, fixed and unchangeable, all these pronouncements would have no meaning at all. Nobody discusses whether stones fall up or fall down — they fall down, that's it. Beavers make dams in streams, and bees make combs with hexagonal cells. There are no beavers that try to make honeycomb cells, no bees that practice hydraulic engineering. In its natural medium, every animal seems to understand perfectly what is good for it and what is bad, no discussions, no doubts. There are no good animals and bad animals in nature, although possibly the fly considers the spider bad. But the spider has no choice in the matter.
Let me give you a dramatic example. You know about African termites, those white ants that build extraordinary nests several feet tall and hard as stone. Now, termites' bodies are soft, lacking the horn shell that protects other insects. The nest itself is their collective armor-plating against enemy ants better armed than they. But on occasion one of those nests breaks open: in a downpour, or when nudged by an elephant (elephants love to rub their flanks against termites' nests). Immediately, the worker-termites begin to reconstruct their damaged fortress at top speed. Huge enemy ants throw themselves into attack, and the soldier-termites come out to defend the tribe and to restrain the enemy. Since neither in size nor in weapons can they match the ants, they fling themselves on the attackers, trying to slow their progress, while the ferocious jaws of the assault troops chop them up. The worker-termites, working full out, manage to close the broken nest-wall, but in closing it they leave outside the poor heroic soldier-termites, who give up their lives for the others. Don't they at least deserve something like a medal? Surely it's correct to say they are brave.
Change of scene, but not of subject. In The Iliad, Homer tells the story of Hector, the Trojans' most celebrated warrior, feet planted firmly outside the walls of Troy, waiting for Achilles, the choleric champion of the Greeks, well aware that Achilles is much stronger than he and will probably kill him. He does it out of an obligation to defend his family and his fellow citizens against the ferocious assault. There is no question — Hector is a hero, a truly brave man. But is Hector heroic in the same way as the soldier-termites, whose sacrifices, made over and over again, no Homer has bothered to relate? Doesn't Hector after all do exactly what the anonymous termites do? Why is his bravery more authentic, more complicated, than that of the insects? What's the difference?
Quite simply, the difference lies in the fact that the soldier-termites fight and die because they have to: Like the spider that eats the fly, they have no choice in the matter. Hector, on the other hand, goes out to confront Achilles because he wishes to. The soldier-termites cannot desert or rebel, or call in sick so that others go in their place. They are essentially programmed by the natural order to complete their heroic mission. Hector's case is quite different. He could say that he was ill, that he had no wish to go up against someone stronger than he. His fellow citizens might call him a coward or a fraud, or they might ask him what other plan he had to deal with Achilles, but the point is that Hector can refuse to be a hero. However much pressure others bring to bear on him, he can always choose not to do what he is supposed to do. He is not programmed to be a hero — no man is. So his gesture has enormous merit, and Homer recounts it with epic emotion. We say that, as opposed to the termites, Hector was free, and for that we admire his courage.
And so we come to the essential word in all of this: freedom. Animals (to say nothing of minerals and plants) have no choice but to be as they are, and to do what they are programmed by nature to do. You can't criticize what they do, or applaud them for it, because it is all that they know. Of course, men too are to some extent programmed by nature. We are programmed to drink water, not bleach, and in spite of all the precautions we take, we have to die sooner or later. Similarly, though less loftily, our culture programs us: Our thinking is conditioned by the language we use to form it (a language that impresses itself on us from the outside, not one we have invented for our personal use), and we are educated into certain traditions, habits, forms of behavior, certain legends. In a word, what we develop from the cradle on are loyalties, loyalties to some things and not to others. That is quite a load, and it makes us somewhat predictable. Take Hector, whom we were discussing. His natural programming made him want protection, shelter, and the help of others, all of which he found, for better or worse, in Troy, his city. It was also natural for him to think affectionately of his wife Andromache, with whom he had shared many pleasures, and of his son, to whom he felt strong biological ties. Culturally, he felt himself to be part of Troy, sharing its language, its customs, and its traditions. Besides, since his childhood he had been brought up to be a good warrior in his city's service, and knew that cowardice was something abhorrent, unworthy of a man. If he betrayed his fellows, Hector knew that he would be despised and punished in one way or another. So wasn't he fairly well programmed to do what he did? And yet ...
And yet Hector could have said, "Forget the whole business!" He could have dressed as a woman and escaped from Troy by night, he could have feigned illness or madness, he could have knelt before Achilles and offered his services as a guide for the invasion of Troy on its weakest flank. He could have turned to drink, or he could have invented a new religion that preached against fighting one's enemies, and recommended instead turning the other cheek. You might say that these various activities would be fairly strange, given who Hector was and the education he had had. But you must allow that they are at least possible, while a beaver making honeycombs or a soldier-termite deserting are not rare but utterly impossible. With people, you can never be sure; with animals and other natural beings, you can. For all our biological or cultural programming, we can always in the end choose something that is not in the program, or at least, not in everybody's program. We can say Yes or No, I want it, I don't want it. However much we are tumbled about by circumstance, we are never left with only one course to take; we have several.
I mentioned freedom. It's freedom I'm talking about. Freedom is what distinguishes us from the termites and the tides, from everything that obeys an unvarying necessity. It is true that we cannot do just what we like, but it is also true that we are not bound to do a single thing. And here we can set down two things about freedom:
One. We are not free to choose what happens to us (being born on a certain day, to certain parents, in a certain country; suffering from cancer or being annihilated in a car accident; being handsome or ugly), but we are free to respond to what happens in such and such a way. We can obey or rebel, we can be prudent and tentative, vengeful or resigned, we can dress fashionably or wear a bear costume, we can defend Troy or run away.
TWO. Being free to try something has nothing to do with bringing it off flawlessly. Freedom, which means choosing among possibilities, has nothing to do with omnipotence, which is getting what you want however impossible it may seem. Of course, the more ability we have, the better the results we can obtain with our freedom. I am free to want to climb Mount Everest, but given my wretched physical condition and my total lack of expertise in mountaineering, it is practically impossible that I do it. I am free to read or not to read; since I learned to read as a child, reading presents no difficulty if I decide to do it. There are things that depend on my will (that's what being free means); but not everything does, or else I would be omnipotent. In the world there are many other wills, many other necessities that I do not control. If I am not aware of myself or the world in which I live, my freedom will founder in the face of necessity over and over again. But — very important — that would not cause me to give up my freedom, although you might forgive me for doing so.
There are many forces in reality that limit our freedom, from hurricanes to dictators. But at the same time, our freedom is a force in the world, our force. If you speak to people, however, you will notice that most of them are much more aware of what limits their freedom than of the freedom itself. They will say to you: Freedom? What freedom are you talking about? How can we be free if our nourishment comes from television, if our governments deceive us and use us, if terrorists threaten us, if drugs enslave us, and if on top of that we don't have the money to buy a motorbike, which is really what we want? If you look a little more closely, you'll see that the people who speak like that seem to be complaining, but they are really very relieved to know they are not free. They are thinking: "It doesn't really help. Since we are not free, anything that happens cannot be our fault." But I am convinced that nobody — nobody! — really believes they are not free, nobody accepts that they might be a piece of inexorable mechanism, like a watch or a termite. You might think that choosing certain things freely in certain circumstances could be difficult, like entering a burning house to save a child, or standing up to a bully, and that it's better to say there is no freedom so as not to have to realize that we freely choose the easiest way — that's to say, we wait for the firemen or lick the boot on our neck. But inside us something keeps saying, "If you had wanted. If you had really wanted ..."
Whenever anything leads you to think that you might not be free, I suggest you apply the proof of a Roman philosopher. A long time ago, a Roman philosopher was talking with a friend who denied the liberty of man, and swore that men had no choice but to do what they did. The philosopher raised his stick and showered blows on his companion with all his strength. "Stop! That's enough, don't hit me anymore," cried the companion, and the philosopher, not pausing in his beating, explained. "You say I am not free, that I have no choice but to do what I do? Then don't waste your breath asking me to stop. I'm an automaton." Until his companion conceded the philosopher's freedom to leave off beating him, he did not stay his stick. Good proof, but you must only use it as a last resort.
Excerpted from Amador by Fernando Savater, Alastair Reid. Copyright © 1991 Fernando Savater and Editorial Ariel, S.A.. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
What About Ethics?,
Rules, Habits, and Whims,
Do What You Want,
Give Yourself a Good Life,
Wake Up, Baby!,
Here Comes Jiminy Cricket,
Put Yourself in His Place,
So Much Pleasure,