Book 27: A Case of Conscience
Well, I was quite excited for book 27 on my list, A Case of Conscience by James Blish, but unfortunately, for me, it succumbed to the same over exposition I’m finding was common in the 1950s, so I didn’t finish it. The first part of the book, which I believe was released as a standalone novella in 1953 and later expanded in 1958, was quite good, however, and I did find it interesting. With that in mind, I’d still like to take a dive into this novel, as it presented an interesting religious argument.
A Case of Conscience is about a Jesuit priest, Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, who is on an expedition to a planet called Lithia with three other scientists, in order to determine whether or not the planet should be opened up to human trade and/or contact. Despite the fact that Father Ramon appreciates the planet and its reptilian inhabitants, one of whom he befriends, he votes to put the planet under maximum quarantine from Earth’s perspective, meaning they would have absolutely nothing to do with it.
His reasoning, which I think is what made this book famous when it was first published (it did win a Hugo Award after all), is that because the Lithians are uber-logical creatures who base their logic and morality on reason and science alone, the planet must therefore have been created by the Devil himself as a taunt that a rational civilization could exist without God. This assertion is heretical for Father Ramon as he is asserting that the Devil has powers of creation, which should be reserved for God alone.
“Paul, Mike, Agronski, I have nothing more to say than this: We are all of us standing on the brink of Hell. By the grace of God, we may still turn back. We must turn back – for I at least think that this is our last chance.” – Father Ramon to his compatriots.
Reason Masquerading as Good & The Devil’s Temptation
By itself, this aspect of the novel is really interesting and worth diving into a bit to understand Father Ramon’s argument. It reminds me of Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, which I have yet to read (it’s on my reading list), though I think the title is quite self-explanatory.
Let’s look at Father Ramon’s argument for why Lithia must have been created by the Devil:
“Lithian civilization is so set up as to suggest that one can arrive at such basic axioms of Christianity, and of Western civilization on Earth as a whole, by reason alone – in the plain face of the fact that one cannot.”
“Look at the premises, Mike. One: Reason is always a sufficient guide. Two: The self-evident is always the real. Three: Good works are an end in themselves. Four: Faith is irrelevant to right action. Five: Right action can exist without love. Six: Peace need not pass understanding. Seven: Ethics can exist without evil alternatives. Eight: Morals can exist without conscience. Nine: Goodness can exist without God. Ten – but do I really need to go on? We have heard all these propositions before, and we know What proposes them.” – Father Ramon on reason without faith being the Devil’s work.
For Father Ramon, the above propositions, such as that ethics can exist without evil alternatives, are propositions from the Devil himself, presumably as a way to get back at God for expelling him from Heaven. For the Jesuit priest, however, ethics cannot exist without evil alternatives, reason is not always a sufficient guide, the self-evident is not the only thing that is real, faith is relevant to right action, etc. The above-listed logical propositions are really the handiwork of the Devil.
Let’s look at one in particular that I think is a strong proposition, proposition seven: ethics can exist without evil alternatives. The idea being that, according to the Devil in this case, you can be a good person even if being bad is not an option and nobody acts unethically around you.
At first glance, this proposition seems reasonable and utopian. Just do the right thing. We don’t have to have real-world examples of evil in order to know what the right thing to do is in any given situation. We can still have an ethical code (specific rules and actions by which to live) sans the ability or possibility or example of evil alternatives. If i’m interpreting this proposition correctly, it’s saying that evil doesn’t need to exist at all in order for us to have an ethical code and behave rightly. This ties in I think to proposition four, faith is irrelevant to right action.
Taking a closer look, however, I’m not sure the proposition holds. First of all, the only reason to have a code of ethics is to stand it in opposition to unethical behaviour. X behaviour is bad and I can observe all its bad consequences, so I’m not going to engage in it, rather I’m going to do the opposite, Y behaviour, which is good. A code of ethics doesn’t seem to mean much if it’s not in opposition to anything. Then it’s just a code of life, or way of being, maybe, but it wouldn’t necessarily be “ethics”.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, we must ask whether it is even possible to develop a code of ethics without an understanding of evil? Throughout their civilization, the Lithians have never acted wrongly. They’ve always only ever acted rightly because of science, reason, and logic. But you could argue that that means they don’t really have an understanding of evil beyond the abstract, and so their code of ethics is meaningless. The question here becomes, does acting rightly really mean anything if that’s the only thing you could ever do? And does acting rightly really mean anything if you don’t truly understand what acting wrongly means?
The instinct for most people, myself included, is to say yes. Good actions will necessarily have good consequences and outcomes, and you don’t need to know what evil is (truly is) to do something good. This ties in to proposition three, good works are an end in themselves. The right thing to do is the right thing to do and that’s that. And what we want anyway is a utopia where everyone acts rightly and nobody gets hurt.
However, I think we must look beyond this instinct to think about and understand the consequences of this line of thinking.
Jordan Peterson tackles this question in his lectures when he says, “If you regard yourself as harmless, which is a big mistake, then nothing you can do is really that bad. Because you’re harmless after all. But if you understand that you’re seriously not harmless, that can make you a lot more careful with yourself…If you know what you’re capable of because you’re human, that can motivate you to be much more careful with what you say and do.”
In other words, you can trick yourself into getting away with a lot of actually bad things if you believe yourself to be a good person all of the time. That kind of thinking can then lead straight to victimhood, resentment, blaming others, and never taking personal responsibility to actually do the right thing. If you’re personal stance and self-identity is “I can do no wrong,” then no matter what you do, even if it is actually wrong, you’ll never recognize it as such and you’ll live your life hurting yourself and others.
On the other hand, if you recognize the fact that there is evil within you and that yes, you very much can do wrong, then you can be more careful and forthright in your actions to ensure that you actually are doing what’s right objectively.
In terms of our fictional Lithia, we could imagine that such rational creatures would then rationalize all of their actions to align with their self-identity of being rational, good, logical beings, even if that were not really the case for a particular action or behaviour. And this, I think, is what frightens Father Ramon in proposition seven and where Peterson comes in to help us understand; you’re actually much more susceptible to evil if you think that you can do no wrong, than if you are acutely aware of the fact that you can do wrong. This is for the reason stated above, that you would rationalize all your evil actions to fit with your self-identity of being good, but also for another, similar reason, which Peterson expounds in another video: “People who haven’t integrated the shadow are naive…Because they’re naive they’re often resentful as well because they get taken advantage of.”
This quote is prescient for the Lithians since earlier in the story, one of the characters suggests that they basically make a slave race of the Lithians because he wants them to mine a certain special element present on Lithia and then use it on Earth to make bombs. The idea is immediately shot down because of the ethics of it, and also because they’d never be able to do it legitimately given that the Lithians don’t have any money so you wouldn’t even be able to pay them to mine the element, leaving slavery as the only alternative.
But we can imagine a situation in which humans go ahead with this plan and enact it in such a way as to trick the Lithians into mining the element for them in a way that seems rational. It would only be a matter of time before the clever Lithians realize that they are being sorely taken advantage of and that they would then have to take drastic actions in order to extract (pun intended) themselves from that situation. Certainly they would feel hurt and betrayed since they previously had no concept of using other creatures for such gains, and this feeling would slap even harder when contrasted with their previous, naive expectations. If you don’t expect someone to betray you, it hurts that much more than if you did expect it, even a little bit. Their anger and resentment would then certainly manifest in a cruel, terrible, violent situation.
Bringing this back to Father Ramon’s proposition seven, ethics can exist without evil alternatives, we see that this probably is not the case for two reasons:
- Being good doesn’t actually mean anything unless you could do otherwise. So a good gesture, absent an evil alternative, is devoid of any deeper meaning. It might be beneficial in the short term as it would still have a positive outcome/consequence, but eventually this string of empty gestures runs the risk of being manipulated and infiltrated with evil gestures masquerading as good. This leads to two outcomes: you either rationalize the act itself as good or not so bad, or, you blame someone else. Both serve to retain your identity as a “good” person. As Peterson says, “If you’re harmless, you’re not virtuous. You’re just harmless. If you’re a monster, and you don’t act monstrously, then you’re virtuous.”
- If you don’t recognize the evil alternative in yourself, you run the risk of being taken advantage of because you’re too nice and too accommodating, which inevitably leads to anger and resentment, which inevitably leads to greater acts of evil than if you had recognized this about yourself in the first place and taken pains, reasonably, to prevent such a bad outcome. So sometimes you do say no; you don’t do what people want you to do; you assert your contrary opinion, etc., knowing that if you’re too nice, too agreeable, and never do anything “wrong” (based on your or someone else’s definition), then eventually the darkness will burst out of you in a real way with real consequences.
So we can surmise that perhaps this is something along the lines of what Father Ramon was worried about with proposition seven and why he thinks it’s the reasoning of the Devil. Both 1 and 2 above can lead to greater acts of evil and corruption than accepting the proposition that ethics cannot exist without an evil alternative. After all, you have to know what the evil is in any given situation in order to effectively turn away from it, otherwise you’re simply delaying it’s inevitable manifestation.
To close, while I didn’t finish A Case of Conscience, I thought this particular aspect of it was really interesting, and I might write another post looking at more of the devilish propositions above.
I hope you enjoyed this read and that you continue to have a great day!
Blish, James. A Case of Conscience. Kindle ed., Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy; 1st edition, 2017.
Peterson, Jordan. “Don’t be harmless.” YouTube, uploaded by Bite-sized Philosophy, 29 March, 2017, https://youtu.be/QQ5oqgJWJyw.
Peterson, Jordan. “The Dangers of Being Weak and Naive.” YouTube, uploaded by Bite-sized Philosophy, 8 Jan., 2018, https://youtu.be/Yhlvqmy-3UI.
Peterson, Jordan. “Weak men can’t be virtuous.” YouTube, uploaded by Greenstijl, 23 Jan., 2018, https://youtu.be/bWYrAU5mmXE