Grief, Loss, Death & Dying

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Reason's GriefReview - Reason's Grief
An Essay on Tragedy and Value
by George W. Harris
Cambridge University Press, 2006
Review by Tony Milligan, Ph.D.
Mar 6th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 10)

George Harris looks at the problem of the value of tragedy instrumentally, in terms of how an understanding of the tragic can improve our thought about the twenty-first century cultural, moral, political and religious horizon. That makes Reason's Grief a rather ambitious book. It spreads out in various directions. Reflections about A.C.Bradley, Schopenhauer and Hegel give way to deliberation about the education system, security and the 'war on terror'. In this respect, Reason's Grief is or at least tries to be, a bit like MacIntyre's After Virtue and Fukuyama's End of History. A divided readership may accordingly be anticipated. Those who lack a fondness for the open range may not make it from cover to cover.

The central thesis is fairly straightforward. We need a tragic sense of how things stand in the world, a sense of the unavoidability and finality of loss. Harris uses this as an adequacy condition to show that various viewpoints fail to give us what we need. The kind of viewpoint that we do need turns out to be (in important respects) familiar. We need an appreciation that values are plural (that there is no single ultimate good), that values can and often do conflict, that they can be incomparable (incommensurable) and may leave us with no criteria to resolve conflicts one way rather than another, and that nothing is of unqualified value.

Harris wants a paradigm shift to this standpoint. But, with the possible exception of the last claim, most of what he argues for could be found in almost any book on virtue ethics. What does give Harris some additional edge is the (important, deep) claim that we are not just vulnerable to loss, but rather that it is inseparable from human valuing. But again, this isn't at all a new claim (it sounds a bit like Schopenhauer) although I suspect that the author would classify the latter as responding with despair and not grief. For Harris the inescapability of harm is part of the sense in which life is to be understood in tragic terms. Everybody loses in the end. But this does not mean that the bad hopelessly outweighs the good.  We must grieve for loss but not despair at the triumph of that which is bad.

This theme of accepting vulnerability and loss while avoiding despair is hardly new but Harris works with it quite well. (It is one of the strongest features of this book, along with the emphasis upon the finitude of humanity as a whole.) However, this is a work with some significant problems. There is something of a tension between Harris's denial that anything is of unqualified value and his stress upon the irredeemable loss that life involves. After all, if nothing is all that important then the significance of its loss must thereby be diminished. If we are nothing much to begin with, then grief (of whatever sort) seems uncalled for.

Here, I suspect that Harris's terminology is a little misleading. By claiming that nothing is of unqualified value, he may means that there is nothing that cannot be traded off for something else. But these two claims don't strike me as being at all the same. To say that nothing is beyond sacrifice is only to say that nothing is absolutely sacred. And this is a commitment that any secular culture may have to accept. (Harris is big on the need for a paradigm shift to a secular culture.)

His conception of what is valuable is also understood in terms that strike me as very un-tragic, unless one has conception of tragedy which focuses upon the importance of dilemmas, or occasions of  tragic choice. This is a very modern appreciation of the tragic, more to do with Sartre's Flies and Anhouil's Antigone than it is to do with Sophocles or Aeschylus. Given that there is such a thing as fate in ancient tragedy, there is a clear sense in which tragic agents deliberate are torn and causally involved in outcomes but they are not in any modern sense free choosers. (And this is the kind of appreciation of the limits of choice that we find in other, comparable, works on the significance of the tragic, for example Bernard Williams' Shame and Necessity.)

Be that as it may, tragic choice is linked by Harris to grief of a particular sort, the sort that is a response to loss that we cannot rationalize and give rational justification for. 'Where incomparability obtains between options of great importance that are in conflict but where choice must be made, there arises a new tragic thought: that what is lost, no matter what we do, cannot be compared to what is gained in any of the options. This is reason's grief, the outer limit of rational choice.'

Here, I wonder about a core intuition that is at work in Harris: if we have to choose between x and y and we happen to value both in terms that cannot be compared then I am inclined to think that either choice is just as rational, and not reason in some way looses its way or that it is suddenly unable to console us. Our rational consolation here is precisely that we have not sacrificed something of comparable and greater value but have shouldered the burden of decision making. (And that is clearly a rational consolation of sorts.) What Harris seems to grieve about is, more narrowly, the absence of any rational decision procedure that will always yield the same results in identical situations and that we can use to look back on decisions and reflect that we have not only chosen but have made the right choice.

Why we should want such a retrospectively-consoling procedure is never made clear. That Harris does seem to want one might be used to argue that his talk of a paradigm shift to a new standpoint is misplaced. That is to say, the predicament that he views as tragic may only strike the reader as genuinely tragic if they share some fairly traditional expectations about what rational justification can and cannot deliver.   

© 2007 Tony Milligan


Tony Milligan is a Teaching Fellow with the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen. His doctoral research focused upon Iris Murdoch and his current research interests are in ethics and the emotions. 


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