The Underpinnings of Canada’s Civic Religion

The Underpinnings of Canada’s Civic Religion


Howard Adelman

Last week in Ottawa, I attended an interfaith conference called, “Our Whole Society: Religion and Citizenship at Canada’s 150th.” My talk, indeed the panel I was on, addressed the issue of immigration and refugees. A short report on my talk can be found in Peter Stockland’s article, “How Faith Fosters Civility,” in the magazine, Convivium, 19 May 2017: I will elaborate on the talk I gave in a subsequent blog.

There are five in this series:

  1. Underpinnings
  2. Undercutting and Reinforcing
  3. Democratic Deficit
  4. Political Communication
  5. Canada’s Civic Religion

In this blog, I want to deal with the presumptions underpinning my observations of Canada’s civic religion. If you are disinterested in philosophical grounding, skip this blog. In subsequent blogs in the series, I will point to the conclusions of various communication sciences to indicate why the values of Canada’s civic religion, as best articulated in interfaith dialogue, will not save Canada from the disaster afflicting America. Only then will I provide a more comprehensive articulation of the norms of that civic religion and offer a critique.

The term “civic religion” may seem inherently contradictory. After all, we live in the Western world where there is a strict separation of religion and the state. Civic, in the sense used here, refers to civic duties of citizens of a state. Thus, we have a moral duty to vote, not as an inherent belief of one’s religion, but as a member of a democratic polity. Civic duties are about this world. Religious duties are often conceived to be about the world to come or about the transcendental power of a divine being that manifests itself in different beliefs and practices and, indeed, worship. Reason is purportedly the language of politics; faith is the language of religion. That religion has values which are used to inform conduct in this world. However, it is precisely this separation of the religious and secular worlds that is in play.

Immanuel Kant wrote that his efforts were undertaken to define the boundaries of reason and of knowledge to make room for faith. But his perspective shifted over his period of intellectual development. After the peak of his intellectual output for which he is best known, his voluminous three Critiques, published between 1787 and 1790, propounded the view in the preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason that, “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith.” Subsequently, his definition of limits to reason and knowledge to make room for faith began to make room for a more subversive position. He asserted that religion was and had to be rational and had to provide the foundations of our values. Religion permeated civil and political society to constitute the core values of a society. God emerged from this intellectual journey as immanent rather than transcendent. This series of blogs is an exploration of how this took place in Canada.

There are many reasons offered for this shift, including non-rational ones, such as his resentment against the Prussian Junkers under Frederick William II for attempting to censor his writings on religion – Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. There were also cultural influences – his initial pietism stressing biblical study and moral behaviour, but later rejection of the side of pietism that celebrated external religious displays. His inherited Enlightenment convictions concerning the rule of reason led first to his rejection of creationism, and later his rejection of the belief that religion, and even science as a pursuit rather than a method, could be founded on reason alone. He became convinced that a rationally-based religion was not possible; religion was a matter of non-rational faith and had to retreat to make room for the universal truths of Newtonian science as he pursued the goal of rooting science in reason alone independent of an omniscient and perfect divine being. Finally, there was also the influence of Hume’s scepticism that rooted both religious faith and even scientific pursuits on habits forged by history and culture.

How are the dimensions of reason and empiricism, as well as reason and faith, reconciled? As he articulated his doctrine in his triad of great books, the Critiques, the reconciliation lay in the necessary preconditions for both faith and reason, of both empirical (the premise of causation) and deductive methods. For all were rooted in the necessary conditions for any thinking as revealed in his unique transcendental method that allowed for faith outside but ethical behaviour within the bounds of reason. Scientific reason, moral behaviour and practical judgement, even as they relied on experiential input, were all based fundamentally on a priori premises that were universally valid and a precondition of any thought whatsoever.

What emerged was the development of an ethical religion. For an adherent, it did not matter whether one was a Jew or a Lutheran. Both could worship the same God in defence of the same set of values that were themselves as universal as any religious creed. Establishment Jews in large numbers in Germany – the Polanyi, the Stern, the Baum families, abut whom I have been writing – converted to Lutheranism to practice the common ethical moralism of German society, ignoring entirely the deep roots of antisemitism in the writings of Martin Luther, the founder of that church. Of course, conversion also was opportunistic since the formal rules often banned Jews from taking up professorships in universities at one time. Karl Polanyi would develop an ethical economics, Fritz Stern an ethical history of Germany, Gregory Baum an ethical sociology and theology. Kant had introduced a seismic revolution for both Christianity and Judaism to allow both to live on the surface in imperfect harmony.

The superficiality of that harmony was revealed by Hegel and was ripped asunder by Friedrich Nietzsche. Emil Fackenheim, in The Religious Dimensions of Hegel’s Thought, pointed out that Hegel’s central critique of Kant was that the latter had failed, and failed absolutely, to reconcile faith and reason. And not just in thought, but in political and religious institutions. Kant facilitated mindblindness. Revolutionary forces were underway and Kant provided a rationale that allowed a positive ethical external religion to provide a cover that left the dynamics of ecstasy and action as well as the enthusiastic creative energy of spirit behind. Life throbbed. Kant only offered lifeless thought.

Hegel showed that philosophy, rather than being divorced from history in abstract thought, was, and had to be, understood as thoroughly rooted in context. Time and space were not abstract dimensions of sensibility and thought, but the experiential realities from which even barren thought arose. History was about resolving incongruences, not just the abstract ones at the core of Kantianism. History was about desire and passion, about power and economic needs, and, in the end, about conflict between old, outmoded institutions and the demands (and shortcomings) of the new. Philosophy was historical, not ahistorical. Further, life and philosophy were inherently religious as will become clear by the end of this series of blogs. And the comprehending activity of religion had itself to be critiqued and comprehended. The absolute was with us in every age and time and we comprehend the divine and the shortcomings of our comprehension through the examination of the absolutes of our time.

All our gods, all our absolutes, have failed and must be resurrected anew for each period. Judaism, unlike the Christianity of Kant’s Prussia or the Weimar Republic over a century later, understood that all these gods were different aspects of the one God that revealed himself in history while Christianity was a repeated effort to flee that insight, to flee its basic foundation, in favour of Greek abstract and ahistorical thought and theology. In reality, God descends, becomes immanent and sacrifices Himself in different modes in different times. Those who dub this as a progressive transformation are blind to the destructive forces let loose by the process of transformation as we experience at each stage the death of god and are required to go through a period of suffering and sacrifice.

In Hegel’s time, and in our own almost universally, man has once again repeated the ultimate sin, the sin of idolatry, the sin of narcissism, the sin of regarding and worshipping himself as divine. The alternative to the vision of an omniscient and omnipotent god need not be worship of the self and the ability of the individual to engage in self-realization and self-transformation. The latter sin and that idolatry, as well as the cover up for it, must be observed in the particulars of our time and the thought in which and through which history is understood and reflected. What we must search for and uncover is the partiality of all thought. Every attempt to comprehend it all will be doomed to be shattered as much as we may have faith in its overarching vision. Spirit itself as revealed in time is always partial and explains why we can never see and confront the face of God head on.

At the very beginning of the nineteenth century, Hegel defended twelve theses at a formal Disputation to earn his right to offer university lectures. The problem of philosophy was not the search for eternal and infinite wisdom, but the effort to reconcile the vision of the perfect with the reality of the imperfect, insisting that Kant had become frozen in carrying through the radicalism of Hume’s scepticism and had carried rational philosophy to a dead end by finding an absolute in itself, and becoming uncritical of itself.

In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the last section follows the section on Spirit with a portion on Religion, that discusses how we manifest our abstract religious beliefs and values in everyday life. Consciousness is institutionalized. And consciousness is merely the reflection of and reflection into human experience. Morality that is certain of itself becomes the distillation of that religious consciousness.

If Marx became the anti-Hegel by sacrificing religion in worship of the material realm, Nietzsche became the anti-Hegel by sacrificing religion to save spirit. Nietzsche’s enemy was Christianity, that element of and phase of Judaism that failed to recover from its exile in Babylon and return. Instead, Judaism turned inwards and became frightened. Nietzsche challenged the retreat into oneself in favour of the transvaluation of values, in favour of radical inversion of morality managed solely by the heroic individual. Instead, he opted to return to a form of paganism as he expressed in Ecce Homo, the need to develop a new breed of men, an elite, not one that led the workers of the world in revolt, but ones dedicated to taking humanity to a higher level. The premise, which challenged both the Judeo-Christian precepts and Kantian morality, was a denial, not simply as Hegel contended that humans were unequal in different ways at different times in their spiritual epic journey, but that salvation, as Marx insisted, depended on an avant-garde, an elite that led humanity into transforming itself fundamentally.

In Nietzsche’s view, Judaism once embraced this spirit of conquest, this consciousness of the necessity of power, both over others and to transform oneself, and the joy and hope to be found therein. But that spirit of self-transformation had been lost with rabbinic Judaism and its turn inward to legalism and with Christianity in the absolute submission of man in service of a divine Other. It was then that Jews sold themselves short and sold out to legalism and were sold out in turn and subsequently became the victims of persecution of those who rejected the rule of law in favour of suffering and sacrifice and the need of a scapegoat to escape that outcome for themselves. Diaspora Jews, who could and were in a position to save humanity and resurrect the life spirit according to Friedrich Nietzsche, largely cowered in fear and accommodated themselves to the dominating force of authority instead of expressing their historical dynamism by returning to nature, by returning to their roots in the land to once again become the strongest and toughest people on earth. Nietzsche did not live to see the rise of Zionism.

How were humans to accomplish this? Not by receding from history in service to the eternal and not by accommodating the dominant ethos of the status quo. Nor by expressing resentment concerning a disillusioned secular world, a world that had lost its sense of enchantment and awe to find deliverance either in the ecstatic escape of unreason or an escape into reason, individualism, self-making and self-overcoming.

Hitler declared, and Donald Trump now concurs, that, “The national government will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built up. Christianity is the foundation of our national morality and the family the basis of national life.” Hitler and Trump offered a mystical brew of pseudo-religion and purported self-interest that would soon reveal itself as the interest of the few and the deception and seduction of the many. What we need to examine is how, following Hegel, the dialectic of history has come to be interpreted pragmatically in the form of a set of overriding Kantian values for our time, and how that set of values, while inspiring high moral accomplishments, also blinds us the weaknesses of our own position as we are appalled at the values that we see articulated by Hitler copycats.

In Hegel’s time, it meant that Protestant clergy remained hostile to the truly liberal state as well as to Jews who refused to convert. Today, it means that this clergy embraces the values of the liberal state as well as their Jewish brethren. They have thrown overboard the doctrine of supersession in favour of shared beliefs, not only with Judaism, but with all other faiths. Some commentators believe that Democrats believe that all American Democrats need to do is copy Canadians and articulate the core values of the American civic religion in terms of historical connections and metaphors that touch their constituents.

An examination, first of our underlying nature and of various sciences, especially those involving communication, will try to show why that will not work (tomorrow), while, in the final blog in this series, a critique of Canadian interfaith values will try to delineate the shortcomings in terms of the population they do not reach and the declining power and efficaciousness of the civic religion of Canada.


With the help of Alex Zisman


The Arch of Justice

The Arch of Justice


Howard Adelman

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Jr. day. He was oft quoted as saying, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I only know this because Barack Obama loved to quote it and credit King. But he credited him with uttering the aphorism. Evidently, the originator was Theodore Parker in 1848 who offered it as a brief ode to hope and a belief in ethical progress. As Obama and others have recognized, however – this became a major theme of his final presidential address to the nation – the arc only bends if the people stand up and make it swing down and touch the earth. Without that effort, justice shoots off to the heavens to become an icon of aspiration instead of a practical reality here on earth.

Given the recent American election, can people still believe this is true? Can it be true of the Middle East? Of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? And what is the nature of that justice? And justice for whom?

Parker was a Unitarian, an abolitionist and, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, a Transcendentalist. Parker, like many before and after him, was especially influenced by the new Higher Biblical Criticism as those who followed were influenced by Source Criticism. He became convinced that the tales of dreams and prophecies of the Torah and of miracles and miraculous births of the New Testament lacked any truth value. He emerged from his spiritual quest as a naturalist, convinced that the divine was an intimate part of all of nature. What remained true in Christianity was its moral essence, the ethical teachings of Jesus.

Hence, he became a modernist. Religion required obedience to a higher Being. It required constructing a dependence on God and the institutions on earth responsible for conveying that message of obedience and even conformity with its rules. Morality, as Immanuel Kant had argued, was another matter and could not be reduced to religion. For moral principles were the sine qua non of behaviour without which there could be neither good nor bad. The basic principles of morality were a priori, as fundamental to the laws of human behaviour as gravity was to the laws of nature. They were transcendental preconditions of moral behaviour altogether and could not be distilled into religious directives. Morality requires right action and obedience to the conscience of the individual. Religion required obedience to an Other – God, the Church or an Authoritarian regime in a political system built on the same principles as religion while dispensing with God.

The attraction to authoritarian rule was almost as innate as conscience, but it was a propensity, not an a priori transcendental principle. “No feeling is more deeply planted in human nature than the tendency to adore a superior being, to reverence him, to bow before him, to feel his presence, to pray to him for aid in times of need.” But it was a planted feeling, one inculcated in both slave owners and their slaves, in religious leaders as well as their followers, in politicians who sought dominion and in citizens who sought an escape from the burdens and responsibility of freedom. When the heart is full of hope, divorced from personal effort, joy fills the air and a leader may be blessed. When that hope comes crashing down to earth, rejoicing turns to despair and the followers will seek to burn their fallen leader as an effigy. However, if one accepts that the whole world is divine, if one accepts that God lives within oneself, if one accepts that it is one’s responsibility and one’s responsibility alone to create the world as a living and vibrant moral universe, if one becomes convinced that this responsibility cannot be displaced onto another, then you have the premise for being both a moral and a responsible individual, two sides of the same coin.

It would be a theology that would be the counterpoint to authoritarianism so that even a religion as communitarian as Judaism would fall under its spell as liberal Jewish theologians became enamoured with the “autonomous self” as the only alternative to the authoritarianism of politicians and rabbis alike. The conviction of Theodore Parker became so pure that it even initially pushed him outside of even the pale of the Unitarian Church for a time before that church “canonized” him. Martin Luther King Jr. never went nearly that far. He was a communitarian in his heart and soul and believed in the power of his people, as Black Americans and as Americans of any colour or ethnicity. Individual conscience was never enough. One needed the power of the people to sustain oneself in battle and to provide the foot soldiers for that battle.

The issue was whether the people were to be lead by men of conscience or by reprobates, by liars, by those who were at base misanthropes, by men (perhaps even sometimes women) of no conscience, by men who fed off but showed utter disdain for the power of the people that they exploited in the name of attacking the institutional powers in place. Secular Protestantism was susceptible to seduction by the charms of a charlatan. And there were plenty around who offered to lead the people to greatness rather than to live under a brighter light, offered “our” power rather “theirs,” offered power at all rather than movement towards self-empowerment.

If the arc of justice is to be your guide, if it requires your effort to bend that arc towards the earth for the benefit of humanity, how does that help you in dealing with major international political problems like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? It is one thing to rely upon the metaphor as a guide for domestic politics and social organizing. It is quite another to use it in service of international negotiations. But it is very far from impossible.

First, it requires each party to recognize the Other, however inferior that Other may be in the power it holds, in fact, in spite of the weak position of the Other. It requires recognizing the Other as worthy of equal respect and dignity as humans. This applies as well to the recognition required by the weak party as well. They too must see the Other, not as an overbearing demon, but as a group driven by demons of insecurity and fears. But also driven by its own dreams and aspirations. Respect of each party of the other becomes a primary condition for reconciliation and peace.

Second, it requires not relying on outsiders to bring pressure and force to bear on settling the matter. Influence, certainly. But not external authority or power. The mantra that the Palestinians and the Jewish Israelis are the only ones who can make peace must be a fundamental building block.

Third, it requires realism. If the arc of justice is to bend towards the earth, then the justice required is the justice on the ground, the justice that takes into account the needs and desires and aspirations of all of those wherever they live in the territory of the conflict. The mistake in Gaza was not the military withdrawal of the Israelis, but moral withdrawal of the Israelis, the decision to abandon not just leave Gaza and, thus, also to surrender to an evil principle of Judenrein. Because the Palestinians made a contractual deal virtually impossible and told the Israelis, in effect, to get out without any arrangements, this does not excuse the moral lapse. I myself participated in that lapse in supporting the total withdrawal. In retrospect, it was wrong to say, “To hell with you, we’re leaving.” At the same time, the political practices that are moral must be as realistic as they are idealistic. Escape from responsibility will not allow a party to achieve freedom. It is a very tough balancing act.

How does one retain responsibility while surrendering authority to the Other and granting the Other the right to empower itself? That is the task, not a premise. That is the goal of a peace agreement, not the foundation for one. How does one create and continue to engage in a positive sum game wherein there is both true mutual recognition and where the power of the Other is allowed to grow as a release and expression of the energy of a people while ensuring that this energy is not a threat but a partner, a complement rather than an antagonist. Much easier said that done. That is why the task of peace is so difficult. But it will never be made easier with the intervention of external superegos which remove the ethical and political responsibilities from the parties themselves to forge a peace. And each party must recognize its own shortcomings in such a quest.

That is what is fundamentally wrong with Resolution 2334. It attempts to pre-empt that discussion. It raises the status of the Palestinians quite justly, but only by demonizing and derogating Jewish Israelis and their position. Not only are realities ignored, not only are established principles torturously arrived at set aside, but the supporters of the Resolution – quite aside from the myriad of deficiencies – have surrendered to the belief that external parties must not only be helpful to the parties, but weigh in on the debate so that in terms of power, the weight clearly still remains with the Jewish Israelis that cannot be offset by all the abstract moral weight and economic clout put on the other side of the scale.

When that is done in bad faith, when that is done without loving-kindness, when that is done in the name of helping the so-called underdog, it is done without respect of the power and recognition the Palestinians truly deserve as a self-governing people responsible for who they are and what they want to become. It is done by ignoring the authoritarian institutions and corruption which impede their self-development. It is done by ignoring the long strides Palestinians have made in managing their own security. And it is certainly done by ignoring the realities of Jewish Israel and denigrating its motives and its position.

Given these parameters, it is why the conclusions of the Paris Peace Conference are so superior to those of Resolution 2334. All states, including that of Israel, should recognize Palestine as an aspiring state. That is what Palestinians want. That is what they should have. That is what only a minority of Jewish Israelis let alone a minority of all Israelis want to prevent. The majority of Jewish Israelis accept the goal of creating a Palestinian state side-by-side Israel.

Let me offer a concrete example. If an outsider determines in advance that Jerusalem is Palestinian territory, a determination that was never previously made in either an agreement between the parties or even by an authoritative international body, that is an illegitimate move. If a country wishes to do so in recognition of realities that do not pre-empt the discussion – such a moving an embassy to West Jerusalem – that may be an imprudent act given the timing, but it is not an undercutting action. One can even argue such an act is needed to make a statement about reality.

That is why the Paris Peace Conference was far superior to the UNSC Resolution 2334 even as it endorsed that Resolution, but did so in a way that offered some re-balancing. It was an influence conference, not a peace conference. Neither of the disputants were represented or there. The participants reaffirmed their support “for a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The conference endorsed negotiations between the parties as “the only way” to achieve enduring peace while recognizing that current trends (on both sides) on the ground, not only the expansion of settlements but “continued acts of violence,” impede progress towards peace. The conference endorsed “meaningful, direct negotiations.”

Resolution 242 was not superseded by another UN resolution, though all UN resolutions were acknowledged. Instead, the conference endorsed a negotiated two-State solution that would meet the legitimate aspirations of both parties for both sovereignty and security “and resolve all permanent status issues on the basis of UNSC Res. 242 and 338.” If a framework was helpful in such negotiations, the Conference tipped its hat to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Palestinians as well as Israelis were urged to be governed by international humanitarian and human rights law. Instead of using international humanitarian law as a club, let alone the threat of economic coercion, the participants expressed a readiness to offer its support where needed, including economic aid and economic incentives as positive inducements.

One item emphasized was an offer to facilitate civil society dialogue between the two parties in contention. The focus was not on external pressures, but on strengthening civil society and direct dialogue between and among citizens from both sides. The conference was clear in its strictures against steps that would prejudge the outcome of negotiations on final status issues – borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees. Though Netanyahu could wave away the results of the Paris Peace Conference as irrelevant and futile, and the Palestinians could welcome the conclusion by ignoring the strictures against their own positions and practices, reassurance came for me from a surprising quarter. Though he did not express any regret for not vetoing Res. 2334, John Kerry reassured Netanyahu that there would be no further UN Resolutions before Trump took over and no international action following from the Peace Conference. The timing of the conference and the results seem more intended to send a message to Donald Trump rather than to either Abbas or Netanyahu.

As I interpreted the Peace Conference, it went some way to offset the destructive elements of UNSC 2334, but the concluding statement lacked the legal authority of the UN. There were also other efforts on the ground that proved to be more promising and could serve as a precedent for partial deals rather than a comprehensive one. After six years of negotiations, a concrete deal was made on sharing water resources between Israel and the West Bank, including of a Joint Water Committee to work out the details of implementation.

However, on the international stage, the fallout from Resolution 2334 inviting unilateral actions on the international stage can be very destructive of efforts to implement a peace deal. I will deal with those consequences in my next blog.

The Accountant – a movie review

The Accountant – a movie review

Howard Adelman

Last evening, we went to see a movie, The Accountant, with a large group of friends. It had been one of the few films that all of us had not seen. It would certainly not have been my first choice since the movie was billed as an action-thriller, and I am probably your typical middle class old age movie snob. In fact, after the movie was over and we did a survey of who liked the film, about half said it was just ok and a few did not care for the movie. Without my and my wife’s votes, the film would have been given a 5 or 6 out of 10 average. However, both of us would have given the movie an 8. We were the outliers.

Why the discrepancy?

From the discussions we had afterwards, I attribute the explanation to three factors:
• The difficulty of following three different plots as they were interwoven at very different rates with sudden subtle and frequent shifts
• The large quantity of those twists and turns in that plot
• Missing the underlying symbolic and moral thrust of the movie.
Though most were not put off by the general mayhem and the large number of comic book murders of a thriller of this type, and most agreed that Ben Affleck, whom I do not ordinarily care for as an actor, did an excellent job in this movie. Nevertheless, we evaluated the movie in general terms very differently.

All of us had been entertained, but to very different degrees. We agreed that Ben Affleck had been subtle and suitably subdued, nuanced and even empathetic, playing a very odd comic book superhero, Christian (Chris) Wolff. (This core alias is not just a disguise but a source of revelation.) We also agreed the film was an excellent advertisement for autism, for Chris was autistic, a fact established at the very beginning of the film with the flashback to his childhood, but reasonably disguised in a very stoic performance when he had become an adult and, by and large, strictly controls expressing any inappropriate emotions – except his unusual degree of control.

Chris, however, exhibits all the symptoms of the more serious cases of autism of the 1 in 68 children mentioned in the film, mostly boys. The film, in one of its early flashbacks – and there are many of them – with the peculiar habits of children and the way they line up toys and other objects. As an adult, Chris is very precise in how he places his three pancakes, his two perfectly-made sunny-side-up eggs and broken bacon strips on his plate. He clearly lives alone and the very few pieces of cutlery are placed meticulously in his cutlery drawer.

As a child, Chris has a terrible time relating to other children, except to his younger and very loyal brother, Braxton (badger, a kind of mole) who watches him with overwhelming frustration at his own impotence while expressing deep concern. Chris, however, does seem to make a connection with the daughter of the head of the Harbor Neuroscience Institute in New Hampshire where his parents take him for an evaluation. She too is an autistic youngster, the daughter of the director of the institute. Chris is very sensitive to sound, especially loud noises, but in adult life seems to have developed a ritual of subjecting himself to very large and loud noises for a period of time as a form of exercise that enables him to keep the presentation of his idiosyncratic behaviour under reasonable control when he is an adult.

There is a paradox, however. Chris as both a child and an adult clearly loves routine and unvaried patterns of behaviour to the point that he returns to his house in his pickup truck at the precise high speed as the garage door manages to just completely open and he stops on a dime at exactly the same spot. But why does he drive a truck?

More significantly, we know that autistic children easily, and worryingly, put themselves in harm’s way, but Chris as an adult unusually seems to have made a vocation of courting danger. It turns out that he is a superhero, but without a cape. Instead, he normally wears an accountant’s suit. But he is far superior to both Batman, who is now barely younger than I am, but he stays ageless and I do not and his civilian disguise as the very wealthy Bruce Wayne with his butler, Alfred Pennyworth. Further, he is plausible for he wears no outlandish disguise and instead wears the costume of an average clerk. Further, Chris seems to be a complete loner.

Chris has other traits of an autistic child – difficulty with speech, which in adulthood is expressed by very precise and very controlled articulation of English. Chris is no Rain Man, and, in fact, the performance seems deliberately opposite to the role played by Dustin Hoffman in that now 1988 classic. Though Chris was hyperactive as a child, especially when sounds and changes set him off, and retains that trait as a super-disciplined adult, not only when he becomes engaged in murderous activities, but when, as a forensic accountant, he is stopped from completing his work in his first job examining the books of a legitimate economic enterprise, a huge business enterprise that makes robotics and prosthetics. Chris goes into a frenzy.

Chris attaches himself to specific objects, such as a dented thermos, the origins of which we only learn when we are well into the film. But mostly he is a loner and aloof, and, most of all, he is a savant like the Rain Man with a superhuman ability to manage numbers and calculations, but also a superior, and very human, ability to engage in all the close-up well choreographed violence. The character of Chris is equally differentiated from either the hapless Khan in a recent Dutch film, when the hero’s idiosyncrasies lead him to being arrested as a terrorist, and the role played by Sean Penn as Sam in an old 1998 film, I Am Sam. For what character on the various gradations of autistic character disorder (not Asperger’s Syndrome) can perform such advanced judo and brilliant sharpshooting from a mile distant?

Though one reason for the different reaction among us could have been my love for comics as distinct from the others, but my wife has no interest in comic heroes and she loved the movie. Nor can it have been the subtle associations with the eighteenth century philosopher, Christian Wolff, who, though an associate of the inventor of calculus, Leibniz, was more of a common sense ethicist than a brilliant mathematician like all the other aliases Chris used to hide who he was. Wolff certainly used the Cartesian model of mathematical deduction for doing philosophy, but he was not a mathematical genius like Descartes or Leibniz. That alone might have indicated that this alias was different.

If I were not a philosopher, especially one who once specialized in German philosophy, it would be very unlikely that I would know that Christian Wolff was the most important German philosopher on the German stage between Leibniz and Kant, who was so preeminent after him and, unlike Wolff, has never been forgotten. Though Wolff should not be, for he was a founder of both applied economics and public administration. He was a proto-accountant. So it is no surprise, rather than phony, that as the proprietor of ZZZ Accounting Services in an indistinguishable strip mall somewhere in Illinois, Chris in the movie offers a series of very mundane lessons to a farm couple about how to save money on their taxes and, thereby, save their farm. The point there is not his mathematical wizardry but his ethics.

In contrast to Kant, who tried to articulate the necessary conditions for scientific thinking, for ethics and for judgement in practical affairs, Wolff was the philosopher of the possible. Though he followed Leibniz in viewing the world as constituted by monads that never interacted, an ideal vision for one with autism, his real and most important contribution was to applied ethics with pre-established harmony viewed, not as a metaphysical presumption, but as an aspirational prerequisite for leading an ethical life. So when Chris near the beginning of the film asks the American Federal Treasury agent Ray King (played with deep conviction by J.K. Simmons) at gunpoint, after Chris had murdered eight important mafia figures in cold blood within minutes, whether he was married and had been a good father to his two boys, this is a poignant as well as suspenseful moment.

King answers yes and you will quickly learn whether he is allowed to live or die. If you were one of the rarities in the auditorium who knew who Wolff was, you would know the answer from the ethics promulgated by Christian Wolff, the philosopher. So the rarity of this glimpse into the underlying play with ethics, the history of ideas and other subtleties in the film, cannot be the critical factor in enjoying the richness of the film as my wife certainly did. For the main themes can be grasped without knowing any of these clues.

However, this does suggest that the symbolism was very important. Most viewers watching the film get the joy of grasping the clues to this film somewhere along the way as the film progresses. I personally believe the experience is actually enhanced the sooner you clue in as you wait in suspense to find out whether you are correct rather than in suspense to find out what is going to happen. But watch at the beginning as the autistic boy puts together a 500-1,000-piece puzzle in no time and then loses his composure totally when the final piece at the centre of the puzzle is missing. Watch how low that piece has fallen and see if you can identify the missing piece in the movie plot.

The film is full of rich allusions. Chris Wolff, the accountant not the philosopher, had received two very famous paintings as payment for undertaking forensic work for international criminal gangsters. Look at the painter and what has been painted. In the Jackson Pollock painting that is mounted on the ceiling of his Airstream recreational vehicle stored with his guns and cash in a storage container (why the truck?), the most important abstract painting star in America, whom Ed Harris portrayed in a biopic in 2001 playing an artist who wants to shut the world out as if he were autistic but needs contact with it in order to express his artistic passion. Why was the painting chosen not a Van Gogh? Why was the biopic not chosen of Alec Guinness playing Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth? A needed strand of comic relief could have been added. And look at the mounted piece. The Pollock is a black and white painting from the painter’s drip period, one I did not recognize, but which is reflective of both the way Chris Wolff’s character and the plot are revealed.

Without saying any more, look at the other painter and the painting which hangs on the wall. It is figurative and expressionist rather than abstract. Think about the figurative character akin to the painter rather than the one torn apart like Jackson Pollok. What is the background to the painter and who do the figures in the painting represent? Why is it an impressionist still life painting without the dynamic explosiveness of the Pollock? Think of the figurative painter’s relationship with his mother.

Though disguised as an action-thriller in a movie about white collar crime, look under the surface for the multitude of clues and pieces to the puzzle. Why does the film mirror John Nash’s mathematical equations written on blackboards and walls in A Perfect Mind, where John Nash, a Nobel laureate in economics, but a paranoid schizophrenic rather than autistic personality? The clues are everywhere and there are many, but do not expect to get more than a view on first viewing. But the more you get, the richer the cinematic experience and the deeper the understanding. For example, why is the love unrequited?

But if the film appreciation depended on putting all the pieces of the puzzle together as if all the viewers were savants, the film would not work at all. I think the problem was in the complexity of the plot rather than the bountiful symbolic clues. For it is easy to get lost otherwise without the help of the clues.

Go see the movie and see what you think. At the very least, it will be a delight to watch an accountant of all types turn into a very realistic action hero. And I believe that I have not given away any more than one bead in each of the three strings of the plot. I can assure you that, although it is a comic book action film that begins with a very bloody shootout of a bunch of mobsters within their home turf, where the identity of the shooter is not initially revealed, and although the movie is full of lot more murdered corpses in very well choreographed scenes before the movie is over, and although it is an excellent crime thriller, at its heart and core it a family film. You soon learn that Chris Wolff is not really a badass. Gavin O’Connor as the director and Bill Dubuque as the scriptwriter have done an excellent job in the pacing, the interweaving and in the series of climatic scenes.

This is not a normal review – most of mine are not anyway. But in this one, I never discussed Robert C. Treveiler as the father who misleadingly comes across initially as a villain, Anna Kendrick as the naïve and eventually love-struck Dana in the accounting department of the robotics firm, but in her own way, also a savant, Cynthia Addai-Robinson as Marybeth Medina, assistant treasury agent to Kay, Jon Bernthal as the assassin or John Lithgow as the head of the robotics company who are all individually excellent. The robotics voice on the cell phone is a particularly nice ironic touch. This is a movie about a puzzle solver that requires all members of the audience to become puzzle solvers, but at a much simpler level.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Sam Ajzenstat

IN MEMORIUM: Sam Ajzenstat


Howard Adelman

Sam Ajzenstat died in his sleep on Thursday in the early hours of the morning. He suffered from diabetes for years. More than a year ago, he had a severe stroke and had been living in a full care facility at ShalomVillage. He had retired as a professor of Philosophy at McMasterUniversity a few years earlier. He will be buried this afternoon on Hamilton mountain at the HessStreetShulCemetery. There will be a service first at the United Hebrew Memorial Chapel Funeral Home in Hamilton at 4:00 p.m. and a shiva following at the home Sam and Janet lived in for decades at 172 Cline Ave. N. in Hamilton.  As his son, Sandor, wrote, Sam “was a man of words, and a man of love.” 

Sam Ajzenstat and I attended the same high school, Harbord Collegiate, in Toronto. He was one year behind but had already made a name for himself throughout the school. He was one of the few students to take Greek as well as the Latin, French and German that the rest of us studied. Further, he became infamous when he asked one of the few shiksas in our school overwhelmingly populated by Jews for a date to the prom and then even more infamous over the year book he edited.

We both attended the University of Toronto. When he became editor of the Varsity at university, I was its chief drama critic and Peggy Atwood was the poet in residence. We undertook many political pranks together. I played a minor roll in a sting operation Sam generated to show that sororities and fraternities, which were given extraordinary privileges on campus at the time, were then ridden with racism. Those university privileges were henceforth taken away from those social clubs. The revolution had begun.

We both majored in philosophy. We were both then pacifists and naïve idealists. One of the most infamous editorials Sam wrote was on Remembrance Day and Sam celebrated pacifism. I was influenced by Gandhi. Sam took his pacifism from his own moral precept of integrity, Kant`s injunction to be a self-legislator and not allow others to determine your course of action. He found that precept of autonomous rational self-legislation supported in the Torah and in God`s rejection of David`s offer to build Him a temple because David was a war-monger with blood on his hands.

Sam and I studied for our PhD comprehensive exams together. One day we started a discussion and a philosophical argument. It went on for 28 hours. In the last hour, Sam recapitulated the whole argument we had covered clearly stating both my and his point of view as the debate unfolded. I could not even remember what I had said let alone what he said. I conceded total defeat. 

I was a universalist anti-Zionist until the build up to the 1967 war when I witnessed my struggle between my ostensible indifference to the existence of Israel and the tremendous fear that I felt that this small and unique country would be wiped off the face of the earth. My emotions were totally at odds with my head. I vowed to visit Israel and did so with my wife and first four children just before the 1973 war. I became a Zionist, slowly but surely. I credit Harry Crowe, a gentile and philo-semite, for my conversion. Sam became a Zionist on his own as he gazed down at Israel from a visit to the Golan Heights and threw off his pacifism. For though he was unwilling to go to war to save his own skin, he was no longer willing to forfeit the war option and give up protecting the skin of his loved ones and his people. Secondly, pacifism was surrendering control over the moral project of taking responsibility for one`s life and surrendering it to the man of power, the one who carried the big stick.

In a piece Sam wrote called “Reflections on an ‘incurable tension'” in 2008, he said, “Of course, just because we are still in a world of hard choices, made even harder by Israel’s genuine desire to live up to high moral standards, doesn’t mean we can’t ever criticize the choices she makes. Criticism is not treason. Israel’s real enemies are those who think there are no hard choices because we must always choose purity above survival. That naïve idealism is our worst enemy. It only begins to turn into anti-semitism (or Jewish self-hatred) with the realization of how deeply Judaism rejects naïve idealism.” Sam was a Kantian. I was and am a Hegelian. But we were both wedded to critical rational discourse and saw the idealization of purity above survival as the source of deep evil, that naïve idealism, which we had both embraced in our teens, as mankind’s worst enemy.

After I quit teaching at TrinityCollege at the University of Toronto and had vowed never to teach in a university again, Sam tried to lure me to McMaster where he was then ensconced in the philosophy department. At the same hiring hall at the meeting of the American Philosophical Association in New York – Canada did not have its own learned philosophical society then – I was offered a job at AtkinsonCollege at YorkUniversity where I was assured that I would only have to teach students who were dedicated and hard-working. Instead of taking the job offered at McMaster, I opted for Atkinson and York. It was the right choice for me but, as a result, Sam and I saw each other much less frequently as the years passed. I had watched his wife, Janet, become a noted academic and political theorist in her own right, and his children, Sandor and Oona, grow up. Oona became a professor of Jewish studies and my daughter, Rachel, became a professor of rabbinics at a rabbinical college in Boston. Neither of us could have predicted such an outcome when Oona and Rachel were teenagers, though it was predictable that Sandor, and my daughter, Shonagh, would both enter the field of art.

Though others may have been able to predict that, as we grew older, religion would become a central theme in our lives, neither Sam nor I foresaw such an outcome. Sam became an Orthodox Jew decades ago and played a very important role in saving and reviving the Hess Street orthodox synagogue in Hamilton. As Sam wrote, the Sabbath ends with God making a distinction between the sacred and the secular. We both took the injunction to mean that one should not try to import the world of pure spirituality into the everyday world of mankind. It did not mean excluding religious practices or different forms of religious dress and self-expression from the secular world, for that was to make the secular a sacred idol and a betrayal of the rationale for the original distinction. Sam wrote, “Secularism, with as as-yet unchastened sense of its liberatory power, has no tradition by which to see the point of accommodation with the sacred. For it, modernity must be secular relativism: the struggle of the secular finally to gain exclusive authority over the civil order.” We both found secular revivalism, as an agent of the same coercive uniformity that made society eject organized religion from much of everyday life, as something to protest and criticize.

Sam loved opera. I love Broadway musicals. Sam became a commentator on opera on the old CBC program, Saturday Afternoon At The Opera. I may not have had a taste for opera, but I appreciated his insights and evaluations. Last evening, my wife and I went to hear Audra McDonald at Koerner Hall. Audra McDonald is a soprano who trained at Julliard and has sung opera — Poulenc’s “La Voix Humaine”, and most notably, Kurt Weill’s “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” that won her two Grammys, one for Best Opera Recording. However, last night she sang a medley of show tunes and other songs for which she is much better known – she has won an outstanding five Tony awards in the past. But the song she sang last night that made me think of Sam and that she delivered with such articulation and feeling was a song I had never heard before, and for which she accompanied herself on the piano. It was dedicated to her father who died seven years ago in the crash of a plane he was piloting. It is called “Migration V” written by Adam Guettel for his musical The Light in the Piazza that won a Tony Award.

The lyrics go as follows: 

We sail above the weather
We search the ocean floor.
We rival our creation,
Still yearning for more.
But can we fly together-
A migratory V?
How wonderful if that’s what God could see.

A single voice in whispered prayer
Can only pray to travel there.
But all as one,
We sound the everlasting sound
And sing our salvation.

Aloft and in formation,
A migratory V.
How wonderful if that’s what God could see.

Sam sailed above the weather, always the lead bird in a migration that soared above us all. Always in intellectual flight, he nevertheless also always articulated, not what he professed or what he believed, but tried, as a true neo-Kantian would, to express “what God could see” and to marvel at its beauty, wisdom and ethical coherence.

Audra McDonald also sang a number from the Kander and Ebb oeuvres, the last one they wrote before Ebb died, the song “Go Back Home” from The Scottsboro Boys. The musical is the story of the Scarborough nine, five black youth convicted totally unjustly of rape and sentenced to death in Alabama at the end of the thirties, a conviction later reversed but they were convicted again – and again and again on retrial after retrial – though they were unequivocally innocent. In the musical, performed as a Minstrel show, as the boys await execution in death row after their first conviction, they sing about what they most want (“Go Back Home”). I thought of Sam who has now gone back home and who was a pioneer in seeking racial justice before any of us. I also thought of Sam during another song written by a very young composer, Adam Gwon, called “I’ll Be Here”. Though it is written about a woman who loses her partner and deep love in 911, the song is so moving and universal that Audra McDonald sang it as a hymn to the recovery and rebirth she and her mother experienced after her father’s tragic death and that I saw that Oona, Sandor and especially Janet would necessarily have to go through. 

I know with Sam as their father, they will be reborn and will be truly here. I will miss Sam and his loving wisdom.

Kant and Morality

Kant and Morality – Howard Adelman 26.01.2013

1. Is Block’s interpretation of Kant’s categorical imperative correct, namely that there are propositions universal in their application to all humans absolutely?

Kant’s categorical imperatives are universal a priori propositions. That means they are not drawn from experience and are universal whether or not they apply in experience. Further, for Kant, they are a priori necessary conditions for having any moral sense whatsoever and that is what makes them universal moral propositions. If the first formulation of the categorical imperative is that one must act according to the maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will (my italics) that the imperative become a universal law, how can you will what is already a given universal moral law in nature? Categorical moral propositions are imperatives of reason, in the case of morality, of pure practical reason, that is, of a reason which legislates and prescribes rather than describes what is. That is why, for Kant, freedom and a self-conscious willing autonomous individual are transcendental a priori conditions inherent to having categorical imperatives and, hence, morality. If that is the case, then morality logically demands that every other human must be treated as a free self-conscious individual, in his formulation, as an end in itself and never as a means only. Further, given that each individual is an autonomous free and rational agent and given that each rational agent must treat every other human as a free and rational agent, then everyone must treat every other one according to a universal law as an end and never merely a means.

My depiction of Kant’s categorical imperative differs from Block’s in the following ways:

a) Though the categorical imperative inheres in all humans, all humans are not necessarily expressions of the categorical imperative even in a minimal sense. If humans are to be considered moral, they must treat every other human as an end, but if another human does not act on the basis of being a self-legislating being, but is a sociopath or a psychopath with absolutely no empathy for the other but just uses people, must that person who “appears” human be treated as a human? (I will have to answer this last query in a subsequent blog.)

b) Kant avoids linking the moral sense to natural proclivities versus Block who depicts the moral senses as akin to innate abilities and instincts, that is, empirical (and, hence, a posteriori) characteristics, for, in Block, respect for one another and a sense of justice” were imparted to humankind to enable “man to form societies and live together”. Quite aside from contradiction of introducing a consequentialist argument into a deontological account, this is an empirical account of moral sensibility as “basic emotions in man” that are innate rather than an a priori account that results from pure reasoning. Block writes: “I believe there is something innate about these feelings, such that we find it quite natural (my italics) to have them.”

c) For Kant, the good will which is the only thing good without qualification is a pure will, that is a will independent of and logically prior to any actual act of willing. Block writes that what, “one means by a good person is at least a person about whom one would say that it is unthinkable that this person could act unjustly or cruelly.” Not according to Kant. What one means by a good person is what he writes: a good person is one who can will that his actions be governed by universal moral principles and that that person treats every other human on the same basis. The judgement whether an actual individual is good is an empirical question about observing how the imperatives are made operational and not about the meta-ethics of imperatives themselves.

d) Block says that “there are no excuses for lying” for prudentially it would mean that no one would have anything to do with a liar. Quite aside from the contradiction of introducing yet another consequentialist argument in an anti-consequentialist deontological theory, and whether it is empirically valid to say that no one would have anything to do with a known liar – a proposition I believe could be easily falsified – let us simply look at Kant’s reasoning. The imperative not to lie is a perfect duty that follows from the categorical imperative because if lying were permissible, then anything anyone said could not be trusted and this would undercut the possibility of morality altogether. But what if Eichmann asked a woman whether she had a child hidden under her dress as he was ordering children onto a cattle car headed for Auschwitz, would she be permitted to lie i) to save her own life for if she told the truth she would be treating herself as a means only and not an end, a means to fulfill Nazi fantasies of extermination of the Jews; ii) to save the life of her child for if she revealed the location of the child, that child would be shipped to a death camp and exterminated? Block says that lying is never permitted. I say that what appears to be a lie is permitted in this case, possibly even for a Kantian because, as an imperative consistent with the categorical imperative, there is not only permission to tell what appears as a lie but a duty to deceive Eichmann if it means saving a human life. What one said would not be a lie in terms of the categorical imperative because it would not be a statement addressed to a person who endorsed the principle of the autonomy and freedom of every human individual. For Block, there are no excuses for not telling the truth, However, the categorical imperative itself provides the excuse, for an untruth in this case is not a contradiction to the categorical imperative but an expression of it; what would be said or left unsaid is not a lie per se in the meta-ethical sense of the injunction not to tell lies.

e) Goodness, for Kant, is not something concealed beneath a dark shell hidden in the soul but that which is readily visible to the pure light of reason when reason shines upon it. Nothing need be removed; the empirical realm only needs to be bracketed and the pure light of reason thrown on how moral reasoning takes place.

f) Is the categorical character of a proposition that which makes the judgement moral?
For Kant, definitely! For consequentialists, teleological moralists or Darwinian emergent or natural moralists (the moral sense is empirically innate), no. Kant, though still avoiding any empirical contamination to a pure a priori proposition of pure practical reason, does slip into teleology with his concept of a “Kingdom of Ends”. Block, on the other hand, confuses universal empirical and general empirical propositions with categorical ones. For him, goodness is a nascent ability that needs to be developed rather than a condition identified by pure practical reason as a condition of any morality whatsoever. A good will is a logical and purely rational precondition and not an empirical element that merely needs nurturing.

2. Are the core ideas of morality compassion and justice, and are compassion and justice basic moral senses? What is a basic moral sense – the fact that all humans are born with them, that is, moral qualities G-d gave man when he created the world? If someone is generally morally good does that mean that it is unthinkable or unimaginable that he would act unjustly, that he lacked compassion and/or a sense of justice?

When Adam was created, he demonstrated no sense of either compassion or justice. He did not even come close to compassion even for himself for he did not even recognize he was lonely. G-d had to tell him. And he did not recognize even his own body and his urges or that the erect phallus was part of himself for which he should take responsibility; the phallus was something other. He saw himself as made in the image of G-d creating things and bringing them into being by the sole act of naming them, therefore never even understanding the role of self-consciousness in naming and what Wittgenstein made clear, that the meaning of names of things are revealed by the role those names play in language as well as by the objects to which they refer. However, Adam not only failed to take responsibility for himself as an embodied creature and for his emotions (that is, as a moral being) and not only lacked any adequate insight into how language connected him with the world (that is, as a scientific being), but lacked any sense of the other. For though man is born of woman, Adam in his fantasy life and dreams saw Eve simply as a physical extension of himself rather than another autonomous being responsible for herself. So when they have sex, Eve acknowledges she allowed herself to be seduced. Adam, in typical male fashion, could only protest his innocence or ignorance. Only once thrown into the world of labour could and did man learn to become a moral being.

The knowledge of good and evil does not come from recognizing the good but by beginning to suffer the consequences of not taking responsibility for oneself, not understanding the other and not understanding that complaining that ‘its not fair’ starts from the opposite end of justice. So we do not begin with a nascent compassion and sense of justice but with a stubborn unwillingness to take responsibility for oneself, for being as anti what it should be to be a moral being as possible, and demonstrating both a lack of compassion and even recognition let alone lack of understanding for the other and an almost total lack of a sense of what justice means, for at that stage what is unjust is simply when anything bad occurs to you whether or not you deserved it. Rather than it being unthinkable or unimaginable that a moral being would act unjustly, that he lacked compassion and/or a sense of justice, the understanding of morality begins precisely by imagining what it is to be irresponsible, to lack compassion and to have virtually no sense of justice. And the core of immorality is the failure to take responsibility for oneself and one’s actions in the world. What happens when some humans remain frozen in that stage and thereby become sociopaths? I will discuss that in a future blog.