Moral Monsters

trees

Everyone likes to feel vindicated. From my childhood I have felt marginalized because of my interests in monsters, and now a book has just been released from Oxford University Press that vindicates my interest! Stephen Asma, a philosophy professor at Columbia College, Chicago, has written a monograph entitled On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears. Further vindicating my idiosyncratic interest is the fact that the Chronicle of Higher Education even has an electronic front-page article on the book this week. I am overcome with credulity! I haven’t been able to lay my hands on the book yet, but I hungrily read the article and look forward to the whole product.

Readers of this blog know my assertion that monsters originate in a mental space shared by religion. Both are responses to the unknown. Asma writes in his Chronicle article, “The monster concept is still extremely useful, and it’s a permanent player in the moral imagination because human vulnerability is permanent.” Indeed, his article is entitled “Monsters and the Moral Imagination.” The thesis he promotes is that our morality (again tied to religion for many people) benefits from its struggle with monsters. We imagine our moral responses to being faced with the truly horrific, and the monsters themselves are less frightening than our imaginary responses. The top box-office winner this past weekend was Paranormal Activity, a movie noted for not showing the menace, but implying it. There is an evolutionary advantage here; we learn about coping with real danger by imagining danger.

So as I look out the window on yet another cold, gray, rainy October morning, and see the trees swaying in the wind, my imagination takes flight. Those Saturday afternoons and late nights filled with cinematographic visions of even worse things that could happen are cast in a new light. Instead of scaring myself, I was building moral character! As my friend K. Marvin Bruce likes to say, “monsters are only mirrors.” Sometimes the mirror reflects a truly untamed world, and Dr. Asma informs us “inhuman threats are great reminders of our own humanity.” I would simply add, “and of our religions.”

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