W. Arthur Mehrhoff is the academic coordinator for the MU Museum of Art & Archaeology.
The oil painting "Abraham and Isaac," shown above, can be found in the Samuel H. Kress Collection in the European and American Gallery (second floor) of MU's Museum of Art & Archaeology. A copy of Rembrandt’s "Sacrifice of Isaac," it depicts the patriarch Abraham obeying the voice of God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, when an angel of the Lord suddenly appears at the last possible moment to restrain him from doing so. The strong diagonal lines, dramatic lighting contrasts, and dynamic images (Abraham about to slash Isaac’s exposed throat, the angel grabbing the startled old man’s wrist, the glittering knife falling through the air) help us imagine this momentous choice in the evolution of human consciousness.
"Abraham and Isaac" poses a very timely question in the wake of the Aurora massacre: How do we know if we are doing the right thing, if we are listening to the right voices?
I recalled that was the intriguing subject of the 7th annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium here at Mizzou in 2011 entitled “Ethics and the Brain.” The symposium featured a broad spectrum of speakers who considered how neuroscience and brain imaging challenge longstanding notions of how humans think, reason, and make moral decisions. In conjunction with the “Ethics and the Brain”, our MAA Film Series showed Stanley Kubrick’s darkly disturbing film “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) about a charming but chilling sociopath, Alex, subjected by a government agency to psychological conditioning that made him physically ill at his violent urges and unable to defend himself against vengeful victims. Forty years ahead of “Ethics and the Brain”, Kubrick explored the tensions between violence, free will, and social order. Going even further, Kubrick asked: Who restrains the Restrainers?
"Abraham and Isaac" also made an unexpected appearance (to me at least) at the “Ethics and the Brain” symposium during a packed Saturday evening keynote address at the Missouri Theatre by noted Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. Based upon his new book The Better Angels of our Nature, Pinker presented an amazingly detailed and compelling case that violence has actually been declining since what he called the “humanitarian revolution” of The Enlightenment. He argued that Reason (the better angel of evolutionary human nature, like the one restraining Abraham from human sacrifice) moves us away from personal and parochial forms of morality amenable to violence toward more abstract and universal forms consistent with the Golden Rule and self-interest.
Perhaps. A public land-grant university like this one still bearing rich fruits like “Ethics and the Brain” after a century and a half testifies to the power and value of that Enlightenment vision. In helping us better understand those voices in our head, however, Reason in the form of neuroscience and genetic research also poses fundamental challenges to the humanities, the self, even to the notion of free will.
Enlightenment philosophers like Jefferson believed we could have the results of Christian morality (in his personal version of the Bible, Jefferson edited out miracles like the appearance of angels) if we simply replace religion with Reason.
However, sans religion we end up with a morality we can logically debate (it’s so hard to argue with an angel), but which compels only those who accept its terms. Not everyone will even understand the argument (“why shouldn’t I cheat on exams”?) much less accept its terms.
The morality of Reason preaches only to its own choir, leaving those like the Aurora shooter to their own voices and devices. “Ethics and the Brain” also posed the logical corollary of whether Society or The State should therefore take pre-emptive measures against persons prone to violence (since the tools and techniques have been discovered and are now available), restraining the freedom of sociopaths like Alex (or true believers like Abraham) to choose evil (or good). It seems reasonable …
Like Abraham, we face an uncertain future challenging our very identity. What voices shall we listen to as we make crucial moral decisions?
In his roundtable discussion, conference speaker Dr. Adrian Raine commended the Museum for presenting a challenging film like A Clockwork Orange to help give memorable form to key symposium issues. He also encouraged some students whose religious beliefs were clearly shaken and troubled by the symposium to continue studying and discussing its implications for their lives and faith.
In his keynote address, Dr. Steven Pinker noted that people need empathy with others in order to make truly moral decisions. He recommended art as a better angel of our nature, enabling us to enter first-hand narratives other than simply those in our own head. The story of "Abraham and Isaac" is ancient, the painting hundreds of years old, but the choice is now yours …
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