Monday, April 26, 2010

The Morality of a Natural Disaster



It was strange when watching those distant fountains of fire and that silent but meandering lava against the pitch black mountain of Eyjafjallaj√∂kull, in the above video, gave me a sense of solace, a feel of the ‘sublime’. Stranger was the fact that I was not the only one. Can a natural ‘disaster’ be associated with beauty and aesthetics?

Eyjafjallaj√∂kull didn’t kill anyone. Natural disasters which manage not to kill anyone are peculiar. For one, they enjoy much more dignity and acceptance than their other less fortunate kins. This comes naturally from the realization that one can’t really convict them of killings and massacres. Thus, in public perception, it is not considered inappropriate to derive a sense of allure and even something as deep as the pleasure of the sublime by watching them. By themselves, even the calamitous disasters might be beautiful. After all, they are just natural happenings, grand and magnificent. It is our prejudice against them that doesn’t let us see beyond the wrath that they bring to us and our fellow beings. I myself am guilty of that. Whatever times I see the videos of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, I can but only see those helpless bodies being swept away. While I share in the pain of humanity, Is it right to demonize the disasters that are fatal, and deem them ugly.

Socrates said that beauty is a reflection of the virtue. I partly disagree. In theory, virtue is moral while beauty is amoral. Morality is in fact nothing but the beauty of mind and soul. Beauty is more general. It is perceived, not adopted. It is appreciated, not judged. It is generally present as an attribute of an art, and is neither appropriate nor inappropriate. Art and Morality must always be kept separate in the interest of artistic freedom and social progress. Morality of the sublime, however, is much trickier and still unresolved. The reason being, while art might stimulate either happiness or concern, sublime always brings an inner sense of joy besides respect, awe and fear. Deriving joy out of a fatal calamity is ‘considered’ to be sadistic in general. And this shuts down all the doors to subliminal explorations of such disasters.

While philosophers unearth the moral dimensions in the sublime, I do feel that it might not be immoral to derive subliminal pleasure out of a lethal disaster. Of course, only if the subject of the sublime is the nature and not the fatalities. I understand that it would not be trivial to segregate the two. I can’t do it. You too, might not be able to. But some of us might definitely be. The real question, however, is if 'we' are ready for them i.e. would we still be questioning their sympathy for the victims or genuinely appreciating their empathy for the king-kong’s, if you will, who happened to fall on the wrong side of us.