Last week, I outlined the way high technology has crippled the virtue of fidelity by ensuring that is only ever practiced as the thoughtless failure to recognise how little freedom we possess with respect to the technological traditions we are enmeshed within. It is still necessary to understand why fidelity is a virtue, why loyalty to people, practices, and ideals serves a vital purpose in human life, without which our capacity for judgement is impaired. But this requires first a change in our understanding of faith.
The place to start is marriage, but not because everyone accepts the merits of this institution. Indeed, before same-sex marriage managed to put this practice back on the agenda in a significant and hopefully lasting way, I feared matrimony was to be the latest casualty of the homogenisation of contemporary life. While there is a host of feminist (and more recently, male-advocacy) arguments against marriage, I do not intend to engage with these because they have little day-to-day force. Besides, if a feminist or anti-feminist eschews marriage on principle I see this as merely a new form of monastic commitment, one founded on political rather than religious grounds. You are not bound to adhere to what any gender advocate thinks, which is not the same as saying their arguments don’t matter.
The people around me in long-term relationships who did not wed are what I only half-jokingly call unmarried, in a parallel manner to talking about ‘undead’ for imaginary beings that are neither dead nor alive. These unhusbands and unwives tell me more-or-less the same thing: we don’t need the government to validate our relationship; a ring on our fingers changes nothing; what would a wedding ceremony do except cost a lot of money… All these objections miss the core purpose of marriage in a society of equals: to make, as equals, a public commitment to building a life together. The act of promising is the key to matrimony, because it is, in a very real sense, the marriage. It is both the act of committing, which forms a particular kind of relationship between individuals and their futures, and the witnessing of this act, that constitutes the wedding, thus founding the marriage. You don’t necessarily need to get married in front of your families – but if you cannot present your future spouse to those with whom you have prior long-term relationships, how serious about your promise are you?
The promise, whether public or private, is the basis of fidelity. It is not coincidental that having extramarital sex is called ‘infidelity’; it is a breaking of vows, of faith in the other – hence also ‘unfaithful’. The very word comes to us as faith, fides in Latin. We have come to associate this term with religion thanks to the Protestant doctrine of sola fide, but this need not concern us here. The important point is that faith, as a trust that cannot be unequivocally vindicated, is an essential aspect of human experience, and we lose sight of this if we buy into the mythos of ‘faith versus reason’, which stages a battle between faith in tradition and faith in the sciences that is spectacularly unhelpful for understanding either.
Thinking that continued scientific research will only make the world better is having blind faith in the sciences; it is neither testable, nor at this time even entirely plausible, that this is the case. But we have faith in the sciences because we contrast what we have to what our ancestors had and judge it better, and by this isolated measure we seem to be vindicated. The equivalent blind faith in tradition occurs when faith, which is a disposition towards uncertainty, becomes equated with unjustified certainty, all too often with disastrous results. In almost any situation, blind faith is a debility since it substitutes rigid conviction for the balance of faith and critical thinking required to negotiate the difficulties of future uncertainties. In matrimony, this blind faith can be seen when one partner ceases to be actively engaged in the endless negotiation of a shared life and merely assumes that the marriage will continue. This is not having faith in your partner at all, but rather the painful path towards divorce.
It is because the future is always uncertain that faith is an unavoidable aspect of human life. Rather than recognising this, we find ways to hide from it by highlighting things that feel beyond doubt and pretending that faith is a character flaw of others. The moral disaster of consequentialism, reducing all judgements to questions of utility, is a crucial example of this since it obscures manifest problems by setting them entirely outside of consideration (as discussed last week). How useful various tools might be will prove irrelevant to a species that has destroyed its environment to the point of risking its own extinction.
Yet if this catastrophe comes too keenly into our attention, it becomes depressing, it robs us of our will to act, because our apparent powerlessness against the most serious problems of our time diminishes our sense of autonomy, and thus our willingness to even attempt to act. Against this paralysing impotence, the only possible bulwark is faith – and in this context it almost doesn’t matter what that faith is vested in, as long as it bolsters our capacity for effective action rather than merely comforting or entertaining us into accepting the status quo. Levi Bryant recently argued for an outcome-focussed ethics concerned with the fragility of the future of ‘bodies’ (organisms, organisations, nations…); these futures are the ones we construct for ourselves out of what we deem they ought to be – and to be able to imagine such futures requires a faith in what could be.
Yet faith in this sense is not fidelity, but merely the background required to understand it. Returning to the example of marriage, fidelity does not necessarily mean abstaining from sex with others besides your spouse – depending upon the vows that were taken even this is not necessarily excluded from fidelity, for all that it might be generally safer to do so. Fidelity means keeping the faith of the vow that was taken, which in the memorable phrasing of the Christian ceremony means to keep the faith against all adversity “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.” Thus fidelity marks the sustaining of faith against the ever-changing turbulence of life. Aristotle suggested that for every virtue there was a debility caused by lack of it, and another for having too much – for fidelity, blind faith is the debility of excess, and faithlessness its absence.
There is another sense of fidelity that is important here. A recording is said to be ‘high fidelity’ (from which we get ‘hi-fi’) when it accurately reproduces the audio quality of the original music. We then call the resulting recording a ‘faithful reproduction’ of the original event. Fidelity in this sense is a relationship between past, present, and future – what happened in the past is reproduced in the present, and reproducible in the future. And this is also the sense in which fidelity applies in all other cases too, if perhaps with a less draconian standard of exactitude to qualify as ‘faithful’. For the spouse who does not cheat upon their partner avoids infidelity and this means that there is a fidelity between the past – the vow – and the present and future that follow from it. Fidelity is thus continuity, constancy, loyalty. It is take a leap of faith about the future and then remain true to the meaning of that prior event.
Now there is an important challenge here: how do you know what you should be giving your fidelity to? Alain Badiou, a philosopher for whom fidelity to an event of truth is the very essence of morality, is keen to stress the disasters that will occur if we pledge ourselves to something which is not true. This, to his critics, makes him no better than the Christian existentialist Soren Kierkegaard, who challenged us to be true to ourselves in the face of the absurd, the infinite, God. The twentieth century existentialists, shaking God out of the equation, shook free any standard that might allow us to know with any confidence what was true, and thus took the equalities of the Enlightenment and inadvertently collapsed them into the disaster of individualism. Like the existentialists, Badiou denies God – albeit by a bizarre recourse to mathematics (‘the one is not’) – yet wants to hold on to Kierkegaard’s divine truth all the same. Can he?
Between Kierkegaard’s solution and Badiou’s lies a range of encounters with events that might invite people to exercise fidelity. The question of how we know whether something is deserving of our faith is, surprisingly, not as important as it seems, for having faith and falling into blind faith are not the same thing. It is tragic that practitioners of religion confuse the two, and ironic that opponents of tradition can make the same kinds of mistake. Faith and certainty are opposing concepts, even though they come from essentially the same source, differing primarily in degree. It would not be a leap of faith if we could be certain about something, and the future is the one thing that could not, could never be certain. It is always fragile. It is precisely that fragility that can only be combated by fidelity.
The opening image is by Banksy. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked by Banksy, which seems unlikely.
Next week: The Dependent World