Imagine a world devoid of hope — a world with an end in sight; not an end that compensates by carving an edge of meaning into the story but an end that is brutal and destructive and soul-wrenching. Such is the world drawn by Cormac McCarthy in The Road.
It’s a story of an unnamed man and an unnamed boy — father and son. They live in a post-apocalyptic reality in which some unnamed catastrophe has destroyed the civilized world. There are only a few pockets of human tribes left, most of whom are willing to go to extreme lengths to ensure their own survival. Lawlessness and cannibalism are the norms.
The boy is born to the man and a woman sometime before the story begins, right around the time of the catastrophe. At some point, however, the woman, realizing the futility of existence in a such a world, takes her own life, leaving only the two of them to fend for themselves.
The only thing the man and the boy know is that they are going south towards the sea so that they can escape the harsh winter. They don’t make long-term plans, they don’t talk about the inevitable, and they have strict rules — rules that negate the pretense of any innocence in the boy’s life — regarding what to do in case either of them ever gets caught by the others.
Throughout the novel, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. McCarthy stretches the imagination of the reader to a place he or she wishes they never have to go again. The good and the beautiful —namely, the love between the man and the boy — is blurred away by the ugly.
The only redeeming thing in this world is the boy himself. Even the man, hardened by the circumstances of his life, has a beaten-down soul, one that is fast to distrust and slow to care about anything beyond what it takes to keep the two of them alive for as long as he can.
There is a scene in the middle of the book where they run into an older and even more cynical man. When they first catch a glimpse of him, he looks like he is near death. The boy wants to help him. The man doesn’t. After a brief argument, they do as the boy hopes, and they invite the older man to spend the night with them, sharing their food.
When the time comes to part ways, the three of them have a brief exchange. This exchange tells you everything you could want to know about the core of each character and how they respond to the world around them.
In the morning they stood in the road and he and the boy argued about what to give the old man. In the end he didnt get much. Some cans of vegetables and of fruit. Finally the boy just went over to the edge of the road and sat in the ashes. The old man fitted the tins into his knapsack and fastened the straps. You should thank him you know, the man said. I wouldnt have given you anything.
[the old man]: Maybe I should and maybe I shouldnt.
[the man]: Why wouldnt you?
[the old man]: I wouldnt have given him mine.
[the man]: You dont care if it hurts his feelings?
[the old man]: Will it hurt his feelings?
[the man]: No. That’s not why he did it.
[the old man]: Why did he do it?
He looked over at the boy and he looked at the old man. You wouldnt understand, he said. I’m not sure I do.
The ethics of the great philosopher Immanuel Kant can be summarized by a single sentence he once wrote about them: “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become, by your will, a universal law of nature.”
It is one of his famous categorical imperatives — a statement he believed could be used to dissect the motivation for each of a person’s actions. According to this line of reasoning, something is good and right if you wouldn’t mind every other person in the world acting in this way, too.
Like much of Western philosophy, Kant wasn’t a fan of contradictions. He was an absolutist, so in his moral worldview, there were no gray areas. If you don’t want other people lying, you should never lie yourself no matter the circumstances. If you think laziness is undesirable, then it’s your job to make sure you are never contributing to it.
Except, in real life, it’s never that simple. Humans are complex creatures, and life is often covered by shades of color that aren’t black and white. Like the philosophies Kant was rebelling against at the same, his, too, was a little too rigid for a world in which every single moment is produced at the intersection of more variables than we can ever hope to count.
The foundation for Kant’s belief, however, is what interests me, and I think it’s a strong one. He made a point to distinguish between what we do out of inclination and what we do out of duty. Inclination is what is comfortable — it is the impulse of every animal in nature: to be self-interested, to do what is easy, and to think only about here and now. What makes humans different, he argued, is that we are capable of overpowering this inclination in the name of duty: something that is good as an end in itself.
A man working long hours his whole life so his family has better opportunities than he did is committing to an act of duty. An innocent prisoner of war accepting punishment on behalf of someone who is in worse shape than she is is committing to an act of duty. A boy insisting that his father share what little food they have with a stranger is committing to an act of duty.
It is this gap between inclination and duty, this agency — the freedom to choose to do the hard thing — that gives humans their spark. By valuing something for what it is and acting against our impulses, we are able to shine a light of moral goodness in this world; a light that illuminates the hearts of other people, so that they, too, are willed to do the right thing.
One of the core strengths of this line of reasoning is that it accounts for the fact that human beings are mimetic in their drives — much of our behavior is influenced by what we observe in our surroundings. Kant’s categorical imperative tells us that once the light is on, it will spread itself. If we see other people do good, we are more likely to do good ourselves.
Much of philosophy is esoteric and difficult. The old trope of the men and women sitting in their ivory tower telling the rest of us what to do holds an ounce of truth. But, at the same time, there is just as much philosophy that is highly underrated relative to what it can and has done for us.
If you peel back the right layers, it’s impossible not to see how important Kant has been to the history of our species; how important he still is today. His work is there for the taking. What we do with it is up to us.
One of the climaxes in The Road occurs near the end when the boy, again, wants to help someone. Except, this is someone who has wronged them. The man, naturally, refuses. The boy persists, arguing that the person on the other side is just as scared and hopeless as they are.
In this particular instance, however, the man prevails, and they continue without extending a hand. When he later tries to penetrate the boy’s wall of anger, the boy asks a simple question: Are the stories true?
By the stories, he is referring to the comforting tales his father has been telling him all his life about how goodness always gets the better out of evil and how they, in fact, are the good guys and that there is hope in the world. The man says they are. In a moment of quiet but raw intensity, the boy asks: Why, then, do we never seem to help anyone who needs it in real life?
The first time I read this scene, I felt a strange heaviness — like a truth had made itself known to me, a truth not found in any condensed string of sentences but a truth that could only ever be experienced. Was McCarthy trying to pass on a profound, Kantian moral lesson in his fiction? I’m not sure. Some part of me would like to think so, though.
Each of us is a hero in our own story. Your life is a narration, one that concerns itself with you, that centers itself towards you, that has supporting characters around you, that is good or bad or right or wrong as it relates to you. We are all, of course, aware of this self-centeredness, but we don’t openly talk about it. It’s unbecoming: uncomfortable, even.
The mere fact that we don’t talk about it, however, means that we also let it delude us. We convince ourselves that we — the hero — are always the good guys and that anyone who is in our way, or who disagrees with us, or who has wronged us in some big or small way is by definition the bad guy — that they don’t deserve the same empathy or kindness or understanding that we would expect if we were in their position.
We forget that the human condition is diverse, that different people have different belief templates, and that most bad guys don’t think of themselves as bad guys; most of them, too, think they are doing the right thing, the noble thing. Even when they aren’t, they — like you — are flawed human beings, shaped by billions of variables, many of which they had little control over, that may not have provided them with the luxury and the comfort to do the right thing at each and every moment in their life.
You don’t have to look much further than the current political climate in the world to see an illustration of the problem I’m talking about. We have become so comfortable hating each other that it completely escapes us that the point of having these conversations is to better understand each other. In the process, we have become exactly the kind of people who do and say things that actually merit the label of the bad guy.
I don’t have a perfect solution, and I’m not here to espouse the virtues of Kantian ethics as a path to a Promised Land. What I do think, though, is that maybe — just maybe — we can all take a tool out of the boy’s toolkit; that maybe— just maybe — if we, ourselves, lived in accordance with the stories we tell to inspire our children, we could live more honest lives.
There is a certain naivete you have to engage to accept the idea of selling kindness as an antidote to complex issues of disagreement and hostility. But negativity defeats itself, and I’d rather be naive than cynical.