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Absurd World (Draft version 1)

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In this paper, I argue for a novel form of absurdity. Normative absurdity occurs when there is an extreme mismatch between how things are and how they should be. I then connect the idea of normative absurdity to the meaning of life.
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  1    Absurd World Children are starving to death in Yemen. Up to eighty five thousand children under five have died as a result of the famine. But this famine isn’t the result of natural forces, acts of God, or plain old bad 1 luck; this tragedy is the result of human action. When I take an honest look at the famine in Yemen, 2 and other comparable tragedies, I see an extreme normative mismatch between how things are and how they should be. By normative mismatch, I mean a misalignment between the descriptive facts of the world and the way the world ought to be, according to the correct normative principles. In other 3 words, the world just isn’t how it ought to be. This may strike you as an uninteresting truism. The world could always be better. But these extreme cases of normative mismatch reveal a striking feature of our world: its absurdity. A world with horrific tragedies like ours will exhibit absurdity-making features by virtue of the normative mismatch between the descriptive facts and the correct normative principles. In this paper, I argue that extreme normative mismatch generates absurdity-making features which have the potential to make our world absurd. This paper is structured as follows: I outline the case for normative mismatch in section one. In section two, I examine the concept of normative absurdity. I explain how normative mismatch has the potential to render the world absurd in section three. In section four, I show how normative absurdity in the world can render our lives absurd, although it need not. In section five, I reply to objections. I hope to show how absurdity can be a feature of the world that affects us, regardless of whether our lives exhibit absurdity-making features. In the end, I hope to show that there are absurdity-making features of our world that have the potential to render our world absurd; however, 1   (Karasz 2018). 2    Ibid.   3   I use “correct” instead of “true” to include those who do not think normative principles are truth-apt.  2   there is always hope. We can always use our ability to shape the future in a way that prevents the sorts of tragedies that have the potential to make our world absurd. 1. Normative Mismatch When how things are do not align with how they should be, it is a case of normative mismatch. Such mismatch comes in degrees. Telling an offensive joke at a funeral service is a case of minor normative mismatch; the service should be serious in tone yet it isn’t because of your joke. At the more extreme end, we have tragedies like the famine in Yemen. The way things are in Yemen are certainly not how they should be. Now, you may wonder what I mean by “normative” and “should”. For the purposes of this paper, I mean them in the moral sense. I leave it open whether there are non-moral, normative mismatches that make the world absurd. However, the most striking examples are all morally charged, so I will utilize moral features like extreme injustice to make my point. The kinds of normative mismatch with which I am concerned are moral. More specifically, they are injustice and cosmic unfairness. Injustice is most likely more familiar to you, but cosmic unfairness is a term I just invented, so let me explain. Consider the unluckiest person to ever live. I’m sure there must have been such a person, since luck is scalar; some are (un)luckier than others. There must be someone at the bottom of the scale, or, in other words, someone who is completely shit out of luck. While I cannot tell you who this poor soul is, I can pretend it was Job from the Bible. Now, imagine that all of the bad things that befell Job were the result of luck, rather than a bet between God and Lucifer. Job’s life goes as badly as we can imagine, but nobody is at fault. There is no agent responsible for his downfall. Rather, things just happened to go as badly as possible for Job. The awful circumstances in which Job finds himself are the result of cosmic unfairness. There’s no reason why  3    Job, out of everybody, had to experience a tragic downfall; it just happened that way. In other words, the world ain't fair. Words of wisdom from the unlucky. Injustice, on the other hand, should be more familiar to my readers. We can easily imagine unjust situations, such as the example of the famine in Yemen discussed above. One feature of injustice that sets it apart from cosmic unfairness is that it is the result of agency. Only moral agents are capable of creating injustice. To see why, imagine two scenarios. In the first, we have a man named Tim who angers another man named Bob. Tim made a joke about Bob in good fun, but Bob didn’t take it that way, so he smashed Tim’s head in with a large rock. Tim is dead and Bob is guilty of committing an unjust act, namely murder. Now imagine another person named Rico. Rico also had his head smashed in, but this time it was because of a rock falling from a cliffside while he was hiking. Rico is not the victim of an injustice. The relevant difference here seems to be the agency behind the rock smashing into Tim’s head. The reason Tim’s death was an injustice is because it was caused by an agent who can be held morally responsible for his actions. Both kinds of normative mismatch can generate absurdity-making features of the world. However, they must be extreme cases of normative mismatch. A minor injustice does not have the potential to generate absurdity; a child stealing a piece of gum from a store cannot make the world absurd. The same goes for minor cases of cosmic unfairness, like a child being born ugly. The famine in Yemen is a stronger candidate for an absurdity-making injustice, as is our secularized story of Job.  At this point, you’re likely wondering how these mismatches make the world absurd. Extreme cases of normative mismatch generate absurdity because they are a misalignment between what we ought to expect and what we find. Absurdity occurs when there is a mismatch between what we 4 4   I use “ought” in the normative rather than predictive sense.  4    expect and what we find in the world. In this case, we have a mismatch between what we normatively 5 ought to expect and what we find in the world. While not every mismatch generates absurdity, all absurdity is grounded in mismatch. For those desiring a further explanation, I confess that I do not have one. It strikes me as a primitive relation, or at least one that we cannot further parse with our concepts. After all, explanations must end somewhere. 2. Absurdity Think of something absurd. Here’s an example: Jeff is a war hero. He fought in dozens of deadly battles. Jeff’s military career includes at least fifty confirmed kills and several purple hearts from injuries in the field ranging from shrapnel to bullet wounds. Jeff has seen it all; he even became a cop when he finished his service. One day Jeff is shot in the chest while stopping a bank robbery. He wakes up in the hospital to a doctor informing him that he was lucky to survive; another quarter inch and that bullet would’ve pierced his heart. As Jeff is happily eating his lunch, reflecting on how lucky he is, he chokes to death on a piece of turkey from the hospital cafeteria. My little story strikes me as absurd. Hopefully it has the same effect on you. However, if it doesn’t, you can easily think of an absurd scenario. What all of these absurdities seem to have in common is a mismatch between what we expect and what occurs. While not all false predictions constitute absurdities, all absurdities appear to be grounded in mismatches between what we expect and what actually happens. What pushes a mismatch into absurdity territory is unclear to me, but I think we all can fallibly detect when it occurs. A bride farting during her wedding ceremony, the hero 5   (Nagel 1971).  5   of a story dying of an infected cut, and so on. While you may not agree with my choice of absurdities, 6 I wager that any examples you find representative will feature a mismatch of some kind. Normative absurdity, as I use the term, denotes a kind of mismatch between our normative expectations and the way things are descriptively. The only thing setting it apart from other absurdities is that one side of the mismatch is normative. The expectation isn’t rooted in a theory or claim about how the world is, descriptively. Rather, it is an expectation based on normative principles. I normatively expect a lawyer to follow the rules of conduct in court and fulfill her professional duties, despite her awful track record. Despite her failures, she is still normatively expected to fulfill her duties and act like a good lawyer. That is the basis from which we may justifiably critique her as a lawyer. Her actual performance and what we normatively expect do not match. On my account of normative absurdity, there must be some severity threshold for normative mismatch that determines whether a particular instance is absurd. Where there’s a threshold claim, there will be people who complain. If you set a threshold at some determinate point, it strikes us as arbitrary. But if you give a range, people call it vague. While I hate to do this, I do not consider this to be a ​  special​  problem for my view, as it is a generalizable issue that plagues any theory involving threshold claims. Raising this objection to my view in particular is boring, unless you want to attack all threshold claims, which is interesting. In light of this, I take my threshold claim for granted and do not feel compelled to provide a precise line of demarcation or a range. I feel safe gesturing at intuitively plausible cases of normative absurdity and then noting the severity of the mismatch to make my point. 6   (Nagel 1971).
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