Murdering Morality with Rope

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“There are no moral phenomena at all, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

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Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope stars Farley Granger and John Dall as thinly disguised versions of Leopold and Loeb, the brilliant students and self-described Übermensch who considered themselves exempt from the morality of “ordinary” men, and put their philosophy into action by murdering a young boy for kicks. For them, murder was just another experience, scarcely distinguishable, morally speaking, from any other action – like, say, squashing an ant. In Rope the names have been changed to Phillip (Granger) and Brandon (Dall), but the attitudes are the same.

“Good and evil, right and wrong, were invented for the ordinary, average man, the inferior man, because he needs them.”

Thus spake Brandon.

Needless to say, the film doesn’t endorse this view. After Brandon and Phillip murder a mutual acquaintance, James Stewart shows up and delivers an impassioned argument against the duo’s dastardly deed, the gist of which is as obvious as it is predictable: murder is wrong! But is it? Stewart’s character, Rupert, says the murder was wrong. Brandon says it was right. Who’s correct? We cannot logically decide between these competing moral claims unless there is an objective standard to which we can repair for adjudication. Only such a standard would provide us the means to resolve disputes between people whose notions of right and wrong differ. The question is, though, does an objective standard of morality actually exist?

First, a few definitions:

Subjective:

  • 1) Based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.
  • 2) Existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought.
  • 3) Proceeding from or taking place in a person’s mind rather than the external world.

My favorite color is green. That is a subjective sentiment. That green is my favorite color need not imply that green is or should be everyone’s favorite color. It is not the “right” color, in any objective sense. Nature has not, after all, indicated a color preference.

Objective:

  • 1) Not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.
  • 2) Not dependent on the mind for existence; actual.
  • 3) Anything which actually exists, as distinguished from something thought or felt to exist.

2+2=4. That is an objective fact. Take two objects from here, two objects from there, put them together, and you have four objects. There’s no room for individual interpretation or preference. It is not right for some and wrong for others. There is only one valid answer. 2+2= 5 may be identified as an error, notwithstanding the ramblings of Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, because math is not a subjective matter.

Morality

  • 1) Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.
  • 2) Of or concerned with the judgment of the goodness or badness of human action and character.

Murder is wrong. That is a moral claim. To which category do moral claims belong: subjective or objective? Is asserting that “murder is wrong” an objective fact like “2+2=4,” or is it a subjective sentiment like “my favorite color is green?” I would argue that, whether we like it or not, moral claims belong squarely in the latter category. 2+2=4 is necessarily true; moral claims like murder is wrong are not. Mathematical laws are universally applicable; moral claims are not. Mathematical laws inhere in reality; moral rules do not. Humans discovered mathematical laws; they didn’t invent them. Humans invented moral rules; they didn’t discover them.

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Last year the Self-Styled Siren, a popular classic movie bloggerette, posted a tribute to the late Farley Granger, which consisted mostly of a defense of the “severely underrated Rope.” In the comments section no one bothered to mention anything about the weighty philosophical issues at the film’s core, and so I decided to liven up the conversation by posting the following:

“There’s nothing wrong, objectively speaking, with snuffing out a human life, notwithstanding Stewart’s histrionic protestations to the contrary.”

I had to chuckle at the Siren’s response:

“Mat, I would address your objections to Rope, but the last line of your first comment has, frankly, scared me to death.”

Apparently, for the Siren, a proposition qualifies as worthy of dispute only if it preserves her cozy feelings of security and well-being. But saying “there’s nothing wrong, objectively speaking, with snuffing out a human life” is, of course, not the same as saying, “there’s nothing wrong with snuffing out a human life.” The operative phrase here is “objectively speaking.” I don’t personally like murder. I’m happy to see this prejudice of mine codified as the law of the land. I cannot provide a reason, however, why murder is objectively wrong. But there’s no shortage of folks who try to provide such a reason. I’ll now examine some of the more common arguments, and explain why I find them wanting:

The Self-Evident Argument

Some people respond with incredulity to the suggestion that there’s nothing objectively wrong with murder. For them, the immorality of murder is a self-evident truth. Such deep thinkers say things like, “if you don’t know why murder is wrong I really don’t know what to say to you.” Of course, this is no argument at all. Here’s one thing they might say: “murder is objectively wrong because…”

If one doesn’t need a reason to justify his belief that murder is morally wrong, then neither does a murderer need a reason to justify his belief that murder is morally right. After all, murderers have their own “self-evident truths.” We’re no closer to resolving the dispute with which we started. If one person says “murder is wrong” and another says “murder is right,” how do we decide who’s correct unless we have recourse to an objective standard of morality?

The Golden Rule – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Why should anyone necessarily adopt this rule? A sadistic murderer, for example, derives pleasure from inflicting pain on others. If he believes that his pleasure is the greatest good, then whatever he does to maximize his pleasure, which would entail torturing his victim to death, is, for him, the right thing to do. That it doesn’t maximize his victim’s pleasure is irrelevant. Why should he care about the victim? What obligates him to care for her?

Most of us find the behavior of a sadistic murderer nauseating. That is true. But unless an objective source of moral obligation exists, we have no grounds to say that his sadistic behavior is morally wrong. In the absence of an objective standard we have to forfeit altogether our cherished notions of morally right or wrong behavior. Good and bad, right and wrong, become vacant categories. Assertions like “murder is wrong” mean nothing more than “I don’t like murder.”

Survival of the species

All animal species possess characteristics which have historically contributed to the perpetuation of their species. Humans are no different. Some attempt to infer a moral imperative from this fact. The argument goes something like this: that which preserves life, such as empathy, is good, and that which destroys life, such as murder, is bad.

This commits the fallacy of trying to derive an “ought” from an “is.” That certain behaviors tend to preserve life is a fact. That we ought to behave in ways that tend to preserve life is not. The first is a truth-statement, the second a value-statement, and never the twain shall meet. You cannot logically derive a value from a fact.

It also commits the naturalistic fallacy. Allow me to quote G.E. Moore:

“The survival of the fittest does not mean, as one might suppose, the survival of what is fittest to fulfill a good purpose – best adapted to a good end: at the last, it means merely the survival of the fittest to survive: and the value of the scientific theory just consists in showing what are the causes which produce certain biological effects. Whether these effects are good or bad, it cannot pretend to judge.”

Just because something is “natural” doesn’t make it “good” or “bad.” Aggression, no less than empathy, is a characteristic that has facilitated human survival. Vanquishing entire tribes of people has generally been successful throughout history; just ask the former inhabitants of North America – if you can find any. The point is that one has to be awfully selective when attempting to base his morality on what evolution has wrought. After all, the “better angels of our nature” evolved alongside the “fallen” ones.

God

There’s no way around it: the implications of atheism lead inevitably to moral nihilism. God just might qualify as an objective source of moral values (even this is debatable), since, being omniscient, he would presumably know infallibly what’s good and what’s bad. But first his existence would need to be demonstrated. Good luck.

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So let’s take this full circle back to Rope. Here’s the complete text of Rupert’s concluding monologue:

“You’ve given my words a meaning I’ve never dreamed of. And you’ve tried to twist them into a cold, logical excuse for your ugly murder. Well, they never were that, Brandon. You can’t make them that. There must have been something deep inside of you from the very start that let you do this thing. But there’s always been something deep inside me that would never let me do it. Tonight you’ve made me ashamed of every concept I ever had of superior or inferior beings. And I thank you for that shame. Because now I know that we’re each of us a separate human being, Brandon, with the right to live and work and think as individuals, but with an obligation to the society we live in. By what right do you dare say that there’s a superior few to which you belong? By what right did you dare decide that that boy in there was inferior and therefore could be killed? Did you think you were God, Brandon? Is that what you thought when you choked the life out of him? Is that what you thought when you served food from his grave? Well, I don’t know what you thought or what you are but I know what you’ve done. You’ve murdered! You’ve strangled the life out of a fellow human being who could live and love as you never could…”

He delivers the entire monologue uninterrupted, because Brandon and Phillip, the two supposed Übermensch, just stand around like dimwits as Rupert rants. I thought it might be fun to imagine what Brandon might have said and done, were he not such a Boobermensch, in response to Rupert’s diatribe. The following, then, is my re-write of this scene:

Rupert Cadell
You’ve given my words a meaning I’ve never dreamed of. And you’ve tried to twist them into a cold, logical excuse for your ugly murder.

Brandon
I don’t need an excuse to commit murder. I did it for the same reason I do anything: I wanted to. I felt like doing it and I did it. And it wasn’t ugly. It was a thing of beauty. You haven’t lived until you’ve strangled the life out of someone, my friend. It’s a fucking rush. You oughta try it some time.

Rupert
There must have been something deep inside of you from the very start that let you do this thing. But there’s always been something deep inside of me that would never let me do it.

Brandon
Ok, so we’ve established that we both have something deep inside of us. That’s a sure sign that what we’re discussing is a purely subjective matter. The something deep inside of me says that murder is good. The something deep inside of you says that murder is bad. I like murder. You don’t. So what? I like chocolate. You don’t. What’s your point?

Brandon delivers a punishing right hook to the side of Rupert’s head and Rupert crumples to the floor.

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Brandon
I repeat: what’s your goddamn point?

Rupert struggles back to his feet.

Rupert
We’re each of us a separate human being, Brandon, with the right to live and work and think as individuals, but with an obligation to the society we live in.

Brandon delivers a crushing haymaker straight to Rupert’s nose.

Brandon
Sorry, Roopy, but the impulse to stay alive is not a “right.” “Rights” don’t exist in nature. “Human rights” is a purely man-made concept with no basis in reality. If you want to pretend you have a “right” to live go right ahead, but don’t expect me to. That boy in there had no more inherent right to live than anyone or anything else does. I didn’t violate his “right” to live because he didn’t have one.

Rupert (struggling to get up on one knee)
By what right do you dare…?

Brandon
Let me cut you off right there.

Brandon wallops him with a devastating uppercut to the chin, knocking Rupert flat on his back. Barely conscious now, Rupert moans in pain, his head spinning.

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Brandon
I just got done saying that rights are fictitious. And then you start your next sentence with, “By what right…”? Have you not been listening? Quit sticking so slavishly to the crummy script. It doesn’t apply anymore.

Brandon takes his pistol out of his pocket and kneels down to show it to Rupert.

Brandon
See this? The script says I’m supposed to hand it over to you like some fucking moron. But that ain’t gonna happen. See, that’s the difference between us, Roopy. You mindlessly obey whatever authority tells you. I don’t. The screenwriter wants you to be a mouthpiece for “society” and so you play along like some unthinking automaton emitting preprogrammed drivel. Well, this is my script now, and so you’d better come up with something more persuasive. You want the gun? Here, have it.

Brandon slams the butt of the gun down on Rupert’s skull, knocking him into merciful unconsciousness.

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Brandon then looks over at Phillip, who has been silently watching the whole time from his piano.

Brandon
Well, what have you got to say for yourself?

Phillip
You frighten me. You always have. From the very first day in prep school.

Brandon
Can’t you say anything that isn’t in the script either?

Phillip
That’s a lie. There isn’t a word of truth in the whole story. I never strangled a chicken in my life. I never strangled a chicken and you know it!”

Brandon conks Phillip over the head and drags him over next to Rupert. He then tosses a glass of water in Rupert’s face, sits back in a reclining chair, lights up his pipe, and waits for him to regain consciousness. Rupert stirs, then sits up and rubs his beleaguered head.

Phillip mumbles something.

Brandon
What’s he saying now?

Rupert
He said, “He’s got it. He’s got it. He knows, he knows, he knows…”

Brandon
That’s what I thought. More gibberish from the script. Remember? That’s what he said when you took the rope out of your pocket.

Rupert
Yeah, that’s right.

Brandon
Guess who has the rope now?

Brandon produces the rope from his pocket and shows Rupert.

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Brandon (puffing on his pipe)
But let’s get back to our little discussion, shall we? I believe you were saying that we have an obligation to the society we live in or some such nonsense.

Rupert
That’s right, we do.

Brandon
Still sticking to the script, eh? I was hoping I had knocked some sense into you, but no, you’re still shackled to the illogical ideas of your creators. Look, Roopy, nothing obligates me to care for society. I have an obligation to myself and myself alone. What is good for me is the only good I recognize. I don’t care a whit about society.

Rupert
Did you think you were God, Brandon? Is that what you thought when you choked the life out of him? Is that what you thought when you served food from his grave?

Brandon
Actually, I was thinking bon appétit. As for God, I can’t very well think of myself as something I don’t believe in, now can I? I’ll leave the murdering in the name of God to your precious “society.”

Rupert
Well, I don’t know what you thought or what you are but I know what you’ve done. You’ve murdered! You’ve strangled the life out of a fellow human being who could live and love as you never could…”

Brandon looks at the morally indignant Rupert with amusement and takes a long drag on his pipe.

Brandon
Look, Roopy, that boy over there was just a random collection of atoms with no more inherent value or worth than any other lump of matter. You think his life had value. I don’t. I considered him unworthy of living and took the necessary steps to snuff him out of existence. So go ahead and bellow till your blue in the face that what I did was wrong. Knock yourself out. While you’re doing that, I’ll be over here asking you, calmly and rationally, why murder is wrong. What is it exactly about murder that makes it wrong?

Rupert
You’re insane, Brandon! Insane and crazy and sick and twisted and cruel and demented and perverse and warped and abnormal and inhuman and loathsome and vicious and mean and perverted and nasty and brutal and pitiless and malicious and cruel…

Brandon
You already said cruel.

Rupert
…and unwholesome and ruthless and heartless and merciless and cold-blooded and hateful and despicable and disgusting and repugnant and detestable and abhorrent and noxious and sadistic and malevolent and evil and odious and contemptible and iniquitous…

Brandon
Oooh, iniquitous. Good one!

Rupert
… and repulsive and sickening and ghastly and nauseating and revolting and foul and abominable and wicked and monstrous and repellent and depraved…

Finally, Rupert starts hyperventilating from the strain of emitting so many consecutive insults.

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Brandon chuckles, gets up from his recliner, and walks over to Rupert. He takes a long drag on his pipe and blows the smoke directly in Rupert’s face.

Brandon
By my count, that’s 47 insults you’ve hurled in my direction in lieu of an argument. Ad hominem attacks are very unbecoming of you, Roopy. Notwithstanding your invective, the question remains: why was it wrong to snuff out that boy’s life?

Phillip regains consciousness.

Phillip
I’ve been praying I’d wake up and find out we hadn’t done it yet. I’m scared to death, Brandon. I think we’re going to get caught.

Brandon
Go on, Phillip, utter one more line from that script. Go on, give me a reason.

Phillip
Have you ever bothered for just one minute to understand how someone else might feel?

Brandon
I wonder how this feels.

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Brandon puts the rope around Phillip’s neck and tugs on it. Phillip gasps for breath, his eyes bulge out of their sockets.

Rupert
Please, Brandon, stop!

Brandon releases his grip on the rope, allowing Phillip to catch his breath.

Brandon (to Phillip)
Not another word from that script. Got it?

Phillip
What the devil are you doing?

Brandon retightens the rope around Phillip’s neck, then hands it to Rupert and points the gun at him.

Brandon (to Rupert)
I’ll give you one chance to save yourself. Finish off this Boobermensch and I’ll let you live. What was it you said earlier this evening? That you’d like to have a “Strangulation Day?” Well, today is that day, Rupert.

Rupert
I was only joking, for Christ’s sake!

Brandon cocks the gun.

Brandon
Whose life do you value more, Rupert? Yours or his? Do it and you walk out of here alive. Don’t do it and you’ll end up in that chest with the other dead meat.

Rupert
No! I can’t! I won’t!

Brandon
He’s going to die whether you do it or not. If you don’t do it you’re going to die too. At least save yourself, Rupert.

Rupert
May God forgive me.

Brandon
Wait! Before you do it, let’s see if Phillip has any last words.

Phillip
I had a rotten evening.

Brandon
Yep, quoting from the script to the last. Do it!

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Rupert yanks the rope and chokes the life out of Phillip the Boobermensch. He lets the rope slip from his fingers and Phillip’s lifeless body slumps to the floor. Brandon drags the corpse over to the chest and tosses Phillip into it with the other body. He then walks back over to Rupert and puts his arm around him.

Brandon
How did it feel?

Rupert
I take back everything I said, Brandon. That was incredible! You’re so right, you haven’t lived until you’ve choked the life out of someone. What a fucking rush that was!

Brandon pats Rupert on the shoulder and then walks over to the phone and dials.

Brandon
Hey, Mrs. Cadell, this is Brandon Shaw speaking. I’m doing well, and you? Listen, it’s getting late and so I’ve invited Rupert to stay for the night. I hope you don’t mind. Good! I would be honored if you’d join us for breakfast. Great! Say, around 8:00? I look forward to seeing you, Mrs. Cadell.

Brandon hangs up.

Brandon
Charming lady, Roopy.

Rupert
What the devil are you up to?

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Brandon
Well, Roopy, yesterday was “Strangulation Day,” today is “Bullet in the Head Day.”

Brandon fires a bullet into Rupert’s head and tosses him into the chest with the other two bodies.

Then Brandon breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly.

Brandon
Ladies and gentlemen, if my actions this evening have disgusted you, so be it. I don’t give a fuck. But you’re quite mistaken if you think that you can infer from your disgust a moral imperative. You cannot. You’re quite mistaken if you think that murder is wrong. It is not. You’re quite mistaken if you think that your moral outrage toward me amounts to something more than your own paltry knot of predilections. It does not. You’re quite mistaken if you think there’s a higher standard to which I can be held. There is not. Morality, as you understand it, is a myth, a fantasy, a fairy-tale. Murder is neither good nor bad, neither right nor wrong. Morality inheres not in reality. Nature is utterly amoral. Nothing is wrong. Nothing is right. Nothing is bad. Nothing is good. It is simply not possible to do something morally wrong. It is only possible to call something “wrong.” But no matter how passionately you shout, it doesn’t make it so.

Human life has no intrinsic value. The value you assign to yourself and others is subjective and arbitrary. Perhaps you feel that the people I killed tonight had value. Well, bully for you. I don’t feel that way. Your feelings are no more authoritative than mine. They’re just different. Why should I feel that you or anyone else has value? You’re nothing more than a chance collocation of atoms with no more inherent worth than any other chunk of matter. If this upsets you, it’s because you have an innate, deep-rooted dread of nihilism, of the almost certain possibility that your most cherished concerns constitute nothing more than brute stupidities wrought in you according to the blind whim of nature, that ultimately nothing has value, nothing has meaning and nothing matters, that all of your effort is futile and absurd, and that just around the corner only annihilation and oblivion await you.

Good evening.

14 Responses to “Murdering Morality with Rope”

  1. […] at Notes of a Film Fanatic explores the Nietzschean implications of Hitch’s experimental film Rope, a fascinating look at a Leopold-Loeb murder. Share […]

  2. Mat – Interesting little essay and rewrite of Rope. I don’t agree that God is the only objective arbiter of social imperatives. Even atheists tend to ascribe to a humanist imperative about the rules of society. Many people are relativist when it comes to murder – if the state does it, it’s ok because it’s for the good of everone; if I do it, it’s wrong because it’s only good for me. Of course, that’s a fallacious argument as well, but no matter. Quantifiability or absolute fact, like math, is good for math, but isn’t good for learning to live together. With 6 billion people on the planet, while the rules for living may be subjective, they are no less important if we believe that our lives and what we do with them aren’t mistakes. But then we get into the meaning of life. See, we can keep going down this rabbit hole of supposition, but ultimately, I believe you play the cards you’re dealt. In this case, we were dealt life, and that requires some responsibility in living it. I reject irresponsible behavior in the name of personal gratification, and if I had the time, I’d develop an ethical argument (there is a discipline for developing such argument in philosophy) for it.

  3. Hey Marilyn,

    Thanks for dropping by.

    First you say “I don’t agree that God is the only objective arbiter of social imperatives.” Then you say “the rules for living may be subjective.” So, I’m not sure if you’re arguing for or against an objective standard of morality. Perhaps you could clarify.

    You say, “I reject irresponsible behavior in the name of personal gratification…”

    Is this statement anything more than a reflection of your own subjective morality? Why should I not define good as whatever conduces to my own health or happiness regardless of the effects my behavior may have on others? Why should I not define good as whatever gives me pleasure even if it causes others pain? I am constrained to obey the prevailing morality, over and against my own desires, only insofar as I am intimidated by the sanctions instituted to control me.

    Mat

  4. As long as you’re asking why you should define good in terms of the common good, I can answer. It is necessary for your own survival, aka, a utilitarian ethical stance. Whether your constraints are external or internal, they are designed to ensure the greatest happiness for all concerned. If we all have clean drinking water, we all benefit. If a paper manufacturer chooses profits over clean drinking water, it will make money in the short term, but lose it in the long term because its customers will die and so will its employees. It is a long-term economic and ethical model, but it does pan out.

  5. So, choosing profits over clean drinking water isn’t really morally wrong, it’s just financially imprudent. He shouldn’t choose profits over clean water, not because it’s wrong, but because it’s bad for business. Is this your position?

    Were I inclined to cheat on my taxes, I would be doing nothing wrong, per se. I would merely be assuming risk. Were I to rape and murder a small child, I would be doing nothing wrong. I would merely be putting my own life in jeopardy. Is that your position?

    If I were to calculate that the pleasure I may derive from raping and murdering someone outweighs, for me, the pain of possible repercussions, why should I refrain from acting on my desires?

    Mat

  6. Interesting arguments; and interesting how such themes also appear, however briefly, in other Hitchcock movies. Certainly Uncle Charlie of ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ would agree with the points raised by your rewritten Brandon (as probably would the rapist-strangler of one of Hitch’s later films’ ‘Frenzy’). And then there are the ‘patriotic’ reasons for murder in a number of Hitchcock films, such as ‘Secret Agent’ or ‘Torn Curtain’ or ‘North by Northwest,’ in which enemy spies are blithely annihilated for the good of one’s country (one thinks of the penultimate scene from ‘North by Northwest,’ when Leo G. Carroll wonders nonchalantly if it’s “fair” to shoot Martin Landau). It’s murder, but yet because it’s for a ‘good cause,’ it’s excusable. Wonder if Rupert would ever got around to addressing that?

  7. Mat,

    I agree completely with your logic and reasoning. There is no standard for morality, although theists obviously appeal to a superstitious force that provides codification for such.

    I also enjoyed your revisionist script – have you thought of publishing your thoughts elsewhere?

  8. Mat: Thank you for sharing an interesting analysis and your ideas of an alternate conclusion. I would love to have seen that submitted to the people at the Breen Office and then watched their heads explode.

  9. Thanks, GOM. Good point about the “patriotic reasons for murder” in Hitchcock films. Chaplin dealt with this theme explicitly in Monsieur Verdoux:

    “As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces? And done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison.”

    Mat

  10. Mark,

    Most atheists I know seem reluctant to acknowledge the darker implications of atheism, to let reason run its full course. Theists aren’t the only ones who construct bulwarks against nihilism.

    Mat

  11. Thanks, Joe.

    Well, that’s one way to get rid of censorship – which, as we all know, is just wrong.

    Mat

  12. Mat,

    You are correct that theists are not alone in that position. But I didn’t make that claim. I merely stated that theists appeal to a supernatural rationalization. Do atheists appeal to superstition?

  13. I wanted to inquire again as to the possibility of your publishing (aside from herein) some of your entertaining writings, including the revisionist version of Rope.

  14. Mark,

    Yes, atheists appeal to superstition. An atheist may concoct and follow a code of behavior, but just insofar as he takes his code to be objectively moral, and, therefore, a standard of behavior applicable to other people, he engages in superstition, since objective morality is no more plausible than the existence of God or, for that matter, the content of any given system of religious dogma.

    No, I’m not looking for this stuff to be published elsewhere. I just do it for fun. I mean, c’mon, who would buy it? Thanks for asking, though.

    Mat