Thursday, July 8, 2010


© Mukesh Williams

My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do.

Foucault, “On the Genealogy of Ethics,” The Foucault Reader, 343

The self is through and through a hostage, older than the ego, prior to principles. What is at stake for the self, in its being, is not to be. Beyond egoism and altruism it is the religiosity of the self.

Levinas, Otherwise Than Being Or Beyond Essence, 117

The methods to draw ethical assumptions and the way to investigate them have always dominated western philosophical inquiry right from Plato to the present. The seriousness of this pursuit in moral philosophy can be measured by the fact that seminal European philosophers such as Kant and Hegel were deeply involved in the ethical project. The western ethical inquiry was also deeply connected to the investigations about spirituality, consciousness, the construction of being and the act of knowing. Levinas states, “For the philosophical tradition of the West, all spirituality lies in consciousness, thematic expression of being, knowing” (Otherwise Than Being Or Beyond Essence, 99).

In recent times both ethics and ethical behavior are seen more as puzzles that may not be fully realized but unsurely grasped in their assumed contradiction. Foucault was suspicious of the ethical alternative offered by the Greeks. He was skeptical of their ethical assumptions and worked on the genealogy of ethics rather than on seeking a solution or an alternative. He cautioned us of its dangers and warned us to be always busy to do “something” (Foucault, “On The Genealogy of Ethics” 343). By ‘something’ he meant the interrogation of ethical issues that instead of liberating us often imprison us. Derrida goes beyond the totalizing narratives of ethics and reveals the aporia or paradox that lies buried deep in social practices connected to gift giving, hospitality, forgiveness and mourning.

There are three fundamental approaches to the understanding of ethics—theoretical, utilitarian and practical which includes Kant, Rorty and John Rawls. Winston Churchill’s famous statement in a 1941speech to the British Parliament during a debate on how to rebuild the House of Commons destroyed in the aerial bombing by the Luftwaffe: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” This must be read with Heidegger’s concept that technology surrounds us. Architecture possesses a presence, a mood and a texture that subtly and patiently shapes our sensibility and guides us into observations of ourselves and the world we live in. A virtual architecture gives rise to a reflexive architecture or a virtual environment imagined and fantasized by a linguistic architecture.

Early philosophers attempted to define human nature and built their ethical standards in terms of either self-love or benevolence. David Hume saw benevolence as an essential human component of nature, something that ultimately gave rise to morality. Hume argued against Hobbes’s theory that private interest was the prime motive in human action. Hume suggested that it was not ego but benevolence that was the fundamental aspect of human nature. He felt that ego was connected to fear and ambition while benevolence to more altruistic emotions. Benevolence implied virtues based on goodwill, generosity and love. These emotions became a part of virtues operated in friendship, charity and compassion. Hume did not reject the ego but saw it as a mixture of the dove-wolf-serpent metaphor. He saw both benevolence and justice as social virtues but felt that benevolence was primary human nature while justice was a normative human convention.

The proponents of utilitarianism especially John Stuart Mill argued that the ‘greatest happiness’ principle or utility defined moral standards and laid the foundations of all ethical behavior. An action was right if it promoted human happiness, and wrong if it did not. Duty, obligation and right were all subordinate to this utility principle. The utilitarian philosophy argued that utility was the supreme ethical standard.

Though Kant rejects the centrality of the utilitarian principle he located it in duty and beneficence. The virtue of benevolent actions must spring from duty and not from friendly inclination. It is only duty which is performed without personal gain. Benevolence based on friendly inclination has no limits but duty does as it is both clear and precise. However Kant does not define the limits of beneficence or duty. Bernard Gert believes that the concept of beneficence has no moral rules but only moral ideals that prevent people from causing harm. Gert believes that the goal of morality is to lessen evil but not to promote good. Rationality may help to lessen evil but cannot promote eternal good.

Rorty takes his cue from the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham by presuming that all discussions on morality are firmly rooted in the individual ego. Values are therefore personal possessions. Marxism sees human nature as a “totality of social relations” and not as “idiosyncratic fantasy” (Marx 1963; Rorty, 1989 42). Rorty camouflages ideas in vague language such as the following when he explains the purpose of social organization: “the point of social organization is to let everybody have a chance at self-creation to the best of his or her abilities, and that the goal requires besides peace and wealth, the standard ‘bourgeois freedoms’” (Rorty, 1989 84). There is too much personal choice in the phrase “to the best of his or her abilities.” The statement does not acknowledge the constraints placed by society on individual effort. Charles Taylor believes that most of Enlightenment utilitarianism takes up an unacknowledged moral position because it is primarily interested to debunk moral statements which it sees as arising from religious authority (Rorty, Sources of the Self 339-40).

Rawls’ principles of justice enunciated in A Theory of Justice are libertarian and egalitarian. His principles include equal liberty and greatest social and economic benefits to the least advantaged. He introduces the concept of ‘difference principle’ which advocates giving more power to the underprivileged in terms of income and status. He discusses the socialist idea of distributive justice where responsibilities in society are distributed according to ability and benefits. Martha C. Nussbaum develops Rawls theory further by incorporating Amatya Sen’s idea of substantial freedom and argues that opportunities have to be real supported by governmentality which direct political institutions to allow everyone to participate in political discussion and shape their own lives (Nussbaum, Women and Human Development). She adds that both citizens and governments must be made to commit to create a threshold of real opportunities.

Towards the end of his life Derrida was relatively preoccupied with philosophical impasses, social paradoxes and irresolvable puzzles, what today we term as “possible aporias-impossible aporias.” Aporias or puzzles have affected our important social rituals such as hospitality, forgiving and mourning where the conditions that make them possible are the very conditions that negate their possibility. Derrida interrogates these rituals to see if they possess ideal authenticity.

Derrida not only problematizes the simple social and personal acts of giving gifts, forgiveness mourning and hospitality. He reveals that these acts are never completely genuine. It is only in their denial that they achieve authenticity. There is an aporia, a paradox, in them that deny their authenticity. Perhaps Derrida’s interrogation is born out of his own sense of discrimination and loss. He questions the totalizing vocabularies of the Enlightenment and the moral and humanistic tradition of our times. His attempt is not to debunk these important practices but to open them up to see their paradoxical positions. Such knowledge would allow us to act responsibly.

Responsibility is the key component in his interrogation. It is rather naive to assume that debunking is the only post-modern condition of philosophy. Derrida wants to show that our certitudes are not stable, that there are paradoxes embedded in our beliefs and assumptions. Aporias therefore leave us with a discourse that is at once informative and puzzling.

In Given Time Derrida argues that a authentic gift must escape the oppositional logic of giving and receiving and must transcend self interest or rational calculation. A gift cannot just appear by itself as it will soon be cancelled out by a recompense or equivalence. Even the mere knowledge of a gift will destroy it being termed as a gift. A simple ‘thank you’ cancels a gift by acknowledging its presence and suggesting equivalence. ‘Thank you’ suggests the erasure of indebtedness to the giver and the conclusion of the act. Else a cycle of receiving and giving begins to operate following the logic of one good deed deserves another. A gift often functions as a command to respond; the receiver is expected to acknowledge the giver. A gift can be manipulated for personal advantage and then cancels its original purpose altogether. It may be rather difficult to give without gaining some psychological satisfaction but Derrida is not analyzing the psychological issues connected with the ego. He is merely questioning the process of giving and receiving an authentic gift.

An authentic gift must be anonymous without the slightest hint of getting something in return. The person who gives should not realize that he has given a gift—let not your left hand know what your right hand has given. He should not be in a position to congratulate himself of his goodness. A genuine gift involves the separation of the self from the other and that makes the giving of an authentic gift almost impossible. For Derrida the existential problem of gift giving is this: it is impossible to realize unconditional philanthropy. The incommensurable nature of authentic giving and receiving escapes the dialectic of amalgamation. In brief, though we look for genuine giving, the act always eludes us.

It is impossible to practice authentic hospitality before strangers. Absolute hospitality involves the giving of everything we possess to others and the difficulty of doing so. Within this tension the concept of hospitality is afloat. In order to give you must possess something to give—house, country, nation—and that involves control or mastery. Hospitality is a function of power which requires ownership of property, some sort of dominant identity, some sort of power over the hosted. If the hosted uses force to occupy the host’s house then the ritual of hospitality ends and the logic of forced occupancy punishable by law comes into existence. In wider terms this involves closing of borders and excluding certain ethnic groups. Hospitality selects some to be included in the hospitality ritual but simultaneously excludes others classifying them as ‘aliens’ or ‘refuges.’ The placing of limit or invoking trespass makes hospitality inhospitable. Hospitality without conditions implies welcoming everyone and relinquishing property claims. This seems as impossible hospitality. But if you allow this condition to occur then the notion of hospitality gets erased as the host does not exist.

It is impossible to really forgive the unforgivable—a mortal sin for example (Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness 32). If we can forgive something then it is actually forgivable. This forgiving is based on our reason. In effect we do not genuinely forgive. Forgiving involves a kind of madness, an unconscious act that functions outside the framework of political or legal rationality. Forgiveness may involve an unconditional clemency without seeking apology from the guilty person, though a tension between conditional forgiveness and apology may exist. This process is evident in amnesty and reconciliation and does not therefore constitute genuine forgiveness. Derrida reveals an inherent paradox, an eternal rupture, in the entire process of forgiveness that cannot be resolved as it depends upon the separation of self from the other. Derrida argues that, “genuine forgiveness must engage two singularities: the guilty and the victim. As soon as a third party intervenes, one can again speak of amnesty, reconciliation, reparation, etc., but certainly not of forgiveness in the strict sense” (Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness 42).

Derrida points out that it is not possible to imagine a face-to-face encounter without the mediation of a third party—even when the third party is language itself—then the empirical paradox acquires the condition of aporia. Absolute forgiveness requires a direct involvement of the self with the other, while mediation breaches this category. If we know of the motive of the other person through language or a third party than genuine forgiveness is not possible. Though this impasse may not be overcome evaluating both sides is the only responsible action.

Derrida’s interrogation of mourning is born out of the pain of losing a friend in Paul de Man and the latter’s Nazi affiliation. A successful mourning is never possible as the other is interiorized and becomes a part of us. Since the other loses his indisputable alterity a complete mourning does not take place. The refusal to mourn successfully prolongs the alterity of the other—“an aborted interiorisation is at the same time a respect for the other as other” (Derrida, Mourning DeMann 6). In a sense a successful morning is the condition when we are unable to mourn—“success fails, failure succeeds.”

In “Fors” Derrida expands upon his concept of mourning with some help from post-Freudian theories. He distinguishes between introjections which implies the “love for the other in me” and incorporation which means retaining the other as within one’s own body. Derrida agrees with Freud, Abraham and Toruk successful morning involves introjections of the other but he does not valorize this process—the more the self “keeps the foreign element inside itself the more it excludes it” (Derrida, Fors xvii). Incorporation invariably turns pathological but retains the alterity of the other. Derrida’s loss is the loss of exchange and the opportunity of transformation de Mann presented. In the process of mourning the “otherness of the other” opposes both introjection and incorporation. We must therefore emphasize both respect for and resistance to the other (Derrida, Mémoires: for Paul de Man 160, 238).

We reject the ethical paradigm and reorganize another structure not against incommensurable but the deficiency of its internal logic. In Structures of Scientific Revolutions published in 1962 Thomas Kuhn suggests that a paradigm is rejected not from the outside but for reasons that arise from within it. Kant warned us in his The Critique of Pure Reason that everything would come under the ambit of criticism and reason: “Our age is, in especial degree, the age of criticism, and to criticism everything must submit.” What is important for the interrogation of both ethics and the self is to go beyond egoism, altruism and the “religiosity of the self” (Levinas, Otherwise Than Being Or Beyond Essence 117). We can take a leaf from Levinas when he says that the self can be free in its being when it decides “not to be.”

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