‘Why not me? Why not now’: On the collective loss of ethical life

My good friend Jennifer has shared with me her philosophically rich personal essay, “Attention” (forthcoming). In “Attention,” she relates that she is traveling by train from Detroit to Chicago. Not far into the trip, the train stops abruptly. The passengers are informed that a man has stepped in front of the train that had been heading at 79 mph and that there would be some delay in order for an investigation to be completed. Though the employee’s words are shrouded in euphemisms, we can infer that the man is dead.

Perplexed, Jennifer observes her fellow passengers. A mother and son are watching videos. A young hipster is getting drunk, chagrined that he will be late for, or will miss entirely, a party later that night in Chicago. A young boy talks on his cell phone to his girlfriend who confides that she has befriended another boy on Facebook. The boyfriend is not pleased with this news and expresses as much to her. All the while, Jennifer has read and re-read two lines from Simone Weil’s book, Gravity and Grace: “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.”

Early on, she asks herself, she asks us, “What is our obligation to this dead man whose body parts are being picked up outside as we sit and wait?” And also: “What is our obligation to each other?”

I want to disentangle obligations from attention, Kant from Weil, in order to show what has gone awry in modern ethical life. I want to show that Law and Order has supervened on a lost form of life, abstraction having supplanted an attention to the face to face. I want then to conclude that the meditation on death may provide us with one precarious path back to each other.

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Let us begin by analyzing an abstraction: the concept of obligation. An obligation is an abstract norm (an ‘ought’) which I make and to which I bind myself. The “I” refers to two different subjects in the last sentence. There is the rational “I” that makes an obligation, and then there is the empirical “I” that is bound by the obligation.

To illustrate this relationship between the abstract rational and embodied empirical, I cite a quote from M. Frayn’s Russian Interpreter (1978) out of the OED: “If someone entrusts me with something I feel a certain obligation to take care of it.” In this example, the rational “I” (the lawmaker) makes the obligation (to hold onto a particular item) while the empirical “I” (the upholder) fulfills it (holding onto a particular item until the owner asks for its return).

An obligation may seem a redundancy, for why would the one to whom the item is entrusted not simply hold onto the item? Why, in other words, would he need to state the obligation? To see my puzzlement, compare:

1. Parents have an obligation to care for their children.

2. I, simply, care for my child because, simply, he is my child. (Montaigne on his friend: “Because I was him, because it was me.”)

The answer is that, in the modern world ‘after the loss of the virtues’ (Alasdair MacIntyre’s phrase), there arises the need for rational principles, the purpose of which is to motivate us to do what we ought to do despite the fact that they we may desire to do otherwise. Our desires, on this metaphysical picture, do not accord with our principles, our pleasures are out of touch with our duties.

Come back to the quote from Frayn. Consider that, when the time comes to look after the owner’s item, the friend may desire to do otherwise. Hence, the friend who fulfills his obligations is staking the universal claim that rational norms trump individual desires. At time T, he therefore binds himself to do what he ought to do at time T’ with the aim of ensuring that he does not beg off his duty when the time comes for him to perform it.

By my lights, what goes awry with this picture of morality is that abstract principles have come to supervene upon a lost ethical life imbued with shared virtues. When a social order is in harmony with nature, then friendly we’s do not speak of “ought” and “must.” They attend to their neighbors and see to their guests. “Ought” would be, always, one word too many. Nor do they appeal to Law (or construct Law) when something goes off track. They shake hands and kiss each other on the cheeks, thereby making amends, thereby restoring ethical life.

In ethical life, a friend would not say to himself, “Buck up. I must watch over the other, must keep my word to see about the other’s things.” A friend, simply, would care. There would never be higher thoughts of obligations, duties, laws, and principles.

But if this is true, then how did abstract principles come to trump shared ethical virtues? How did we cease to become friends to each other, how become strangers to ourselves and each other?

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Arguably, the rise of commercial society in the seventeenth century made it possible to conceive of man’s chief interest as self-interest and, at the same time, to regard the other as a means to his calculated ends. (Albert Hirschman’s short book, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph, written in 1977, is still a tour de force, for in it he shows how the novel concept of “interest” and “self-interest” came to replace the Christian vice of avarice, thereby paving the way for market society. As a methodological point, it is important to see philosophical ideas and conceptions as being formative of material culture.) Kant’s Groundwork of a Metaphysics of Morals is, on my reading, a reply to the rise of market society and a potent argument for its limits.

Kant distinguishes between “fancy prices” and human dignity. Kant thinks that human beings have a dignity that allows them to transcend their value in the marketplace, and that higher value is to be found in their rational capacity for making and holding themselves to law–a law, that is to say, that I qua rational person can give myself. The humanity formulation of the Categorical Imperative states that human beings are only ever to be treated as ends in themselves, never as means. This abstract formulation serves as a bulwark against the universal sweep of market logic.

Be that as it may, Kant’s critique of the limits of market society is admirable but misguided. Insofar as it obliges us to recognize the rational capacities in other human beings, it checks the universalizing tendency of the market, i.e., the tendency of the marketplace to turn all kinds of values into commodities. (How much is that beautiful tree in Central Park worth anyway?) The trouble is that Kant requires a universalization of abstract reason in order to defy market logic. That is, if we are to rise above our own narrow self-interests, then we must regard ourselves from the standpoint of abstract persons and at the same time we must also learn to regard others in this fashion. To defy one form of universalizing abstraction, Kant appeals to another, equally abstract, equally universal sort, if one that resonates in a quite different key.

From this vantage point, we come into the marketplace as first-order strangers, only to engage in moral reasoning in the guise of higher-order strangers. In neither case do we see or get to know each other. Instead, we move further away from each other. The result, some 300 years on, is the professionalization, specialization, and outsourcing of our ownmost cares: the professional nanny, the hospice care worker, the professional shopper, the professional chef, the consultants, and so on. Our needs, held at arm’s length, are tended to by strangers and mediated through economic transactions on one hand and by abstract moral reasoning on the other.

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We do well to remind ourselves how novel is our inherited conception of morality as an abstract rational activity. As my friend David E. Cooper has argued in Convergence With Nature: A Daoist Perspective, our modern conception of moral life

combines two thoughts: I should determine what I do by considering what it would be good for people in general to do [our Kantian inheritance], and what it would be good for them to do is to produce certain practical results [our consequentialist or utilitarian inheritance]–increased welfare, reduced suffering, an improved environment, or whatever. (142, my italics)

Like my friend, I do not think that morality construed either in deontological or in consequentialist terms gets us very far. The idea that every time I go to the store I should determine what any other rational person would also purchase seems to me a non-starter. The claim that I have a set of duties to abstract others (Kantianism) or that I had better calculate the highest utility for all abstract others (utilitarianism) already assumes that I live in a complex modern world characterized by bureaucratic institutions, mega-cities, division of labor, a high degree of specialization, and a general lack of acquaintance with my fellows. I have come to regard talk of the environment, climate change, carbon footprint, universal gay marriage, human rights, and so forth as non-starters for the moral life.

Must we begin our moral considerations from the claim of universalizability, or could our ethical life have gone otherwise?

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The early Hegel and Laozi share the understanding of ethical life as living according to nature. In The Early Theological Writings, Hegel says that Jesus contravened the Jewish Law in favor of human need. He writes, “Over against commands which required a bare service of the Lord, a direct slavery, an obedience without joy, without pleasure or love, i.e., the commands in connection with the service of God, Jesus set their precise opposite, a human urge and so a human need” (206). He offers as evidence the following example: “His disciples gave offense to the Jews by plucking ears of corn on the Sabbath. The hunger which was their motive could find no greater satisfaction than in these ears of corn” (208). Hegel is not saying that Jesus opposes one law stating that need trumps all to another law of the Sabbath. It is not one law over against another. He is instead arguing that the virtuous man, simply by seeing that the other is in need, simply plucks the ear of corn. We must imagine a social order in which this form of attention holds sway.

Similarly, Laozi, in Daodejing, bemoans the liquidation of a Daoist way of being in the face of a Confucian legal order. Thus: “When the  great Way is neglected there arises [the lesser Confucian edicts of] benevolence and justice” (no. 18). Also, “Cut off [a prescribed principle of] benevolence, get rid of [state administered] justice, the people return to [a more natural sense of] filial piety and fraternal affection” (no. 19). Once the thou shalt and thou shalt not are removed from social life, once norms given by God, the state, or some form of abstract reason (reason as lawgiver) are dissolved, then people can return to each other, turn toward each other, and live according to the natural bonds of fraternal affection.

Modernity, built out of abstractions such as the state, market society, and formal education, has followed the course of Law and Order. It seems to me that we have now reached the point where we can return to the questions posed by Jennifer’s profound personal essay.

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Obligation, I have argued, is a non-starter for shared ethical life. The renewal of ethical life, I have implied, would have to find its footing in the cultivation of the virtues. The trouble is that ethical life has been torn asunder.

Jennifer is right to suppose that attention is one supreme virtue. In her story, what is abundantly clear, however, is that the passengers do not know each other and that the dead man remains unknown to all. In what sense, therefore, is attention to the dead man possible? The temptation, in a case like this, would be to raise the question of obligation once again, to grant the urge toward abstraction, as if it were the only route we could take, the only possible course.

The answer to the temptation would be to set our eyes on attention toward each other. The absent dead man returns us to our flesh and blood fellows. But soon we realize that our fellows are not attending, are not our fellows, are distracted and attenuated. We recall the mother and child beholden to the screen; the man on his phone; the boy on his phone. Consequently, we can only attend, as Jennifer does in the first instance, to their lack of attentiveness, their unwillingness to be open. But is that all?

In light of this strangeness, this estrangement, in light of our collective inability to actualize the life of virtues (above all, of compassion, courage, and attention), there may arise in us a disquieting horror: the horror that we are unknown to each other, every other a stranger to every other, myself no less than another. This sense of horror, this sense of the loss of filiality, is a mourning for the genuine loss of shared ethical life.

This horror should, in its turn, give rise to a further consideration: the premeditatio malorum. The unknown man is dead. I, also unknown, also a mere abstraction, could also be dead, dead unknown. We are dead to each other. As one friend put it to me this past weekend, “Why not me? Why not now?” Where there is no room for attention to the other, still there is time for reflection on myself, on my distance from the other and, in my turn, on my turn to die. “Why not me? Why not now?”

There is no reason why I am alive and he is dead. And there is no reason why the train could not have pitched off the track, crushing and burning us all, singeing my flesh and crushing my lungs. “Why not me? Why not us?” Rather than say, “Thank God it wasn’t me,” can we learn how to say, “How strange that it wasn’t me?”

Outside of the few nooks and pockets where the life of the virtues still thrives, our only possibility for salvaging a sense of shared humanity is through turning our attention back on each other in a moment of mutual recognition of our imminent mortality. We are dead to each other and, like the dead man stepping in front of the fast-moving train, we are going to die, alone and unknown.

We have no obligations, only shudders and recoils. We go to the woman writhing in the aisle, we put our hands on her, her eyes close, we vomit, we awake from writhing sleep, this womb, this woman. Thus are we saved.

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