Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Category: Quotes (page 1 of 7)

Let The Power Fall – The Value of Fripp

Last week I met with Simon Barrow of Ekklesia and Richard Murphy of the Tax Justice Network. It was a productive meeting on many levels, but I was particularly excited when Simon mentioned the thinking of the guitarist (and beating heart of King Crimson) Robert Fripp.

Back home I dug out the postcard Fripp included in his excellent album Let The Power Fall (guitar meets echoing tape loops). Here is Fripp’s mixture of philosophy and system theory.

I.
i) 1. One can work within any structure.
ii) 2. Once one can work within any structure, some structures are more efficient than others.
iii) 3. There is no one structure which is universally appropriate.
iv) 4. Commitment to an aim within an inappropriate structure will give rise to the creation of an appropriate structure.
v) 5. Apathy, i.e. passive commitment, within an appropriate structure will effect its collapse.
vi) 6 .Dogmatic attachment to the supposed merits of a particular structure hinders the search for an appropriate structure.
vii) 7. There will be difficulty defining the appropriate structure because it will always be mobile, i.e. in process.

II.
i) 8. There should be no difficulty in defining aim.
ii) 9. The appropriate structure will recognise structures outside itself.
iii) 10. The appropriate structure can work within any large structure.
iv) 11. Once the appropriate structure can work within any large structure, some larger structures are more efficient than others.
v) 12. There is no larger structure which is universally appropriate.
vi) 13. Commitment to an aim by an appropriate structure within a larger, inappropriate structure will give rise to a large, appropriate structure.
vii) 14. The quantitative structure is affected by qualitative action.

III.
i) 15. Qualitative action is not bound by number.
ii) 16. Any small unit committed to qualitative action can affect radical change on a scale outside its qualitative measure.
iii) 17. Quantitative action works by violence and breeds reaction.
iv) 18. Qualitative action works by example and invites reciprocation.
v) 19. Reciprocation between independent structures is a framework of interacting units which is itself a structure.
vi) 20. Any appropriate structure of interacting units can work within any other structure of interacting units.
vii) 21. Once this is so, some structures of interacting units are more efficient than others.

Let The Power Fall by Robert Fripp

This was often pinned on my bedroom wall as child and student and I suspect it has a profound impact on my own thinking. In particular I think it has encouraged my (often naively optimistic) belief that you can always bring about positive change – wherever you are situated. Also the notion that we must be conscious of the consequence of the structures we work within. I continue to seek the more “appropriate structure” despite knowing that there is no utopia, time undoes everything.

At a time when it feels our “larger structures” are less and less appropriate, less efficient, it is encouraging to believe that action with integrity and authenticity remains the key to meaningful change.

The Cancer of English Anti-Semitism

The 200 year-old arrangement – by which the Jews rendered money-lending services in return for protection and freedom of travel around the kingdom – was torn to shreds. The first sign was the sudden enforcement of the wearing of the badge of difference, the ‘tabula’. Now they were marked people. Then, the towns in which they were allowed to reside, were limited; whole communities now moved elsewhere. When Edward got back from the crusade it got worse. A state on the Jews in 1275 forbade money-lending, the essential activity, whatever its odium and perils, that supported what would be otherwise indigent communities.

Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews, p. 323

This pattern keeps repeating itself – destroy a people by attacking their rights, their presence and their economic contribution. I explore this issue in more detail in The Unmaking of Man.

The same pattern can be seen in the lives of disabled people trapped in institutions. The same pattern was repeated in Hitler’s Germany.

As Arendt observes the final cruel blow is to rob people of any role – as either exploited or exploiter:

Persecution of powerless or power-losing groups may not be a very pleasant spectacle, but it does not spring from human meanness alone. What makes men obey or tolerate real power and, on the other hand, hate people who have wealth without power, is the rational instinct that power has a certain function and is of some general use. Even exploitation and oppression still make society work and establish some kind of order. Only wealth without power or aloofness without a policy are felt to be parasitical, useless, revolting, because such conditions cut all the threads which tie men together. Wealth which does not exploit lacks even the relationship which exists between exploiter and exploited; aloofness without policy does not even imply the minimum concern of the oppressor for the oppressed.

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 5

We must protect each other’s rights – with no excuses, no exceptions. But we must also guard against segregation and special badges that mark some people off as ‘special’. And we must never allow anyone to be treated as if they have nothing to offer – we need everyone – everyone has something to offer.

Otherwise, horror awaits.

1275 was a particular low point for England. English anti-Semitism unleashed the trend towards the ghetto and the pogrom, a trend which spread across Europe in the centuries that followed. In turn this led to modern anti-Semitism and the death camps. We may warm our consciences by the fact that the worst excesses were not ours – but many of them started in England and spread outwards like cancer.

The Inquisition – A Truly Modern Institution

The Inquisition was its own dominion of judgement, a state within a state, answerable to no one other than the Pope, the Crown and its own array of imposing bureaucratic regulations. As well as the inquisitors and those who staffed the tribunals of interrogation, a huge array of ‘familiars’, who were responsible for handling the bureaucratic work that oiled the machinery of terror. So many carefully considered regulations surrounded the application of torture, for example, that those who oversaw it constituted the first systematically organised bureaucracy of pain. The Inquisition even had its own miniature armies of protection and intimidation. The Inquisitor General Tomas de Torquemada never travelled anywhere without his own army of horsemen, especially after an inquisitor had been murdered in Saragossa Cathedral by a desperate group of ‘conversos’. Notoriously, virtually unlimited powers of torture were granted to extract ‘full’ confessions from those suspected of relapsing or, worse, those who were impenitent, active Judaisers. Thus the snooping state made its way into history: servants, family members, neighbours frightened and cajoled into becoming informers and spies. Even in monasteries and convents, monks and nuns would report on brothers and sisters whom they suspected of looking down when the Host was raised, stumbling over the Paternoster or Ave Maria and saying who knew what in the solitude of their cells. Yirimiyahu Yovel is right to see in this the germ of a modern malevolent modern institution rather than a medieval relic. It was indeed something fresh in its inhumanity.

Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews, p. 405

Support for Yovel and Schama is found in Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and in Foucault’s account of the prison. The Inquisition may have been one of the first modern institutions, but the hospital, the prison, the asylum, concentration camps and extermination centres were to quickly follow. The religious and the anti-religious joined together in a barbaric assault on humanity.

Modern doesn’t mean better.

And as Arendt and Foucault noticed, the sign of a truly modern institution is that it refuses to accept merely outward signs of conformity. It is not good enough that we seem to be fitting in – we must really fit in – and if not we must be remade or destroyed.

What is the connection between this modern desire to invade the inner private sphere of the mind and spirit and the growing conviction that no such sphere exists? It is almost as if the declining faith in metaphysics (not just Christian, but any deeper metaphysics) leaves us exposed to the most extreme outrages by those who seek control.

Materialism leaves us naked, ready to be herded hither and thither.

Perhaps the Inquisition was the first sign of our declining faith – no longer do we trust in the Holy Spirit and the judgement of Christ – we presume to act on their behalf.

Living Forever

The patriarch Ching of Ch’i was with his companions on Mount Ox. As he looked northward out over his capital, tears rose in his eyes. “Such a splendid land,” he said, “swarming, burgeoning; if only I didn’t have to die and leave it as the waters pass! What if from from eldest times there were no death: would I ever have to leave here?”

His companions joined him in weeping. “Even for the simple fare we eat,” they said, “for the nag and plank wagon we have to ride, we depend upon our lord’s generosity. If we have no wish to die, how much less must our lord.”

Yen Tzu was the only one smiling, somewhat apart. The patriarch wiped away his tears and looked hard at Yen Tzu. “These two who weep with me share the sadness I feel on today’s venture,” said the patriarch. “Why do you alone smile, sir?”

“What is the worthiest ruled forever?” asked Yen Tzu. “Then T’ai or Huan would be patriarch forever. What if the bravest? Then Chuang or Ling would be patriarch forever. With such as those in power, my lord, you would now be in the rice fields, wearing a straw cape and bamboo hat, careworn from digging, with no time to brood over death. And then, my lord, how could you have reached the position you now hold? It was through the succession of your predecessors, who held and vacated the throne each in his turn, that you came to be lord over this land. For you to lament this is selfish. Seeing a selfish lord and his fawning, flattering subjects, I presumed to smile.”

The patriarch was embarrassed, raised his flagon, and penalised his companions two drafts of wine apiece.

Lieh Tzu

Sometimes I hear scientists or others express great excitement at the thought that we might use science to extend our lives for many years beyond our natural span. Then I hear others express great concern that the planet is becoming too full and that human numbers must be curtailed.  I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Life of course (by which I also mean death) is designed to balance things out. To allow the new to replace the old. To offer us each a time under the sun and on the planet. We cannot have our cake (longer and longer lives) and eat it too (no overcrowding, no change, no rebirth); unless, like the patriarch Ching of Ch’i we suddenly become myopic and imagine that only our life matters.

Of course the reality of our limits – our mortality – an awareness of which is a moral obligation – raises fundamental theological questions. What does life or time mean in heaven? What of our life now could be ‘transplanted’ into heaven? How is the idea of heaven reconcilable with what we know of our own requirements and essential limitations? Some will say that this provides good reason to doubt the reasonableness of heaven, others will argue that this just demonstrates the limits of human rationality and imagination.

Yet the fundamental truth, which is captured in this story, is that any mortal desire for immortality is the highest form of vanity – imagining that it is we who are somehow worthy of such a state, unwilling to recognise how much we have relied on the passing away of others, and unwilling to pass on our inheritance to our children and grand-children.

Measurements

There was a man of Cheng who was going to buy himself shoes. First he measured his foot; then he put the measurements away. When he got to the market he discovered that he had left them behind. After he found the shoes he wanted, he went home to fetch the measurements; but the marketplace was closed when he returned, and he never got his shoes. Someone asked him: “Why didn’t you use your own foot?” “I trusted the measurements more than my foot,” he replied.

Han Fei Tzu

This Chinese story reminds me of how often we find ourselves measuring things that don’t need to be measured. Instead of giving people choice and control we measure their satisfaction or their outcomes. So we exercise a subtle act of power – invalidating their choice and validating our own right to determine what we count as valuable.

Measuring has always been political. It was considered sacrilegious to carry out a census, precisely because such a census (which could then be used to levy taxes) was a way of giving power to the measurer – in this case the king.

Today we are more relaxed about measurement. We measure ourselves, take surveys, monitor our health and subject ourselves to a battery of bureaucratic measurements and assessments. But do we know why? Have we subjected ourselves to the measuring state in the hope that it will thereby take care of us?

As genetic controls increase such measurements will take on a new dimension – they will start to determine our credit scores, our suitability as a parent, the cost of our insurance. We may start to feel much less relaxed about giving up so much information about ourselves.

The Emptiness Within

The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain… a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite. The beatific vision – God. I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found – but the love of it is my life… It is the actual spring of life within me.

Bertrand Russell from Selected Letters

Bertrand Russell was a celebrated atheist and one of the most important philosophers of the analytical school of philosophy that dominated the teaching of philosophy in Britain and America during the twentieth century.

This analytical approach hinges on a particular strategy for doing philosophy – identifying those truths that have certainty – and building out from there.

Hannah Arendt reflected on the problem with this strategy:

…truth is a rather difficult deity to worship because the only thing she does not allow her worshippers is certainty. Philosophy concerned with truth ever was and probably always will be kind of docta ignoratia – highly learned and therefore highly ignorant. The certainties of Thomas Aquinas afford excellent spiritual guidance and are still much superior to almost anything in the way of certainties which has been invented in more recent times. But certainty is not truth, and a system of certainties is the end of philosophy.

And Goethe made the same point rather more tartly:

To be uncertain is uncomfortable, but to be certain is ridiculous.

This then leads us to the rather peculiar paradox – we may not be able to have certainty and truth.

To the religious this paradox is resolved through faith and an acknowledgement of the mystery of certain fundamental truths – but to the non-religious this seems like a cop-out. I see no intellectual trick which we use to harmonise these conflicting approaches to life. But I think that Russell’s honesty helps us understand something of the price paid by those who will only have truth with certainty, and so often find themselves without anything.

Diverse People Need Diverse Communities

Then he [Charles Martel] again: “Would man not be worse off
Below if he were not a social being?”
“Yes,” I replied, “and here I need no proof.”

“And how could that be so, if men on earth
Did not live diversely with diverse functions?
It cannot if your master [Aristotle] writes the truth.”

So he continued logically like this,
Then he concluded: “Now it follows that
The roots of your effects must be diverse:

So one is born a Solon, Xerxes one,
And one, Melchizedek, another he
Who, when he took to flying, lost his son.

Whirling nature, who puts her seal upon
The mortal wax, does her work well, but favours
One lodging no more than another one.

And so it comes about that Esau is
Estranged from Jacob in the womb, Quirinus, [Romulus]
Although base-born, is thought to come from Mars.

Those engendered would have to take the road
Taken by those who have engendered them,
Did not divine provision override.

Now that’s before your eyes which was behind,
And so that you may know how you delight me,
Here’s a corollary to wrap you round.

Face any nature with discordant fate,
And like a plant outside its proper climate
It cannot fail to yield a poor result.

And if the world down there only paid heed
To the foundations which are laid by nature,
And built on them, then people would be good.

But you’re perverting to religion such
As are born fitter to gird on the sword,
And fashion kings from men who ought to preach:

And so you wander off from the right road.”

Dante, Paradise VIII

I suspect Dante is not to everyone’s taste, but he is to mine, and this thought is one of his most important. At its heart is this simple but profound point – we are all made different. And this means that what we need to thrive – to make the most of natural talents and needs – is also going to vary.

However if we don’t recognise this simple truth then the dangers are great. For people will be mismatched in their work or their other roles.

Of course we cannot know, just by looking, what someones’s nature demands. The process of living is the process of finding out what does and does not work for us. But if we care about our own development, or the development of those we love, or the development of our fellow citizens, then we must care profoundly about the opportunities that society creates that allow people to explore for themselves what is the role for themselves.

But this requires two things – freedom and diverse communities.

I think this is a much healthier way of thinking about that rather dubious good – ‘social mobility’. Too often social mobility is defined in a class-bound and hierarchical way: how do we help people go upwards? (although defined in this silly way it must also logically mean: how do we help people go down?).

Dante offers us a different challenge: how do we build a society where everyone’s talents are recognised where there’s a positive role for everyone?

The First Welfare State

Moreover, philanthropy was an obligation too, since the word ‘zedakah’ meant both charity and righteousness. The Jewish welfare state in antiquity, the prototype of all others, was not voluntary; a man had to contribute to the common fund in proportion to his means, and this duty could be enforced by the courts. Maimonides even ruled that a Jew who evaded contributing according to wealth should be regarded as a rebel and punished accordingly. Other communal obligations included respect for privacy, the need to be neighbourly (i.e. to give neighbours first refusal of adjoining land put up for sale), and strict injunctions against noise, smells, vandalism and pollution.

Communal obligations need to be understood within the assumptions of Jewish theology. The sages taught that a Jew should not regard these social duties as burdens but as yet more ways in which men showed their love for God and righteousness.

Paul Johnson in A History of the Jews (1987)

Paul Johnson’s description of the Jewish Diaspora’s welfare system as the first welfare state may seem unwarranted. All societies are welfare societies – in the sense that all societies involve some kinds of interaction which benefit the welfare of some – if not all. In fact Herodotus describes a wide range of welfare system in his The Histories and The Bible also describes welfare systems that are at least 3,000 years old.

However, while I think that his claim may be hard to prove, it is certainly plausible, because it is based on two essential features of a welfare state – in its full and proper sense – both of which exceed earlier welfare systems.

First a proper welfare state must be built into the fabric of the community’s laws and must distinguish both rights and duties for all citizens. It must not be merely a system of state philanthropy or a system of mutual assistance. It must be underpinned by Law.

Second a proper welfare system must be inspired by Justice. By this I do not mean merely to repeat the first point. Justice excludes eugenic, elitist or discriminatory goals. Justice recognises the innate worth of each individual, in all their diversity. Justice demands deep respect for each individual. This is why the nineteenth century Poor Laws, and the eugenic welfare measures of Hitler do not qualify as welfare states, at least in the sense I am using the term here. In a sense they are anti-welfare states, because they deny the value of each human life. Instead they seek to promote the interests of an elite, a class, a race or some other group.

This explains why the Jewish Diaspora could well have created the first welfare state. For it was a society built, not on power, but only on the Torah – a combination of law and moral vision – united in one religion. Respect for the individual flowed naturally from the worship of God and the acknowledgement of God’s creation of Man ‘in his image’. And paradoxically, as the Diaspora lacked ‘a state’ it could only institute its measures through legally defined and prescribed communal practices – not through mere state coercion.

What can we learn from this?

If we see the ideal welfare state as a communal effort to ensure that each member of the community is bound together in their commitment to safeguard each other’s welfare and to respect each individuals’ worth and potential, then the Jewish example is inspiring. But its challenge is twofold:

If people do not believe that each human being is sacred then the kind of welfare we may seek to advance may not be respectful of human diversity, but may be eugenic, promoting some class, race or other utopian category of conformity. Can secular categories defend what is valuable in human diversity?

If we live with in a society dominated by a powerful state, one where the Law is seen to flow from the state – rather than fixing and limiting the state’s role – then we may find ourselves in a welfare system where those who run the state shape and determine what counts as welfare. Can we run a welfare state without a proper respect for Law?

Arguably this is what we do have: not a welfare state governed by a respect for human rights and Justice; not a welfare state organised to respect those rights and protect the interests of all. Instead we have a welfare state that is too often the tool of a state that doesn’t recognise rights and which pursues its own elitist, and often eugenic, dreamings.

This is not a counsel of despair. People of many religious views and none are capable of respecting human diversity. Societies are capable of respecting Law and protecting themselves from the abuses that flow form the concentration of political power. But we should not be naive. There is nothing ‘natural’ about the welfare state – and if we want the right kind of welfare state we will need to work hard at protecting both the values that underpin it and the institutions that make it possible.

Do You Deserve Your Gifts?

quis enim te discernit
quid autem habes quod non accepisti
si autem accepisti
quid glorias quasi non acceperis

Who made you special, who gave you your gifts? And if your gifts were given to you why do you behave as if you’d given them to yourself?

1 Corinthians 4:7 [Vulgate and my translation]

I have noticed that people have a very inconsistent approach to entitlements: what I get I deserve, but what you get I’m not so sure about.

For instance, at a conference in London at the RSA, I heard a professor, and senior government advisor, speaking to a room of civil servants, academics, politicians, think-tankers and public service managers:

“The welfare state is how we take care of the poor.”

I’m afraid I was unable to resist pointing out that it was a bit rich for people who were all paid indirectly or directly by the tax payer that they were somehow doing a great favour to the poor. As far as I could see they were all making a very good living from the welfare state.

It seems that we think: what I get is an entitlement; what you get is a handout.

I am sure many would argue that they deserve their salaries, expenses, pensions and perks because they are so clever. But who made them clever? Not them.

As St Paul says, we didn’t give ourselves our own gifts. We didn’t make ourselves clever; it’s an undeserved gift. And if we have such underserved gifts we should be happy to have the gift itself – it gives us no reason to expect other benefits, like money or power.

We might say cleverness should be its own reward – except that its not a reward – for you didn’t really do anything to win it.

Of course the clever may have to work hard at being clever – it’s not always easy – it takes time and effort to learn, to think and carry out complex tasks. But then lots of other people also have to work hard, for low wages, carrying out tasks they don’t like, just to earn enough to look after themselves and their family. They do not get to enjoy the perk that the clever enjoy – of working hard at work that is also intrinsically enjoyable.

Our gifts should not be the cause of self-congratulation or an excuse for greed – our gifts were given to us to share – to convert back into gifts for others.

Simply an Unfortunate Human Being

Can you guess what I felt, Vityenka, once I was behind the barbed wire? I’d expected to feel horror. But just imagine – I actually felt relieved to be inside this cattle-pen. Don’t think it’s because I’m a born slave. No. No. It’s because everyone around me shares my fate now: now I no longer have to walk on the roadway life a horse, there are no more spiteful looks, and the people I know look me straight in the eye instead of trying to avoid me. Everyone in this cattle-pen bears the stamp branded on us by the Fascists and it no longer burns my soul so fiercely. Now I’m no longer a beast deprived of rights – simply an unfortunate human being. And that is easier to bear.

Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate

It may be hard for us to imagine the kind of oppression that makes the camp, the barbed wire or the institution welcome. But it starts when you feel attacked and vulnerable and when being together with others, ‘like you’ creates a source of comfort.

What we so often don’t seem to realise when we see people stigmatised, slandered, and scapegoated by ordinary people and by the powerful – then those people feel deeply hurt and vulnerable. All those empty, lazy stereotypes – the skiving scrounger on the dole – the greedy immigrant stealing our jobs – the fraud pretending to have disability – they all eat away at someone’s soul.

The fact that the stereotype is a lie does not protect the person under attack – in a strange way it makes the stereotype even more toxic – because we find that the truth offers no resistance to the lies of the powerful.

So the weak end by seeking comfort in each other. Too often this ends in tragedy, herded together people are even weaker and easier to attack. But occasionally, just occasionally, people are inspired to resist, to fight back and to demand the justice that others have taken away.

The Blood Money of Charity or Why Entitlements Matter

If the present order is taken for granted or assumed to be sacrosanct, charity from the more to the less fortunate would seem virtuous and commendable; to those for whom the order itself is suspect or worse, such charity is blood-money. Why should some be in the position to dispense and others to need that kind of charity?

An infidel could ignore that challenge; for apart from faith in God there is really nothing to be said for the notion of human equality. Men do not seem to be equal in any respect, if we judge by available evidence. But if all are are children of one Father, then all are equal heirs of a status in comparison with which apparent differences of quality and capacity are unimportant; in the deepest and most important of all – their relationship to God – all are equal.

William Temple, Christianity and Social Order

This quote perhaps helps remind us that the Church has often been a powerful advocate of real social justice. Archbishop Temple does not seek to position the Church as a bestower of charity; instead he demands that society recognises the genuine rights that are created by our human needs.

He also reminds us that equality is the foundation of social justice – we simply are equal – in some profound moral sense – despite all our obvious and great differences. This fundamental equality of moral worth is central to our moral codes (whether or not you believe in God). There is also an aspiration that many of us share – to live ‘as equals’ in a community where those differences can be reconciled through our equal citizenship. The barriers to such social equality are great indeed – but the moral appeal of such equality is hard to erode – despite all the prejudice, discrimination and injustice that is such a feature of the modern world.

An example of this battle for equality is the conflict over ‘entitlements’ that rages around people with disabilities internationally. In the UK today the entitlement to social care is under a double attack: (a) funding for that entitlement is being cut by 33% (from 2010 to 2015) and (b) many local authorities are now undermining a policy position which had treated ‘personal budgets’ as the person’s money – an entitlement. Instead people find their control eroded by increasing regulations, bureaucracy and direct interference.

On the other side of the world, Australia, as it begins to implement its National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), is making a globally important commitment to secure the rights of persons with disabilities in line with the UN Declaration and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. However, even in this context, policy-makers struggle with the idea that disabled people are actually owed the intended budgets – that these budgets are entitlements which belong to people:

“It’s Jack’s money, not the government’s money.”

I will not rehearse here all the arguments for treating such funding as an entitlement (I have done it elsewhere and I have the feeling I will have to have another go soon). I simply want to observe the starkness of the choice:

If we give people money they are either entitled to it or they are not. If they are not entitled to it then why are we giving it? We would be giving what we ought not to give. If they are entitled to it then it is theirs – not ours.

What is at stake here – as Temple rightly observes – is whether we are giving people what they are properly due, or whether we are just giving the blood money of charity.

Securing the Good

The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.

Jane Addams

Thanks to Henry Iles for sharing this lovely quote with me. Jane Addams founded Chicago’s Hull House, a place for low-income women to find social and educational opportunities. Addams also researched poverty and worked to win the vote for women. She was born in Illinois, 153 years ago.

What I like about this quote is its good common sense. We each are tempted to grasp what we can – to behave as if there is only so much good to go around – dive in and get our hands on a piece of the action. But much of what is valuable in life can only be achieved by a collective willingness to ensure that everyone gets what they need. In this way we can properly secure our needs – not because we’ve grabbed our little piece – but because we can all look out for each other and ensure that each has what they need, without fuss or nonsense “incorporated into our common life.”

The Good Samaritan

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

In reply Jesus said:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke: 10: 25-37

One way of bring this story up to date is to replace Samaritan with Palestinian.

Does the Jew have the right to be assisted by the Samaritan? Does the Samaritan have a Duty to assist the Jew? Although we might want to say assistance is a ‘good thing’ it might seem initially implausible to treat it as a matter of Rights or Duties. [Or we might want to say its a different kind of Right or Duty – I think some people call this a ‘duty from beneficence’ – but I’m not sure if this is what they really mean.]

First of all here is what we can say to support this feeling of implausibility:

  1. Rights and Duties imply Law, and Law means politics, policing, and prisons – in other words the only point to reference to these heavy-weight concepts is to bring in the weight of the law – enforcement. But our moral life must not be too closely connected to the Law (a) different things are important to different people and so cannot be legislated for (b) and many important things, like love, involve morality but would still be damaged by heavy-handed interference by the Law.
  2. We want to value the act of assistance but we don’t want to start demanding too much of people. How would we get anything done if people’s right to assistance trumped all the other valuable things we wanted to do? Duties are burdens and we don’t want to let them grow too big and we certainly don’t want then to adhere to us just because we happened to be passing by.
  3. Why should the Samaritan have to help the Jew who despise him. We might accept that the Jew has the right to assistance from other Jews – but there can be no right to assistance from Samaritans.

Despite this feeling of implausibility the truth is that the Jew has a right to assistance and the Samaritan has the duty.

Christ does not call his benefactors loving or charitable. He calls them just. The Gospel makes no distinction between the love of our neighbour and justice. In the eyes of the Greeks also a respect for Zeus the suppliant was the first duty of justice. We have invented the distinction between justice and charity. It is easy to understand why. Our notion of justice dispenses him who possesses from the obligation of giving. If he gives, all the same, he thinks he has a right to be pleased with himself. He thinks he has done good work. As for him who receives, it depends on the way he interprets this notion whether he is dispensed from all gratitude, or whether it obliges him to offer servile thanks.

Only the absolute identification of justice and love makes the co-existence possible of compassion and gratitude on the one hand, and on the other, of respect for the dignity of affliction in the afflicted – a respect felt by the sufferer himself and the others.

It has to be recognised that no kindness can go further than justice without constituting a fault under a false appearance of kindness. But the just must be thanked for being just, because justice is so beautiful a thing, in the same way we thank God because of his great glory. Any other gratitude is servile and even animal.

Simone Weil, Waiting on God, p. 97

So let us see if we can deal with the counter-arguments:

1. Disconnecting Law and Morals

On the view of Weil, which I support, Duty and Right precede the Law. The Law is informed by our Rights and Duties, but it is not going to exactly mirror our Rights and Duties. Of course this means distinguishing a Legal Duty or Right and a Moral Duty or Right. But this is as it should be. The Law can be unjust and I can therefore, sometimes, reject the Law. If we make the Law primary we would not be able to evaluate the Law – this would mean that Law could never be Just because it could never be evaluated – morally – by Justice itself.

This view can also reconcile the worries we have about the limitations of the Law. Moral Duties and Rights don’t mirror the Legal but they do extend into other areas of the Moral Life:

a) Many of my Duties are highly personal to me, they may be linked to my choices, vocation, self-development or much else. The Law may or may not offer a helpful discipline to the fulfilment of my Duties. Freedom is not a moral-free zone.

b) Many Duties flow from features of relationships that are outside the reach of Law. Some of the Duties of a husband cannot be legislated for. In other areas relationships do give rise to contractual Rights and Duties.

This raises an interesting question. If the Law is not Justice then what role is there for the Law? If Justice is primary and precedes the Law then there is no reason to expect that Law will merely try to enforce Just behaviour. It may be wiser to ask the Law to do less work. It is not plausible that the Law is always the best means to promote the development of the virtuous person, to encourage self-development or good relationships. The Law may undermine virtue by either intruding where it has no place or in over-specifying human behaviour. The Law is necessary, but clumsy.

2. The Ending of Charity

Weil’s concern is that by trying to separate out moral Duties from some other weaker category of good deeds we are simply letting ourselves off the hook and misrepresenting our relationship with the Right-holder.

There is also the risk – as Weil also notices – of giving too much and this is also an important part of her argument. In human relationships doing good is a fine balance where we can do too much as well as do too little. The challenge is to do what is right – not just to do good.

3. The Universality of Love

It is certainly easier to assist those to whom we are joined in community and our communal relationships may also create very specific Duties – like paying taxes. But it is of the very nature of Justice that it is universal; we must face our Duties despite their costs and difficulties. Duties are, on this reading, simply an aspect of Love.

And here is Dorothy L Sayers on duty and love:

The creative will presses on to Its end, regardless of what It may suffer by the way. It does not choose suffering, but It will not avoid it, and must expect it. We say that It is Love, and “sacrifices” Itself for what It loves; and this is true, provided we understand what we mean by sacrifice. Sacrifice is what it looks like to other people, but to That-which-Loves I think its does not appear so. When one really cares, the self-is forgotten, and the sacrifice becomes only part of the activity. Ask yourself: If there is something you supremely want to do, do you count as “self-sacrifice” the difficulties encountered or other possible activities cast aside? You do not. The time when you deliberately say, “I must sacrifice this, that or the other” is when you do not supremely desire the end in view. At such times you are doing your duty, and that is admirable, but it is not love. But as soon as your duty becomes your love “self-sacrifice” is taken for granted, and, whatever the world calls it, you call it so no longer.

So, in summary, we should not expect to see all our Rights and Duties mirrored in legal Duties and Rights. Nor should we seek some kind of softer and less demanding form of moral obligation – kindness or charity. It is morality itself that must underpin and interrogate the Law. Morality is experienced though love and, when we are not feeling so loving, through Duty.

The Right to be Different

Human groupings have one main purpose: to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, feel and live in his or her own way. People join together in order to win or defend this right. But this is where a terrible, fateful error is born: the belief that these groupings in the name of a race, a God, a party or a State are the very purpose of life and not simply a means to an end. No! the only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and in his right to these peculiarities.

Vasily Grossman in Life and Fate

I like this thought. Political philosophers rarely assert the value of this right – the right to be different.

Some, like Hobbes, see society as developing out of our basic needs for protection. Others, like Locke, see it as the rational requirement of our fundamental rights. Burke and other’s might see society as having a value in itself, as the transmitter of values through the generations. But rarely do philosophers proclaim the value of difference itself.

Grossman’s point is useful because he sees that the individual’s proper commitment to the group must be a reflection of the needs of individuality itself – it is my unique place in community that I expect society to respect and sustain. If society cannot respect and support that very individuality why must I support it? If I must become not I in order to be valued and protected then I have no reason to commit myself to society.

It is curious how careless we are of diversity and true individuality in our thinking about society. All too quickly some rationale becomes the new god for society – and we must sacrifice ourselves for that artificial idol. I think that part of the reason that Judaism was so opposed to idols was precisely to protect the individual from this kind of mad social coercion.

Choosing Good

The power of choosing between good and evil is within the reach of all

Origen

The price of this choice can be terrible. In the totalitarian state choosing good may bring death; but the choice remains. The possibility of this choice is the foundation of human dignity; but the decent society is one where the temptation to choose evil is minimised.

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