Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Month: May 2012

Having Fun or Doing Our Duty

But of course you are quite right if you mean that giving up fun for no reason except that you think it’s “good” to give it up is all nonsense. Don’t the ordinary old rules about telling the truth and doing as you would be done by tell one pretty well which kind of fun one may have and which not? But provided the thing is in itself right, the more one likes it and the less one has to “try to be good”, the better. A perfect man would never act from a sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people), like a crutch, which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times; but its idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (our own loves, tastes, habits etc.) can do the journey on their own.

C S Lewis from Letters to Children

This same thought, although expressed with none of the same clarity, is found in Kant:

We have now to elucidate the concept of a will estimable in itself and good apart from any further end. This concept, which is already present in a sound natural understanding and requires not so much to be taught as merely to be clarified, always holds the highest place in estimating the total worth of our actions and constitutes the condition of all the rest. We will therefore take up the concept of duty, which includes that of a good will, exposed however, to certain subjective limitations and obstacles. These so far from hiding a good will or disguising it, rather bring it out by contrast and make it shine forth more brightly.

Immanuel Kant from the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

This thought is important to any sound understanding of ethics and theology. Doing right is not the same as acting from a sense of duty. The motive to act rightly is only necessary when doing right isn’t what we want to do. This makes deontological ethics – the view that there are real and fundamental duties that humans must obey – much less prissy and much more human. Sometimes we can be doing right just by having fun. Sometimes.

It is also important because it helps explain the connection between God as Law Giver and God as Lover. It is the same God, the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New. The Law is Love, but experienced as obligation. Both Will us to be the best we can be: Love and Discipline.

We are lucky if our circumstances and our nature mean that doing the right thing is fun – but sadly this is often not the case.

Revenge Begets Revenge

Revenge begets revenge,
Truth spins and evaporates
As blood drains from the head.
It is the law of Zeus:
A life for a life.
What is human life worth?
More than itself, more than a life,
Or less? Or precisely the same?
The law of Zeus demands
A life for a life.
All – for all.
But this law of Zeus
Is a kind of disease
Inherited through the blood.
See how it has crazed
Every member of this house.

Aeschylus from Agamemnon (translated by Ted Hughes)

Justice is vital to society – ‘It is the law of Zeus’ – yet Justice can easily become a disease. Is there an answer: only forgiveness and mercy can end the craziness that Justice creates when it is unleashed without limits.

The Eight Degrees of Charity

Level One – There are eight levels in charity, each level surpassing the other. The highest level beyond which there is none is a person who supports a Jew who has fallen into poverty [by] giving him a present or a loan, entering into partnership with him, or finding him work so that his hand shall be fortified so that he will not have to ask others [for alms]. Concerning this [Leviticus 25:35] states “You shall support him, the stranger, the resident, and he shall live among you.” Implied is that you should support him before he falls and becomes needy.

Level Two – A lower level than this is one who gives charity to the poor without knowing to whom he gave and without the poor person knowing from whom he recieved. For this is an observance of the mitzvah for its sake alone. This [type of giving] was exemplified by the secret chamber that existed in the Temple. The righteous would make donations there in secret and poor people of distinguished lineage would derive their livelihood from it in secret. A level close to this is giving to a charity fund. A person should not give to a charitable fund unless he knows that the person managing it is faithful, wise and capable of administering it in a proper manner as Rebbe Chananya ben Tradyon was.

Level Three – A lower level than this is an instance when the giver knows to whom he is giving, but the poor person does not know from whom he received. An example of this were the great Sages who would go in secret and money into the doorway of the poor. This is an appropriate way of giving charity and it is as good a quality if the trustees of the charitable fund are not conducting themselves appropriately.

Level Four – A lower level than this is an instance when the poor person knows from whom he took, but the donor does not know to whom he gave. An example of this were the great Sages who would bundle coins in a sheet and hang them over their shoulders and the poor would come and take them so they would not be embarrassed.

Level Five – A lower level than that is giving the poor person in his hand before he asks.

Level Six – A lower level than that is giving him after he asks.

Level Seven – A lower level than this is giving him less than what is a appropriate, but with a pleasant countenance.

 Level Eight – A lower that that is giving him with sadness.

Maimonides from the Mishneh Torah, Sefer Zeraim, Hilchot Matnot, Aniyim 7-14

This important analysis of the demands of social justice should be given to all students of social policy, political theory and theology. For it sets out more clearly than anything else I know the real challenge of charity and social justice.

We forget that many society’s before the welfare state have figured out systems of mutual care and support. For instance, Jewish society had a long history of making social justice part of the institutions of agriculture, work, religion and society. Moreover, as Maimonides shows, Jewish thinking has been particularly sensitive to the need to ensure that charity is always an act of justice – not patronage.

Another way to read Maimonides is in reverse – the quality of giving improves to the point that the act of giving becomes utterly invisible:

  1. Resentful giving
  2. Insufficient giving
  3. Giving only when asked
  4. Giving directly
  5. Not knowing to whom you are giving to
  6. Not knowing who gives to you
  7. Giving that is utterly private
  8. Giving that is not giving

In other words we ascend to that point where there is no sense of weakness, vulnerability and dependence. The gift is still there – but it is absorbed into everyday life in a way that feels rightful and proper to both.

To my mind our efforts to create a system of universal entitlements, without stigma, in order to reform the current welfare state are probably analogous to Level 2 giving. Such a system would not be necessary in a society where everybody already had enough and where mutual exchange and support were natural and universal. But we are not that society. We live in a time of great inequality and for most people the economy offers little fundamental security. Most of us do not own land we can rent, have savings or a guaranteed income. Our securities are collective and guaranteed through democratic politics – for better or worse.

Those who seek to dissolve rights in the name of charity have not paid attention to the fundamental questions of human dignity, respect and equal citizenship which is at the heart of social justice – “you should support him before he falls and becomes needy.”

Justice and Charity

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 from Forms of the Implicit Love of God in Waiting on God

Many of us are suspicious of charity, because it is a kind of patronage where the giver is powerful and the recipient is powerless; the giver is to be thanked and the recipient is pitiable. Weil sees the same problem, but also from the direction of charity itself. If charity is an act of love then it must be welcomed – for love is the lifeblood of the universe. It is central to our proper nature – however when we split charity away from justice trouble begins: the recipient is no longer entitled – as a matter of justice – to what we give. Our giving comes from being extra-nice – the bounty of the rich and powerful.

However some worry about giving too much priority to justice, to rights and obligations. They worry that this is to cut love out of the picture. How can love be about rights and duties?

Another interesting quote from Dorothy Leigh Sayers approaches this same problem:

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.

Dorothy Leigh Sayers from What Do We Believe, Unpopular Opinions (1940)

I think Sayers observation helps us see that love only becomes a matter of mere duty when it no longer drives us. We are merely ‘doing our duty.’ But whether from love or duty the right remains the same. The person for whom we act is fully entitled to our assistance – but we won’t notice that entitlement because we act from love.

Justice remains central. It stops us from patronising those who need our help – their needs create entitlements and we have no right to feel pleased with ourselves for doing our duty. But it does not exclude love – we can do our duty and yet have no awareness that we are merely doing our duty. It remains our duty, even when we act from love.

Death Comes Softly Shod

The law’s been passed and I am lying low
Hoping to hide from those who think they are
Kindly, compassionate. My step is slow.
I hurry. Will the executioner
Be watching how I go?

Others about me clearly feel the same.
The deafest one pretends that she can hear.
The blindest hides her white stick while the lame
Attempt to stride. Life has become so dear.
Last time the doctor came,

All who could speak said they felt very well.
Did we imagine he was watching with
A new deep scrutiny? We could not tell.
Each minute now we think the stranger Death
Will take us from each cell

For that is what our little rooms now seem
To be. We are prepared to bear much pain,
Terror attacks us wakeful, every dream
Is now a nightmare. Doctor’s due again.
We hold on to the gleam

Of sight, a word to hear. We act, we act,
And doing so we wear our weak selves out.
We said “We want to die” once when we lacked
The chance of it. We wait in fear and doubt.
O life, you are so packed

With possibility. Old age seems good.
The ache, the anguish – we could bear them we
Declare. The ones who pray plead with their God
To turn the murdering ministers away,
But they come softly shod.

Euthanasia (1980) by Elizabeth Jennings

The poem imagines the psychological damage done by permitting euthanasia: the old and infirm now realise that the role of the doctor is not just to protect them from death. Suddenly – with kind and good intentions – the doctor has turned into a murdering minister.

And of course, we are all old and infirm (only not just yet) and so we all begin to realise that our life is suddenly going to be much more conditional on the judgement of these compassionate professionals. Certainly, important rules will be put in place to keep us safe (or so they say): (a) we must really will our own death, and (b) there must be no hope of recovery. We can even hope that these new rules will be followed – most of the time.

But this new right – the right to be hurried to death – completely changes our moral status. We used to be sacred beings. It was wrong for others to kill us and it was wrong to kill ourselves. But in this new world we will merely be containers for experiences – shopping bags, ready to be filled with a variety of goods – of varying quality. Too many low grade experiences and we will be ready for death, but if we can maintain our experiences at a sufficiently high grade – well we have nothing fear – at least not yet.

Who judges the quality of these experiences? Well I am sure we still be allowed at least one vote on this; but it seems that others will now be asked to decide whether we are having ‘a life worth living.’ And if we are a little confused, if we lack capacity to cast our own vote, then what happens to our vote? Can we be out-voted? It would seems so irrational to protect the irrational from the fair and pleasant death that is now on offer – and after all – by definition such a life is hardly worth much. [Although again the question of whose definition does not always seem to get raised by the euthanasia enthusiasts.]

There is no recovery from life. Death is where we are all going – so what is wrong with hurrying things along a little when things get difficult? And although you may be happy now, you may be sad tomorrow – and vice versa. Nothing removes uncertainty like death.

In this new world death will come softly shod – but it will change everything.

Love Overcomes Self-sacrifice

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.

 Dorothy Leigh Sayers, from What Do We Believe? (1940) in Unpopular Opinions

Sayers rightly outlines the vital relationship between love and duty. Morality is simply the clothes that love must wear in a world where love is not inevitable.

The Atheist and God

The atheist is much closer to God than the agnostic.

In Christ’s words “My God, My God – why hast thou forsaken me” we sense the passion and grief that comes from Man’s separation from God. The atheist strives both to maintain this separation, while railing against all those who claim it can be overcome. Their faith in emptiness itself (Nihilism) or their assertion that they have the right assert their own meaning (Existentialism) is a comprehensible – if confused – act of faith.

They know something more is required – and they refuse to be fobbed off with second-hand goods. They sense, as Weil puts it:

“God can only be present in creation under the form of absence.”

A Poem is a Letter to God

A poem is a letter to God. Its meaning does not need to be clear to the poet or to the reader, for it is clear to God. It is more an act of homage – a sacrifice – literally – a ‘making holy’.

As the reader we enjoy its mystery, just as we enjoy participation in ceremony – feeling part of something bigger than us. Only the fool would expect to fully drain the poem of its meaning – leaving themselves with only an empty shell – the merely literal.

After writing this I came across this similar thought by Joseph Brodsky:

“…after all, any art is essentially prayer. Any art is directed to the ear of the Almighty. Herein, actually, lies the essence of art. That’s for certain. A poem, if it’s not a prayer, then it’s at least put in motion by the same mechanism as prayer.”

From Solomon Volkov’s Conversations with Joseph Brodsky

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