Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Month: September 2013

Dog Fox Field

These were no leaders, but they were first
into the dark on Dog Fox Field:
Anna who rocked her head, and Paul
who grew big and yet giggled small,
Irma who looked Chinese, and Hans
who knew his world as a fox knows a field.
Hunted with needles, exposed, unfed,
this time in their thousands they bore sad cuts
for having gazed, and shuffled, and failed
to field the lore of prey and hound
they then had to thump and cry in the vans
that ran while stopped in Dog Fox Field.
Our sentries, whose holocaust does not end,
they show us when we cross into Dog Fox Field.

Les Murray, Dog Fox Field

This poem by the Australian poet Les Murray builds on the fact that in Hitler’s Germany the test for determining whether you could avoid the first gas chambers – which were built for disabled people – was whether you could construct a sentence from the words: dog, fox & field.

Some people know that disabled people were killed during the Holocaust. Few seem to know that they were the first and leading victims of the Holocaust. The technologies of death were developed on them and only later extended to Jews and many others.

I explore some of these ideas in my book The Unmaking of Man and I explore the parallels between our time and the years that led up to the Holocaust where the intentional scapegoating of disabled people, Jews and others flowed from economic anxieties, state and professional power and the abandonment of core moral values.

Disabled people, especially people with severe learning difficulties, are our moral guardians – they “show us when we cross into Dog Fox Field.”

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.

We are the Rock and Life is the Stream

We are the rock and life is the stream – we can but resist with grace. On our optimistic days we may think of ourselves as the authors of our own lives. On our pessimistic days we may see ourselves as puppets, subject to the will of others. In truth – we can only be ourselves, true to the best in ourself – we may influence the flow of things, but we will never control it.

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.

Everything that Lives is Unique

Among a million Russian huts you will never find even two that are exactly the same. Everything that lives is unique. It is unimaginable that two people, or two briar roses, should be identical… If you attempt to erase the peculiarities and individuality of life by violence, then life itself must suffocate.

From Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate

These words come from the opening sections of Grossman’s amazing book – I cannot think of a better novel for exploring the horror of the twentieth century. Grossman’s story encompasses the Holocaust, the Gulag and the reality of war. Somehow, amidst all this negativity, he also manages to identify glimpses of light and goodness. In opposition to the mad grandeur of the architects of evil – goodness exists in the humble, the kind and the ordinary.

Life is freedom and freedom is diversity and the refusal to submit to the order defined by the powerful.

As the twenty-first century takes shape we can see that the old battles remain. But today the fight is not so much against the numbing power of the state – rather it is against our own fears, anxieties and prejudices. Can we trust ourselves and each other? Can we support ourselves and each other? Can we accept ourselves and each other?

The enemy of human diversity is ourselves – our own craving for a deathly comfort in conformity.

Being Different

The most promising way for a society to avoid widespread differences in self-esteem would be to have no common weighting of dimensions; instead it would have a diversity of different lists of dimensions and weightings. This would enhance each person’s chance of finding dimensions that some others also think important, along which he does reasonably well, and so to make a non-idiosyncratic favourable estimate of himself.

Robert Nozick, Anarchy State and Utopia, p. 245

This point – framed in the rather abstract language of Anglo-American moral philosophy – and made by someone with a reputation for extreme Right-wing views – is nevertheless true and important.

Put simply Nozick observes that if we seek to simplify the point of life, or the point of a society, to one value – like income, intelligence or whatever – we are bound to end up with a damaging framework for valuing both ourselves and each other. We will all be spread out across some normal curve – or other pattern of distribution – with some at the top, some at the bottom and some in between.

How much better to think of life as having plural values. We can be great at some stuff, while others are great at other stuff.

This is the recipe not just for reasonable levels of “self-esteem” for all – but a much more interesting and inclusive society.

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