Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: Weil

From Cameron to May – Thoughts on the Invisibility of Justice

As we change our Prime Minister I’m wondering what we’ve learned about the battle for justice in the last six years. While I doubt we can expect a significant shift in policy, we must certainly take a fresh look at our strategies and amend them for a new period. The new boss, even if she’s the same as the old boss, can always disown previous policies, while continuing them under a new name.

First we have to accept that, for 6 years, Cameron got away with it, and we failed to stop him. We’ve had 6 years of the most vicious cuts, including direct attacks on disabled people, immigrants and on those in poverty. There is no need here for me to repeat his crimes. The United Nations has already successfully outlined his attack on human rights. Yet none of this ever became a political issue.

It was not Cameron’s injustice that was his downfall, it was his foolish gambling and vanity that brought things crashing down. Extraordinarily – our new Prime Minister has even praised his approach to social justice – Good Grief!

It seems injustice is invisible and his crimes have gone unnoticed.

We can of course blame our rulers. But I suspect that most politicians will say, “Well if this issue is such an important one surely it would have come up more. The electorate seems to care more about immigration and Europe than it does about social justice and equality. You’ve got to be realistic. You can only get elected by paying attention to what the electorate actually cares about.”

In fact one of my family, who I love dearly, is a Conservative and has worked closely with that Party in the past. After I explained to her the impact and unfairness of Austerity she said, “I know, it’s sad, but that’s politics, Simon.” And I know she’s right, this is our country’s politics – blind to injustice.

Austerity was purposefully designed to hurt those with no political voice and in ways that are very hard to see:

  • An array of welfare cuts were marketed as ‘reforms’, despite the deep harm they caused
  • Benefits were attacked by a series of salami slices, with cuts hidden inside complex technical changes
  • The skiver rhetoric played well politically and was used repeatedly on both sides of the House
  • There was no resistance to the attacks on local government, and hence on social care
  • Tax-benefit changes actually benefited middle-income groups
  • Interest rate policy created enormous and regressive benefits for the better off

In fact, for most people, Austerity was not Austerity. Most people do not even know what the term ‘Austerity’ means and never experienced any Austerity. What they did experience was a short sharp shock as the fragility of our debt-laden economy was briefly revealed in 2008. The political consequence of this was not that we started to question our crazy financial and economic system. Instead most went running to any politician who promised to clear up the mess and to safeguard our mortgages.

After this Austerity has just been a smash and grab raid on the incomes and rights of the voiceless. It hasn’t touched most people and it isn’t visible to most people.

But why has mainstream media failed to report on these issues?

Well of course, some of this could be considered corruption. Rupert Murdoch’s world view clearly frames the editorial policy of much of the mainstream media. Meanwhile the BBC seems to have turned itself into Pravda. Even The Guardian has been disappointing (despite some excellent individual journalists).

This may also be partly the result of economics. If the people who buy you, or advertise with you, do not want to think about social justice then why are you obliged to offer them something they do not want. Statistics, stories of hardship, analyses of policy impact – none of this is news, none of this is very interesting or entertaining.

You might be on the road to Hell, but if you go slowly enough it will never make the headlines.

The one honourable exception here, in my opinion, has been the Daily Mirror. Only The Mirror has been willing to call a spade a spade on welfare reform and on the cuts. Perhaps this is because it’s readers are much more likely to recognise the reality of the cuts, the sanctions and the everyday heartlessness of Government policy.

But it is not just economics and corruption that has led the media astray. The abject failure of Labour under Balls and Milliband was also critical. I am sure that many in the media assumed that, if Labour didn’t seem to think cuts, inequality and growing poverty was important, then it probably wasn’t important. Labour’s symbolic role has always been to stand up for social justice; when it doesn’t then the media draws the logical conclusion – nothing too much is wrong.

Assuming that they would continue to get the votes of the downtrodden, Labour marketed themselves to swing voters and pandered to their fear that Labour might prove irresponsible and put at risk their mortgages. In the process they lost votes to the SNP, UKIP and Greens, while convincing hardly anyone to come in their direction (they merely picked up some votes from disenchanted Liberal Democrat voters). Given the gift of the most extreme Right-wing Government in over 75 years Labour’s strategy was to merely legitimise the Coalition’s policies, by offering milder versions of those same policies. Poison is still poison, even when it’s watered down.

There is one more reason why I think we have been struggling to defend justice. Too often we are defending an unlovable version of social justice. When the Government attacks justice it does so by attacking ‘welfare’ and it is true that what people often experience as ‘welfare’ is rather hard to love:

  • Bureaucratic and impersonal systems
  • Incompetent and unaccountable services
  • Disempowerment and rightlessness

The welfare state has been deformed by its centralised and paternalistic starting point. We are all its beneficiaries, but those who come in regular contact with it often experience it as an alien force. It does not feel part of the community and it does not treat us as citizens or as its co-creators. What Hannah Arendt says of ‘charity’ could equally well be said of the post-war welfare state:

“But charity is not solidarity; it usually helps only isolated individuals, with no overall plan; and that is why, in the end, it is not productive. Charity divides a people into those who give and those who receive.”

I can probably keep this finger of blame moving. But in the end it will come back to point at me. What have I done? What could I have done differently? Are we just doomed to injustice? Is the rise of greed and inequality just another phase of our history? Must we turn fatalist or Marxist, and merely await inevitable doom or inevitable paradise?

I don’t think so and there are perhaps a few crumbs of comfort to feed on.

Unite the Union recently created Community chapters, in order to recruit into the trade union, people who were not workers, but who wanted to campaign for their communities. This seems to be a crucial development. It is an example of a trade union thinking beyond the immediate and short-term interests of one group of workers and reaching out to include families, neighbours and allies for justice.

The attempted coup within the Labour Party is, on the surface, a disaster. But in a funny way it’s much better that this all happens now. From my perspective what we are watching is an effort to restore democratic control of the Labour Party to its members. To those who think Blair’s New Labour strategy was a high point for the Labour Party then this will seem like madness; but for those like me who think New Labour is part of the problem, then this process is inevitable. I think it is inconceivable that Labour’s new members or the trade unions will fall for another version of New Labour.

In this respect the Labour Party and the Conservatives are very different. The internal politics of the Conservative Party is always about victory first; for they can divide the spoils afterwards. The rich and powerful know that, whoever is leading the party, they will always get a hearing, if they have the money to pay for it. Nothing is sacrosanct, everything can be purchased.

The same is not true for Labour. Like Odysseus’s crew, they must tie their leader to the ship’s mast, so that he or she does not jump overboard to be drowned by the Swing-Voter Sirens. Policies should emerge from the Party, because the Party represents the people and their experience of life. If the Party has not been persuaded in advance then why should it trust it’s leaders to make the right decisions once they get into power.

I can see why some might want their leader to be free of such a restriction. It is clearly more convenient not to have to worry about what Labour Party members think or want. But such leaders ask too much of us. To have reached the top of the slippery poll is certainly a remarkable trick; but it is no guarantee of integrity or a regard for justice. As G K Chesterton said:

“You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution.”

The third crumb of comfort is that we are just beginning to see how the welfare state can be reformed to become a local and citizen-friendly welfare state. Last week I was listening to people in Barnsley explain how they are connecting the Council to real community action. Councillors are becoming community champions, and instead of ‘deploying services’ into their communities they are co-creating sustainable solutions within their communities.

If the welfare state can become loveable then it can be defended. This is not easy, and it is not going to be quick, but it is not impossible.

These reflections help me refine my own understanding of my own path and the path of the Centre for Welfare Reform. Sharing and publishing social innovations or accounts injustice may be fine, but we must increasingly seek to engage directly with the groups and organisations who really care about justice and whose destinies will ultimately be bound up in any positive reforms.

I think the Centre must start to think of the audience, which it must serve with integrity, as:

  • Trade union members and other collective bodies
  • Members of progressive political parties, and this must particularly include the Labour Party
  • Local community groups and umbrella organisations that connect people and communities

I suspect that justice cannot be made directly visible, but the institutions of justice can be seen and these can made more loveable. Simone Weil claimed that only a few things can be loved absolutely: truth, beauty and justice. But when it came to her own country, as its leaders prepared to rebuild France after the war:

“…give French people something to love; and, in the first place, to give them France to love; to conceive the reality corresponding to the name of France in such a way that as she actually is, in her very truth, she can be loved with the whole heart.”

Let us try and imagine what might make our country (whatever shape that ends up being), our communities and our institutions worth loving. Perhaps then we can make justice somehow more visible and more defensible.

Image from Darren Cullen

Weil’s or Pascal’s Wager

Here is Pascal’s famous wager, which proposes the absolute rationality of believing in God: 

If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is….

“God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. 

A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. “No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all.”

Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. 

“That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much.” Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.

Blaise Pascal, Thoughts

Pascal appeals to our reason, by asking us to recognise that reason itself has come to its limits. Instead we must make that great existential choice – we must commit ourselves. But to choose not to believe is to risk everything – an infinity of happinesses.

There is a power to this argument, but it is also fraught with problems. In particular, as Simone Weil recognised, its very logic is inconsistent with true faith.

Here is an alternative wager, put forward by Weil:

If we put obedience to God above everything else, unreservedly, with the following thought: ‘Suppose God is real, then our gain is total – even though we fall into nothingness at the point of death; suppose the word ‘God’ stands only for illusions, then we have still lost nothing because on this assumption there is absolutely nothing good, and consequently nothing to lose; we have even gained, through being in accord with truth, because we have left aside the illusory goods which exists but are not good, for the sake of something which (on this assumption) does not exist but which, if it did exist, would be the only good… 

If one follows this rule of life, then no revelation at the the moment of death can cause any regrets; because if chance or the devil governs all worlds we would still have no regrets for having lived this way. 

This is greatly preferable to Pascal’s wager.

Simone Weil, Gateway to God, p. 44 

The attraction of Weil’s wager is that she refuses to separate truth and goodness. If God exists then we have truth – even without Paradise or any eternal happiness – even if we crumble away into nothing. We had faith in truth, even if that truth turns out to be inconsistent with our eternal happiness.

And, if God does not exist, we also lose nothing, because we have not deluded ourselves with meaningless goods. She will not allow Pascal’s easy separation of a good that may be false.

Weil’s is the harder road, but it is the better road. Faith in God cannot be a gamble on a free ride to Heaven. And belief cannot mean just the mouthing of words or the holding of ideas. Belief is our commitment – belief is an action of the will – the very essence of our being.

Citizenship as a Moral Ideal

There are different ways of understanding the idea of citizenship. One of the most important distinctions is between those who think of citizenship as a status given to the individual by a community (passport-citizenship) and those who think of citizenship as a moral ideal that exists whether or not it is recognised by the community.

We can see this distinction clearly if we consider the following problem:

A community exists on an island – all the members of this community are citizens. They acknowledge their equal status as citizens and take seriously their duties as citizens and have regard for each other’s rights. One day a man is washed ashore on the island. He is clearly a foreigner, he has lost his home and all his possessions. He cannot even speak the native tongue. Is this man a citizen?

If you think of citizenship as just a badge – as defined and limited by membership of the pre-existing community then the answer is obvious: No. This man is the very opposite of a citizen. If he is owed anything at all it is not rooted in citizenship but in some other moral obligation.

But if you think of citizenship as a moral ideal then the answer is the complete opposite: Yes, this man is a citizen and just as much a citizen as every other member of the community. He is entitled to all the benefits of citizenship and must be supported to participate and to engage as a citizen. He is a citizen – disguised as a non-citizen and our duty is to take off the disguise.

We might note in passing that the same would not be true of holiday-makers or colonists who are either passing through or who aim to take over the land. However an economic migrant who abandons his home to come to live somewhere better might also be said to be a citizen. Although this might also lead us explore our global responsibility to the welfare of other communities.

This issue reveals a significant division in the idea of citizenship.

Those who doubt that morality is real or who see morality as secondary to our political and social settlements may well prefer passport-citizenship. For it is less demanding both metaphysically and practically. However it is seriously flawed and does not provide the right basis for moral or political thinking.

I think there are three reasons we must reject passport-citizenship:

1. The precedence of morality

Morality is real and it precedes any political or social settlement. Morality enables us to judge societies from the outside, without it we are left the victim of the norms of our society – however flawed they may be. If citizenship is just passport-citizenship then we have no basis to judge the way in which the rights of Jews or people with disabilities were stripped from them during the eugenics period.

Of course this argument is controversial and is best disputed within the arenas of philosophy and theology. However there will be some who say that they owe nothing to the man who is not part of their community because the only laws or norms they recognise are the those defined by their community.

2. The nature of charity

Of course most people would accept we owe the stranger something. But it is quite common for people to feel that any such obligation will be in some sense a lesser obligation. In fact this feeling is derived from a certain appropriate feature of the moral life: we do have special duties to ourselves, to special people and to our communities. After all each of us has our own family and own community and we cannot do justice to our duties by dissolving them into one general duty.

However it is important that such proper discrimination is not corrupted into clubbishness: only my people matter.

In our story the stranger has nobody to fall back onto. He has no family or community and so our obligation to him cannot be reduced in the expectation that other’s will help. So the question is whether or not we can reduce our obligations simply because the stranger seems not to be a citizen.

Here it is worth considering here what it is to help someone. The danger in any discussions of giving is that we tend to rather focus on the cost to the giver, rather than the purpose of the giving. Often this provokes the fear that to give is to lose and to give absolutely is to potentially lose everything. However this is not what is implicit in giving properly.

The best analysis of the nature of giving that I am aware of is provided by Maimonides in his analysis of the Eight Degrees of Charity. Starting with the highest form of giving Maimonides states:

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.

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

In other words equal citizenship describes the goal and character of perfect giving, even to someone who may not at first seem a citizen. Our goal is not to just give away something that we think is ‘ours’ but instead to ensure that the person is able to ‘live amongst us’ and ideally the way in which we give assistance should also reinforce respect for the person’s innate dignity. In fact, if you follow Maimonides analysis to the end, you would find that the the quality of charity is reduced as it becomes increasingly stigmatising and disrespectful.

So, I would argue that if you recognise the true nature of your obligation to the stranger you will find that you must treat the individual with respect and as an equal. In other words the ideal of citizenship lies submerged in our basic obligation to take care of the stranger even when they do not seem a citizen.

3. The nature of community

The final reason for rejecting passport-citizenship is that it kills the very nature of community itself. A community that defines itself by its existing members and which jealously guards its boundaries will become sterile and incapable of valuing even its own members. Whereas a community that treats the stranger as a citizen is a stronger community, not just in its respect for the demands of justice, but also in its capacity to be the kind of community that is capable of nurturing all its members.

I think this is where the focus on rights and citizenship is a little misleading. Not that rights are not important, they are essential – but they are not strictly fundamental. A one-eyed focus on rights will mistake the very nature of the community that aims to respect those rights.

Rights only exist because duties exist. As Simone Weil puts it:

The notion of obligation comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former. A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds, the effective exercise of a right springing not from the individual who possesses it, but from other men who consider themselves as being under a certain obligation to him. Recognition of an obligation makes it effectual. An obligation which goes unrecognised by anybody loses none of the full force of its existence. A right which goes unrecognised by anybody is not worth very much…

Simone Weil, The Need for Roots

Often this same point is made by those who want to limit the demand of rights. They drift from the correct observation that each effective right must be matched by some real duty, to the incorrect observation that therefore we must limit the set of rights and impose the minimal set of duties upon ourselves – in the name of freedom, private property or political necessity.

This is a very live political issues today, for example the Australian politician Joe Hockey recently wrote:

I wish to thank my friends at the Institute of Economic Affairs for the opportunity to discuss an issue that has been the source of much debate in this forum for sometime… that is, the end of an era of popular universal entitlement. There is nothing much new in the debate other than the fact that action has now been forced on governments as a result of the recent financial crisis. Years of warnings have been ignored but the reality can no longer be avoided.

Joe Hockey, The End of the Age of Entitlement.

But duties are not costs. Duties simply articulate the form of the good life.

Some duties are certainly constraints, forbidding things which will damage the negative rights of others (e.g. the right to life, the right to property). Some duties place upon us positive responsibilities, enabling other people to have positive rights (e.g. the right to assistance, income, employment). In addition, as Kant observed, some duties are perfect – in the sense that it is absolutely clear whether or not we are achieving the duty (Kant). Others imperfect – in sense that we can fulfil our duties to different degrees and with more or less discretion.

In addition our duties evolve and develop along with our form of life and our relationships with others. It is our relationships with others that place demands upon us – but those demands are not costs – they are the reciprocal connections by which the individual and the community develops.

Imagine a person free of all duties and you imagine someone who is utterly disconnected.

The structure of our duties describes the framework within which the good life is lived. There are still spaces that allow for discretion, creativity, enjoyment and licence. But it is the framework of duties that makes life possible and makes life meaningful. Pure licence is emptiness.

As Kant also observed the sense of burden we associate with duty is also an illusion. For the sense of duty as a burden is only how experience what we should do when it is not what we want to do. But often our duties are exactly what we want to do and the good life is not a life without duty, but a life rich with duties – that can be fulfilled.

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.

Kant I, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

From a Christian perspective we might also say that acting merely from duty is simply the form that love takes when we are not blessed with the rights feelings.

In other words to deny citizenship to the absolute stranger is to weaken community. We fail in the exercise of our duties, we fail to give the stranger the opportunity to contribute to the communities network of relationships, and we fail to strengthen the exchange of gifts of citizenship.

A decent community is awake to the ideal of citizenship. Citizenship serves to frame the obligations of the community to its members and to the welcome it gives to others. Citizenship is both a discipline and an ideal.

Citizenship is a powerful moral standard which can be applied to social and political arrangements. It is a standard, not just of rights, but more importantly a standard for duty, virtue and social purpose (telos).

If we do this we will find ourselves exploring the possibility that rather than being ruled by one, or by a few, we will be ruled by ourselves – for this is how Aristotle defines citizenship:

A citizen is one who has a share in both ruling and being ruled.

Aristotle, Politics III 1

Of course some who embrace citizenship merely do so to keep at arms length those they fear or do not want to join them in community. But just because some misuse the concept doesn’t mean the concept should be abandoned. Citizenship is the means by which we can live as equals, in all our differences. Properly understood it is a vital moral ideal by which to challenge the current social and political system.

Can Citizenship be a Gift?

Central to my work over the last 23 years has been the idea of citizenship. One central idea has been that the organisation of the social care system (and many other public services) operates in a way that is hostile to citizenship: support is a gift coming from, and defined by, the professionals funded by the state.

It struck me, way back then, that it would be more consistent with our dignity and rights if such support was self-directed and based upon our right to support and clear entitlements. This perception led to both the development of Inclusion Glasgow and to the creation of self-directed support.
Over those 23 years I tried in many ways to convert service gifts into public entitlements. This was fruitful and had many positive consequences. But, on reflection, it remains an unfulfilled and problematic objective:
Can citizenship be a gift?
At a moral level I think that, in conditions of injustice, the effort to re-imagine relationships more respectfully – through the lens of citizenship – is possible. Weil makes a similar point as follows:

In order to feel true gratitude (the case of friendship being set aside), I have to think that it is not out of pity, sympathy or caprice that I am being treated well, it is not as a favour or privilege, nor as a natural result of temperament, but a desire to do what justice demands. Accordingly he who treats me thus wishes that all in my situation may be treated in the same way by all who are in his own.

Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

Whatever our circumstances we can choose to see each other as equals – as citizens.

But the fly in the ointment is obvious if we think about this politically. Citizens were never granted citizenship by their kings or oligarchic rulers. Citizenship had to be fought for. In this sense citizenship cannot be a gift.

Over the past few years I have watched ideas I helped realise and the concepts which I helped define lose their way. I know this is partly just the effect of reality. You can imagine things – but reality will always be different. You can build small things and control them – but large things will have their own logic, way beyond your control. And that is as it should be. Life will not be controlled.

But there is also a sense in which my own ideas are failing because they require a different kind of political support – and that support is missing. It is okay to work ‘under the radar’ but in the end it is the political process within which ideas will be developed, defined and instituted.

How the idea of citizenship can become the reality of citizenship must, I think, be a task of citizenship. That is, it must be a political happening.

Love Needs Reality

Love needs reality. What is more terrible than the discovery that through a bodily appearance we have been loving an imaginary being. It is much more terrible than death, for death does not prevent the beloved from having lived.

That is the punishment for having fed love on imagination.

Simone Weil from Gravity and Grace

A similar thought is found in Roger Scruton’s study, Sexual Desire, where he observes that erotic love must be attached to a particular person. An exact copy of the person will not replace that person for the lover. We really love a person – an irreplaceable soul – not a thing that can be copied and replaced.

This same thread of thought is also found in Martin Buber’s profound mediation on the human condition I and Thou. Buber explores the dichotomy between these two approaches to the world:

The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude.
The attitude of man is twofold in accordance with the two basic words he can speak.
The basic words are not single words but word pairs.
One basic world is the word pair I-You.
The other basic word is the word pair I-It; but this basic word is not changed when He or She takes the place of It.
Thus the I of man is also twofold.
For the I of the basic word I-You is different from that in the basic word I-It.

 From Martin Buber’s I and Thou

Buber does not deny that sometimes we do treat other people as ‘Its’ [or as Kant would put it – as means rather than ends] but Buber argues that our ability to see the ‘You’ in another person is essential to our moral nature. Without this ability to engage in a real I-You dialogue, to see in the other a reality which is equal to, or greater than, our own, then we become an empty vessel.

But we do lose touch with the reality of You. (A reality which is at its most profound and mysterious in our relationship with God – where any possibility of experiencing an ‘It’ is missing).

A profound choice lies before us. The grave possibility of human existence is that we lose touch with the personhood that is essential to love, and essential to our own sanity. We can simply feed on others, losing sight of the inherent dignity of the human person, and in the process we lose the grounds for our own moral dignity.

What we love truly is real. But we can corrupt love not just by failing to love, but by loving what is empty, what is unreal. At our worst we are tempted to love evils, shadows, fantasies and idols. But even when we love people, things or ideals we can still lose sight of their reality.

People turn into relationships; things become our possessions, and ideals are just values. And so our imagination obscures reality.

It is not God, love, personhood or the soul that are imaginary. These are the real things. Rather it is our imagination which can hollow out reality and replace it with things that are more convenient to the self – things that are much easier for us to face, to consume or live up to.

We are offered wine; but we can choose to drink only water.

There is Humility in Us

We do not have to acquire humility. There is humility in us – only we humiliate ourselves before false gods.

 Simone Weil from Gravity and Grace

How well this point is put. We worship what we lower ourselves to obtain:

  • Money – doing a job we dislike, but which pays well.
  • Power – pandering to our political bosses, even when they ask us to do things that are dishonest.
  • Fame – drinking in the successes and failures of celebrities, even when we know its all empty.

We are creatures who pride ourselves on our autonomy, our creativity and our many gifts. We resent the thought that all those gifts are simply gifts from God and that they can only be respected by being returned to God in service.

Our Gifts Are Just Loans

The Pharisees were people who relied on their own strength to be virtuous.

Humility consists in knowing that in what we call ‘I’ there is no source of energy by which we can rise.

Everything without exception which is of value in me comes from somewhere other than myself, not as a gift but as a loan which must be ceaselessly renewed. Everything without exception which is in me is absolutely valueless; and, among the gifts which have come to me from elsewhere, everything which I appropriate becomes valueless immediately I do so.

Simone Weil from Gravity and Grace

Weil is always profound and challenging. Here she is challenging the very notion that the self – in any respect – can even take its own qualities for granted. When I say ‘this is me’ or ‘this is mine’ I kill the very thing I try to hold on to.

This thought has both political and spiritual consequences.

If I accept that what I might take to me mine was in fact given to me, then I realise I can only use it by also giving it away. I cannot hold on to anything and I cannot look within me to find more. Everything comes to me from outside, and it can only be properly valued when we give it back again.

This is also relevant to our social thinking. Some people claim that I am entitled to keep what I earn, what I own or what I am given. But of course I am entitled to nothing; we are given everything: our characters, our opportunities, our energies, our judgement. To claim, for instance, that I am entitled to more than some one else because I am cleverer than them is – from this perspective – perverse. We wrongly try to claim ownership of our intelligence as if that wasn’t in fact also a gift, and then we also want the further gift of more money and power than someone else.

This is what Weil means – by appropriating our gifts we make them valueless – they are just loans and they die if we do not give them back.

This thought is also found in the Georgian, Shota Rustaveli’s words:

What you’ve given away is yours.

Action is the Pointer of the Balance

Action is the pointer of the balance. We must not touch the pointer but the weight.
Exactly the same rule applies to opinions.
If we fail to observe it there is either confusion or suffering.

Simone Weil from Gravity and Grace

This thought may seem hard to grasp, but I think its really important.

Weil understands that our actions or our opinions are the fruit of our will and our understanding.

If people do things that we think are wrong, or express views that we think are mistaken, then we can try to change those things directly:

  • We can ignore them, move our attention elsewhere, or
  • We can disadvantage them, make things more difficult for them, or
  • We can punish people, inflict pain upon them, or
  • We can create laws which threaten punishment

To put the matter like this is not to imply that any of these options is inherently wrong – systems of law and codes of behaviour are necessary frameworks for human beings. But all of these measures are acting on the action – they don’t touch the heart of the matter.

The same is even more obviously true with opinion. You can make it wrong, immoral or politically incorrect for me to say what I think; but you have not changed what I think. Moreover you risk twisting my unsayable thought into something worse. My unpalatable opinion may then become the means by which I confuse myself or the means by which I could lose faith in you.

My opinions, at least my honestly expressed opinions, are the fruit of my understanding. This is not just a matter of knowledge. My understanding is the picture I have the world in all its fullness. It is changed by logic, by knowledge and by the human will itself – that is by our heart’s awareness of things.

If we want to change someone else’s opinion then we must change their understanding; and if we are to do this then we must engage honestly in debate. We cannot expect to take the field by storm. We may find in fact that we must change – that we have something to learn – that our heart too has been misplaced.

Genuine change is inner change – and nobody should be in a position to dictate that change.

It is for this reason that I have always found the notion of ‘values training’, in all its forms, somewhat suspect. It is all too easy for it to slip into a kind of subtle bullying or an attempt to teach people a different language, a new kind of cynicism.

I remember spending several says running values training for leaders within Lennox Castle Hospital, a dreadful institution north of Glasgow. We offered people all sorts of ways of rethinking what they were doing; we tried to show them the way in which prejudice was generated, the injustice of institutionalisation and the many opportunities for positive community lives for people with intellectual disabilities in the community.

On the face of it the training was a success.

But some months later I returned to ‘The Castle’ to begin the process of helping people escape back to the community by means of the organisation I’d set up called Inclusion Glasgow. And so I met again many of the ward managers and staff that I’d met at the values training events.

Nothing in practice was different, except that now the staff were inoculated against the change. They knew the language and they had worked out how to rationalise what they were doing now inside the institution in a ‘new language’. Too often this is what happens when we only operate at the level of language and apparent values.

Partly this problem was made greater because the values training was completely disconnected with any real opportunities to live those values – to work differently and to see the fruit of that work. This is part of what makes for genuine and inner change.

As the great Dr Bill Schwab said: the treatment for attitude is experience

We must avoid trying to change attitudes by only attending to the surface of things. The weight is in the heart and the proper means to touch the heart is only with truth and love.

The Gift of Equality

He who treat as equals those who are far below him in human strength really makes them a gift of the quality of human beings, of which fate had deprived them. As far as it is possible for a creature, he reproduces the original generosity of the Creator with regard to them.

This is the most Christian of virtues. It is also the virtue which the Egyptian Book of the Dead describes in words as sublime even as those of the Gospel. “I have never caused anyone to weep. I have never spoken with a haughty voice. I have never made anyone afraid. I have never been deaf to words of justice and truth.”

Simon Weil from Forms of the Implicit Love of God

This gift is not a form of patronage. Rather we can only share with each other the gift of equality when we realise the ultimate emptiness of the other person’s power over us. However, this is only really possible if we can identify some source of self that is not locked into the natural world – with all the differences it throws up and reinforces.

We might also say that we have chosen equality as a moral ideal – but what lies behind the power of that ideal is not an empty choice or individual preference; instead it is a reflection of the true nature of things.

© 2017 Simon Duffy

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