I wrote a post some time ago called A Prologue to Other Things, in which I began a history of what the question of ethical responsibility has meant to me, in order to provide the context for an idea that I have recently encountered in Jean-Luc Marion’s Prolegomena to Charity. I proposed to unify this history by relating its various stages to the story of the Good Samaritan, and I suggested that the history would begin with a discussion of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, which this post intends to do.
I first read King Lear in highschool, during a stage when I took the school library’s copy of the Norton Shakespeare and read all of the tragedies, many of the comedies, and a few of the histories before I ran out of motivation (or until rugby season began, actually, if I recall correctly). I did enjoy King Lear at the time, but it made no more impression on me than some of my other favourites like Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus. During my MA, however, I took a course on Shakespearean Adaptations and found myself writing a paper on an adaptation of King Lear, which forced me to reread the play, or at least to reread the first act. In my second reading, struggling as I was at the time with the question of how to be ethically responsible in the world, I was seized by the significance of the love test, in which Lear demands that his daughters publicly proclaim their love for him in return for a third of his kingdom. The youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to participate in the test, basically claiming that Lear is asking more than is right for a father to ask, which provokes Lear to disinherit and exile her.
This scene caused me suddenly to recognize something very simple: that ethical responsibility is not a matter of absolutes to be applied in every situation, but is a product of a particular moment, a particlar place, and, most of all, a particular relationship with another person. Lear’s demand is not absolutely wrong. It is only wrong because it demands something that is not his to demand. Cordelia’s refusal to recognize his demand is not absolutely right. It is only right because it answers what Lear truly needs from her, the need that is appropriate to the relationship between father and daughter, the need that is beyond his explicit demand.
In the more positive terms of the Good Samaritan, my recognition was that the story is intended, not to indicate the kind of ethical responsibility that I bear in every case, but the kind of ethical responsibility that I bear precisely as a neighbour. I do not owe the man beside the road the duties that I would owe my father, which involves a different respect, or my brother, which involves a different affection, or my spouse, which involves a different commitment. I owe to the man beside the road precisely the duties of the neighbour.
This implies that it is possible for the man beside the road to ask, like Lear asks, for something that I can not rightly give, because it is not according to the bond of the neighbour. If the man were to ask me to pass by and let him die, for example, or if he were to ask me to find and kill his assailants, these may not be requests that I can grant as a neighbour in good conscience. My ethical responsibility, then, is not to what the man explicitly requests, but to what he needs from me precisely according to the bond of the neighbour that is between us.
Now, it might be objected that this understanding of ethical responsibility might permit me to rationalize away my duties as a neighbour, but this is in no way the case. The duty that I owe to the neighbour remains infinite in magnitude, though it may be limited in scope. It still remains that I owe my duty to my neighbour like an infinite debt that I can not repay. Indeed, my debt is now more difficult to repay, since there are some gifts that I may no longer give. What I can give, however, I must still give absolutely, without calculation and without reservation, because the debt is one that falls to me alone and no other. What is calculated and reserved are only things that are not proper to my place as a neighbour, or as a son, or as a brother, or as a husband.
There are some implications of this understanding of ethical responsibility. First, I cannot have this kind of responsibility to someone that I have not myself encountered. Though I do not know if it is necessary that this encounter be face to face, as some thinkers have argued, it is always necessary that I encounter the other, or, more exactly, that I become encountered by the other, that the other’s need as a neighbour or a father or a friend or a lover weigh upon me. In other words, the Good Samaritan owes nothing to the many men who lie beaten by the side of countless other roads, but owes infinitely to this one man who encounters him as beaten by the side of this one road. This encounter is the absolute prerequisite to ethical responsibility.
Second, though there remains the question of what duties I might owe the other in any given situation, I cannot owe duties that do not arise from the weight of the other as a neighbour or a brother or a lover, from the weight of the particular bond that exists between us. Only the singular, irreducible relation that is between us can hold me responsible, can reveal the nature of the infinite debt that I owe this other person. If the Good Samaritan had encountered his own spouse by the side of the road, it would not have been proper to leave her at the nearest inn, for he would have been acting like a neighbour toward her rather than a spouse. The nature of the duties that I owe according to my bond with the other may not always be clear, but they are always defined by this bond and by nothing else.
Third, the universal ethical imperative becomes not any particular act, but an openness to recognize the particular bond that exists between myself and the other, an openness to the weight of the other and of the singular relationship that binds us. It is for this reason that the Good Samaritan was a neighbour: not because he aided the beaten man, but because he approached the beaten man as a neighbour and opened himself to the responsibility that the bond of the neighbour might impose on him. In the same way, the Priest and the Levite failed to be neighbours: not because they failed to aid the beaten man, but because they failed even to approach him as neighbours, failed even to open the possibility that this kind of bond could exist and could impose a responsibility on them.
Where King Lear left me, then, was with a more satisfactory understanding of how I might bear ethical responsibility in the world by allowing each encounter with the other to determine this responsibility for me according to the bond that exists between us in that moment. Where it left me unsatisfied still, was in how exactly to determine what my bond with a particular other might demand of me in any given moment. How was I to determine what my real responsibilities to the other were? How was I to distinguish between requests that were proper to a bond and those that were not? These kinds of questions would wait several years for a reading of Ivan Illich’s Rivers North of the Future before finding the beginning of an answer.