I began writing this post with the intention of discussing an idea that Jean-Luc Marion presents in his collection of essays, Prolegomena to Charity, a book that I have just completed and that I enjoyed very much. The idea occurs in an essey entitled “What Love Knows”, and it relates to the question of how I discover and determine my ethical responsibility to another, a question that has preoccupied me, if not in those precise terms, for as long as I can remember.
However, because this question does have such a long history for me, and because my thinking on it has been influenced by so many people, what Marion’s essay means for me would be largely incomprehensible unless I were to provide some sort of history of my own response to the problem of ethical responsibility, all of which would be too long for a single post, even in its most reduced form.
So, by means of beginning this personal history, which I will continue over several posts, I will position myself within the narrative of the Good Samaritan, as the rich young ruler asking Christ, “Who is my neighbour?” because I know that the law tells me to love my neighbour as myself, but I am not always certain how to do this. The story Christ tells in reply to my question is masterful in the sense that it undermines my real motive for asking the question, which is to find a limit to how much I really need to give to others, but even when I address this motive in myself, even when I try actively to understand how I am to love in the way the story instructs, I am confronted by the reality that the easy interpretations of Christ’s story are not satisfactory. Traditionally, people have tended to interpret the parable to mean that everyone is my neighbour, or, since this is patently impossible, that everyone that I encounter is my neighbour. This view claims that I must love each person I encounter, that I necessarily bear a responsibility to meet each person’s need. While the unlimitedness of this interpretation strikes on something true, I think, I find, when I try to live it, that it is seriously flawed for at least two reasons.
First, and most obvious, is the fact that this interpretation is entirely impossible. Even if I were to restrict myself to the most obvious needs that I encounter, which I may not do, I simply encounter too many people and too many needs each day to hope to meet them all myself. If I were also actively to discover and meet the needs of those who are not obviously in need, it would certainly be that I would never venture farther than my street corner before my means of assistance, monetary and otherwise, would be exhausted.
Second, and perhaps less obvious, is the problem of how far I need actually to go in meeting the needs of those I encounter. After all, the Samaritan could easily have helped more or less. Would he have been less a neighbour if he had merely bound the man’s wounds and given him food and water without taking him to the inn? Or if he had merely taken him to the nearest town without paying for his lodging? Or if he had paid only for the immediate expenses and not offered to settle the later accounts? Would he have been more a neighbour if he had waited with the man until he had recovered rather than leaving him behind? Or if he had taken the man into his own home rather than placing him in an inn? How, in other words, do I determine exactly what the need of the other requires of me? How do I determine what I need to do to be a neighbour?
It is in this difficulty that I found myself as I tried to understand how I was to love, how I was to be responsible, a difficulty compunded by the suspicion that my motives for asking these questions were less worthy than I was willing to admit. It was not until I read Shakespeare’s King Lear that I began to find an answer, and I will take up that part of this history in a later post.