The Last of Those Other Things

As I was preparing to write this final instalment in the history of my engagement with the problem of ethical response, I reread my previous post on the subject, and I was disappointed to see how narrow and inadequate it now seems to me just a few weeks later. I still agree essentially with what I wrote at that time, but I am displeased with how it represents my interaction with Illich’s writing as if the idea of the movement in the belly was the only thing I took from Rivers North of the Future, as if I was reading his work primarily in search of solutions to the problem of ethical responsibility. The reality is that I rarely have a predetermined purpose when I begin reading a book of any sort. I was not thinking about ethical responsibility when I took the book from my shelf, at least, not any more than I was thinking about several other subjects that preoccupy me, and I found far more in it than just the sections that were related to ethical responsibility, as significant as these sections were to me. My reading and thinking practises are far more promiscuous, intuitive, and fortuitous than my writing sometimes makes them appear. This misrepresentation does Illich, and myself, and the subject as well, I think, a gross injustice.

Unfortunately, the likelihood that I will write in similarly misrepresentative ways is even greater when I begin discussing Jean-Luc Marion’s Prolegomena to Charity. Not only does this particular collection of essays have much more of value to say on the subject of ethical responsibility than I will be able to discuss in this single post, but Marion’s broader work means much more to me than I will ever be able to communicate in any way, no matter how much space I am given. Whatever approach I might take to describing how his thought has influenced my understanding of responsibility for the other will be hopelessly reductive of his true influence on me. I can do nothing more than signal this inadequacy in advance.

While Marion is certainly a significant philosopher for many reasons, it was none of these reasons that drew me to him. I discovered him first when I was working on my MA thesis. I had found a book entitled God, The Gift, and Postmodernism, edited by John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon. I was interested in it because it contained a discussion on the nature of the gift between Jacques Derrida and some guy named Jean-Luc Marion. Because the discussion followed Marion’s presentation on the name of God and negative theology, I read this paper also, and I was intrigued enough by Marion’s approach that I immediately bought his most famous book, God Without Being, which, without any hyperbole, shattered my theology irrevocably. I have since read Being Given, The Crossing of the Visible, and Prolegomena to Charity, all of which have been very influential on me, though they exceed my understanding in many respects.

Marion’s contribution to the problem of ethical responsibility, at least in the formulation of this problem that I have been tracing in my own history, begins where Ivan Illich’s Rivers North of the Future ends. If, as Illich argues, I can only know my responsibility as a neighbour to the other, not by a law, but by a spiritual movement in the belly, it resolves the question of how I can know what I owe the other, but it does so only at a cost. While the movement in the belly justifies the Samaritan of our example, and while it calls us to act in similar ways, to be open and responsive to the movement of the belly, it will always be possible that there will be no such movement, that everyone will pass the beaten man by the side of the road and feel nothing. This possibility is not just that nobody will pass the victim, not just that someone will pass and turn away from the victim, not even that someone will turn toward the victim and find that he is not the victim he believes himself to be. This possibility is that someone might pass the victim and neither turn toward him or away from him, but walk on in perfect conscience because there was no movement in the belly.

To put this problem differently, Illich’s approach permits the possibility that my concern might be diverted from the other to myself. This diversion, when functioning correctly, is not wrong, because it is a diversion, not to myself as myself, but to a spiritual movement provoked by the other in myself, a movement that should culminate in a return of my concern to the other, even if this concern is one that is not necessarily able to give what the other requests. In this way, the Samaritan acts rightly. Though he responds to the spiritual movement in his belly rather than to the other directly, this movement returns him to the other and impels him to relieve the other’s suffering. The priest and the Levite, however, feel no such movement. Making the entirely unjustified assumption that they were actually looking for such a movement, they could in good conscience continue on their way, because they had not been moved. Their ethical movement, to look into their own bellies, had diverted them from the other to themselves. In this way, Illich’s approach permits the possibility that my ethical response to the other may fail even to encounter the other at all. Though I may be open to the movement in my belly, I am open to this movement apart from any real encounter with the other. I may be responding ethically, but I am not responding ethically to the encounter with the other, only to a movement in myself.

Marion does not speak directly to this problem in Prolegomena to Charity, at least not in relation to the function of the neighbour, but he does describe a similar structure in his own terminology that opens up a possible resolution to the problem in Illich’s approach. Marion refers to the responsibility that I owe to the other as the injunction of the other, and he argues that this injunction does not come to me from the other, but that “it actually arises in me, like one of my lived experiences.” In this sense, he affirms Illich, because this injunction functions similarly to the movement in the belly, coming neither from myself nor from the other, but from beyond us both, as a movement that can only be understood in spiritual or theological terms. Marion is clear on this point. “The obligation toward the other,” he says, “is born in me, though it is not born of me; it is born for the other, though it is not born through the other.”

Marion too, however, confronts the problem that we find in Illich, that is, if the injunction does not arise from the other, then a response to the injunction is not a response to the other at all. This sort of response leads only to the injunction as law, he argues, but can never have a relation to the other in particular. “If we want to secure responsibility all the way to the point of love,” he says, “then the injunction must designate not only the other as such, but just such an other as the invisible gaze that crosses my own.” In other words, though the ethical response must not arise from the other, it must designate the other in particular, or it fails to be a response in any meaningful way.

The only thing that can accomplish this designation of the other, according to Marion, is love or charity. “In order for the other to appear to me,” he argues, “I must first love him,” because “only love opens up knowledge of the other as such.” Yet, love only “becomes a means of knowledge when my concern is with the other,” when I accept the face of the other precisely as other. Put differently, the ethical obligation that comes neither from me nor from the other is given particularity by the knowledge that I have of the other, that is opened by the love I have for the other, that is enabled by the concern that I have for the other.

This seemingly complex relation has a very simple implication: the ethical movement begins precisely in my willing to be concerned for the other. I must will to be concerned for the other, so that I can love the other, so that I can know the other, so that I become fully open to the obligation, the injunction, the movement in the belly as it bears upon me and the particularity of the other. In Marion’s own words, “To accept the other’s face, or better, to accept that I am dealing with an other, a face, a counter-gaze, depends uniquely on my willing it so.” As he says later, “The other appears only if I gratuitously give him the space in which to appear.” For this reason, ethical responsibility in its particularity depends on my will, despite the fact that it does not come from either me or from the other, but merely arises in me. My will does not produce ethical responsibility in particularity, but only opens me to concern, and love, and knowledge of the other, which opens me to the possibility of ethical responsibility.

All of this implies that the movement in the belly arises, not randomly, but whenever I will myself to be concerned with the other, whenever I will myself to accept the face of the other. If I accept that I am dealing with an other, if I will this to be so, I will necessarily feel the movement in the belly, in every case, without exception. This does not at all imply that I will be moved to respond to the other in the way that the other desires or expects, or in the way that I desire or expect. It does not even imply that I will be moved to respond in any way at all. It implies only that, if I am willing to accept the face of the other, I will find myself moved in some way. There will be a movement in me, a spiritual movement, a movement that it will be in every case wrong to ignore, even if this movement is to do precisely nothing.

The neighbour, therefore, is the one who wills to accept the other, the one who does not pass by a victim on the side of the road without willing to accept this victim as the other, without willing to experience responsibility for the other, whatever it might be, without willing to experience a movement in the belly, whatever it might be. The neighbour may not always be moved to help as the Samaritan was, but the neighbour will always will to be moved in whatever way the injunction appears in relation to the particularity of the other. The neighbour will always be prepared to be concerned for the other, to love the other, to know the other, to be moved by the injunction toward the other. No act, therefore, and no law, can ever guarantee what is proper to the neighbour, only a continual will, a continual willing, a continual willingness.

There is still the logical possibility, certainly, that I might will myself to accept the face of the other, that I might be open to the movement that this acceptance will permit in me, but that I will nevertheless find myself unmoved to help the victim by the side of the road. It is still possible, certainly, that everyone might will, that everyone might be open, and that everyone might nevertheless be unmoved. Yet, this possibility is permissible only according to the perversity of logic, not according to the movement of charity. If the priest and the Levite had willed to accept the beaten man as an other, if they had been open to the responsibility that they bore for him as neighbours, is it conceivable that they would not be moved to pity? If, in other words, they willed themselves to be open to the other and the spiritual movement that the other founded in them, is it conceivable that this spiritual movement would not be a movement to pity? The logical possibility exists, but the spirit of charity knows better, knows that the kind of movement that moves the belly will not leave the bleeding man beside the road unaided.

The fault of the priest and the Levite, therefore, is not that they passed the victim without turning to him, because they had no legal responsibility for him. It is not that they refused the movement to pity in their bellies, because they felt no such movement. It is that they refused to will an acceptance of the other, refused thereby the movement of the belly that they could not foreknow but that they knew even still must almost certainly be to pity. Their fault was that they refused to be concerned for the other, refused to love the other, refused to know the other, and therefore refused to be open to the particularity of their ethical responsibility to the other.

None of this, I want to emphasize, means that I must do everything for all people. None of this even means that I need to do anything for anyone. All it means is that I must will myself to accept the face of the other and to accept the movement that will arise in me, and to act according to this movement, even if the act is to do nothing at all. The act itself will always be nothing. The will to accept the face of the other will always be everything, because all of ethical responsibility flows from it.


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