Archive

Ethics

The unreasonable complexity of every moral question should never obscure the fact that we know there is good and evil. Every moral act, and therefore every act, is morally ambiguous, but this ambiguity appears only within the moral certainty that goodness is good and evil is not. Moral ambiguity does not imply a lack of good and evil. It implies that choosing the good over the evil must always be without certainty or guarantee. It also implies that this choice always remains to be made.

One of the attributes that a good thinker should possess, but that I habitually lack, is consistency and discipline with terminology. I am always using a word or phrase in one context and then discovering that I have been using it in a different sense elsewhere or that I have been using several terms to describe essentially the same idea. A friend recently brought one of these terminological difficulties to my attention. We were talking about encounter, and she noted that I sometimes speak about actively encountering the other, and sometimes about being passively encountered by the other. When I returned to some of the posts I have written on the subject over the years, I realized that this was true of my writing as well as my conversation, and since this point is significant for me, I will try to clarify it as best I can.

I do not believe that we encounter others in activity, but that we are encountered by others in passivity. Activity can open us to the possibility of encounter, can prepare us for encounter, but the encounter itself must always and in every case be experienced in passivity, because any activity of ours that would try to create the encounter would always predetermine the other according to our own intentions and impose ourselves on the other in ways that would prevent us from ever receiving the other as such. The only way to receive the other is in passivity, before we even recognize the other as an other.

Our task, then, is not to manufacture encounter with the other, but to be actively open to the possibility that we will be encountered, that we will be moved in our bellies by the approach of the other. though this encounter will certainly not be from any activity of our own.

In The Transparency of Evil, Jean Baudrillard insists that for hospitality to remain hospitality it must give up every attempt to understand the other, every attempt to reduce the other’s foreignness.  We exist, he says, “not to be known or recognized,”  but “solely to be received and to receive,” and so we must “seek the other’s cruelty, the other’s intelligibility, the other as spectre; constrain the other to foreignnness; violate the other in his foreignness.”  The task of hospitality then is not to reduce the other’s foreigness through understanding, but to maintain the other’s foreignness, to receive the other precisely as the entirely foreign, apart from any knowledge. 

Yet, I wonder how this hospitality of pure reception might actually appear in the world, since every reception of the other, even the purest reception of the other as entirely and in every way foreign, would immediately become the occasion of a kind of knowledge, however illusory this knowledge might be, and the act of hospitality would come to know despite itself, falling irresistibly into inhospitality.

Baudrillard seems to account for this problem by suggesting that the other’s foreignness must be continually maintained over against any understanding of the other that we might obtain, that we must continually set aside whatever knowledge we have of the other and receive the other only as foreigner, as stranger, as unknown.  In this sense, we may certainly relate to the other with respect to our knowledge of the other, must in fact relate to the other in this respect, but this relation is not hospitality as such.  Rather, we are hospitable only to the degree that we are able to set aside our knowledge of the other, with all the relations that attend it, and receive the other apart from this understanding, receive the other simply as other, beyond all understanding, knowledge, and relation.  Hospitality, then, becomes defined, perhaps, as a relation without relation, as a relational gesture that precedes relation as such, that precedes even the possibility of relation, that appears in advance of relation. 

The ethical imperative to hospitality, therefore, in the most practical terms, becomes an imperative for me to recall at all costs the insufficiency of my knowledge to account for the other’s foreignness, and to receive continually the foreignness of the other, the incomprehensibility of the other, despite whatever understanding that I might think I have.

I am discovering more and more frequently a confusion in how our society conceptualizes work.  The confusion arises, not between vocation and occupation, as most people and every conceivable self-help book seems to assume, but between work and labour.

Work is performed is the task performed within the context of an exchange.  It is dominated by the considerations of wages and costs and production and contracts and hours and benefits and pensions and vacation days and retirement packages.  Whether it is performed by a CEO of a major corporation or a chattel slave on a banana plantation, work is always about doing a task to earn recompenses or to avoid reprisals. It is always a matter of economy.  Work is therefore not natural.  It is the product of a certain kind of human culture, and it requires the idea of the contract, even if this contract is only implied.  Work is not a matter of instinct or of nature.  It is a matter of human culture and technique.

Labour, however, is made up of the tasks that we perform out of relation to family and to friends and to community.  It is what we choose to do in order that we might live better with others, so that we might live with more conviviality.  It is the cooking we do to feed our families, and it is the driveways we shovel for our elderly neighbours, and it is the children we watch for our friends, and it is also the contractual work that we do, when we do it in the proper spirit, as a way to provide for those around us.

Labour is not primarily concerned with economy and exchange, though it may sometimes participate in these things of necessity.  It is primarily concerned with giving and service.  Labour performs the task, not because of what it will receive in return, but because of what it can give.  It is the task that we undertake, not necessarily because we enjoy it, although we may in fact enjoy it, not necessarily because we will gain something in exchange, though we may in fact gain something in exchange, but merely because it allows us to give more fully to others.  It is the everyday task offered as a gift and as a sign of love.

There is a whole set of lies that our culture has been systematically telling its children for some time now.  We tell them that they are especially beautiful and especially smart and especially talented.  We tell them that they can be anything they want to be, that they can do anything they put their minds to do.  We tell them that they are extraordinary, that they will do extraordinary things.  And, generally speaking, far more often than not, this is nothing but lies.

However beautiful and intelligent and talented they may be, there will almost always be those who have more beauty and more intelligence and more talent, and none of these things will guarantee them success in any case.  However much they may put their minds to it, there are some things that they will just not be able to be or do.  However much they may believe themselves to be extraordinary, they will almost certainly come up against the fact that they are as ordinary as the next person, better at some things, worse at others, individual and valuable perhaps, but not exceptional.  They will come up against the fact that their entire conception of themselves has been based on lies told by their parents and family and teachers and counselors and so on.

Now, we tell them these lies out of the best intentions.  We want our children to have good self-esteem, to believe in themselves, to have the confidence to pursue their dreams, but we end up doing exactly the opposite.  Our lies give children a grossly unrealistic conception of themselves, and this self-conception begins to disintegrate when they are exposed to a wider world where others are in fact as beautiful and intelligent and talented as they are.  They are confronted by the fact that they are not naturally superior to their peers and that they have not developed the disciplines they need to succeed in the world because  even their poorest efforts  had always been called exceptional, had not required work or effort or discipline or commitment from them.  Confronted with this new reality, their self-image is shattered, and they alternate between depression and bravado, between accepting that they are not in fact exceptional and insisting that their true superiority has gone unrecognized.  They are trapped in this alternation, immobilized, unable to commit to any direction enough to do the work it would require of them, waiting for the greatness that has been promised them.  They cannot be the best, so they will be nothing at all.

There is now the greater part of a generation who occupy this position, a generation who have never been able to face the truth about themselves.  There is nothing less acceptable to them than an ordinary life, and they are unwilling to live this ordinary life, though it is the life that they will have to live, one way or another.  They came of age in a barrage of superlatives, and any life that is not superlative must be a failure to them, and so they live mostly with failure, still striving to deny this failure at every turn.  They keep insisting on the lies that they have been told, keep ignoring the base facts of their lives, keep hoping that their destiny will somehow, miraculously, reassert itself.

They have never been told the truth, that there is no shame in living an ordinary life, in doing ordinary good, in overcoming ordinary evil, in accomplishing ordinary things, just as countless lives have been lived before them.  They have never been told the truth, that it is no great failure to fall short of wealth and fame, that it is a far greater failure to fall short of being a moral human being.  They have never been told the truth, that the best lived life is one spent, not in exceptional things, but in ordinary things, in being a loving child, spouse, parent, friend, and neighbour.  They have never been told the truth, that the life spent serving others brings more joy than the life spent in pursuit of one’s own pleasures and successes.

We must speak truthfully to our children.  We must tell them that their value does not depend on their beauty or their intelligence or their talent or their success or their superiority to others, but in the love that they might offer to one another, which is their very humanity.  We must praise them when they have done well, certainly, but we must also correct them when they have done wrong and encourage them when they have failed.  We must teach them that there is nothing so very ordinary about living the ordinary life, that this is indeed a life worth living, as complex and as full and as rewarding as any other they might choose to live.

I have this idea.  It may or not be original, and it may or may not even be viable, but I have it, so here it is.

I want to apply the principles of microcredit to the problem of affordable housing, which is a significant issue here in Guelph, and make loans available for people to convert their basements or attics or other spaces into legal apartments that would be set aside to be affordable housing.  The loans would have no fixed repayment term, but the owner of the house would agree to rent the apartment at rates within affordable housing allowances and would also agree to have the full amount of this rent be applied to repay the loan until the full loan plus an additional amount, perhaps ten or fifteen percent, has been repaid.  This money could then be used to finance future projects.

There would also be an expectation that the owner of the house would not just provide an apartment for those in need of affordable housing but would also provide community and social support to those who are renting, in whatever form this might need to take, whether helping new immigrants negotiate the governmental and legal system, or driving the physically disabled to their medical appointments, or visiting with the elderly, or providing childcare for a single parent, or whatever.  Ideally, the owners and renters would even eat together regularly and share some of the tasks of the house.

The loans would probably be provided by a non-profit group like a church or like Habitat for Humanity, but it might also be possible to do this through private means.

I see the following benefits of this approach:

1.  It provides affordable housing outside of government housing projects that, even in the best cases, turn into ghettos.

2.  It provides people who are at financial risk with both a place to live and also the beginnings of a community and a social support network.

3.  It encourages more efficient use of existing housing rather than requiring the construction of new housing.

4.  It encourages communal and relational rather than governmental and institutional solutions to social problems.

5.  It encourages mixed income neighbourhoods, which reduces overall crime rates.

6.  It forces people to encounter and relate meaningfully to others who are not in their existing social circles.

There are probably other benefits that I am missing here, and I am probably willfully overlooking the potential difficulties, but I am interested to hear what others think about this proposal.    It is exactly the kind of intervention that I think needs most to be made in the world, but I am not sure whether it is one that will appeal to anyone else.  Any thoughts or comments that you might have would be appreciated.

James Shelly posted yesterday on the “greening” of capitalism, and he suggested that we should perhaps replace the idea of smart growth with the idea of smart decline.  This was the first time that I had heard the phrase “smart decline” myself, though it seems already to be in use, particularly by some urban planners, who are using it to describe practises that allow cities to cope with shrinking populations and tax bases.  This kind of usage has to do with managing decline, however, whereas James’ usage has to do with encouraging decline, not in every respect, but in strategic ways, in order to live more responsibly, and it is related to what I have written on doing with and doing without.  It is at odds, therefore, with a green economy that still has growth as its goal, that still understands success as growing production and growing consumption.  It proposes an economy that is willing and even purposing to grow smaller and less consumptive and less productive and sometimes also less technological in order that it be more responsible.

This means, I think, that the choice between whether to do with or to do without becomes weighted heavily in favour of doing without, or at least in favour of doing with much less.  When the choice is to produce or to consume something, an economy of smart decline always chooses to do without it unless there are compelling social and ethical reasons do with it.  It assumes that it is always better to produce and consume and dispose less unless otherwise proven.

Let me give a fairly banal example: whether to do with or without a dishwasher.  Standard green economics says, “Buy an energy efficient and low-water dishwasher.  They use less water than doing dishes by hand.  They are therefore environmentally friendly.  We even have cool logos that say so.  If you buy one, you will be both energy efficient and environmentally aware.  All of your friends will be jealous because you are enviro-hip and because you also have a nice new toy.  You get the best of all worlds.  Consuming green makes you green.”  This is smart growth.  We keep the economy churning, keep producing and consuming, all under the sanctifying label of environmentalism.

Another approach is possible, however, one that might say, “Yes, an energy efficient dishwasher is better than an energy guzzling dishwasher, and it is certainly better when a dishwasher is absolutely required.  Yes, it may even use less water per wash than doing dishes by hand, but washing dishes by hand does not require the huge amounts of input materials and energy that a dishwasher does, and it does not eventually break and result in massive chunks of non-biodegradable waste, and it does not cost the household several hundred dollars to purchase, and it does not alienate the household from its own labour.  Washing dishes by hand may take more time and labour, perhaps, but not much more, and it is time and labour spent in the home rather than spent away in the office in order to pay for a dishwasher.”  This is smart decline.  It both consumes and produces less, wresting time and labour from the workplace and returning it to the home and the community.  It does not understand environmentalism as a product to be purchased like a designer label, but as a lifestyle to be lived, even if it does sometimes require that different products be purchased in different ways.

Of course, if everyone began to live like this, the effect on the economy would be staggering.  There would likely be a massive loss of manufacturing jobs and an equally massive increase in manual labour jobs.  Especially during the period when this shift was occurring, there would be tremendous unemployment and economic hardship.  There would be a shift in the remaining manufacturers toward simpler products that were easier to maintain and repair and retrofit.  There would be much larger local barter and grey market economies.  There would be a return of the repair shop, of the salvage shop, of the used good shop.  There would be an increase in parents who worked in the home some or all of the time.  There would be a resurgence of practical education, in home repair and sewing and cooking and gardening.

Unfortunately, at least in my opinion, we are not ever likely to see such a systemic shift to an economy of smart decline.  Our long standing economic patterns have produced a culture that is too invested in a particular notion of growth ever to change voluntarily.  I do think, however, that there may come a time, and perhaps not too far into the future, when this decline will be imposed on us, and not in a controlled or gradual way, but in sudden and violent economic shocks, as debt ridden national economies and diminishing resources increasingly disrupt traditional capitalist economies.  It is not possible for the world economy to grow indefinately.  The resources simply do not exist.  One way or another, at one point or another, we will find ourselves in an economy of decline, and maybe it is best to get used to the idea now.

I have an environmentalist friend who is constantly espousing the virtue of “doing without”.  His dream is to live in a very small house, built all of natural materials, located on a piece of land that he would be partly cultivating and partly renaturalizing.  Another friend wrote me this past week to tell me that he will now be doing without email in order to spend more time reading and writing in other ways.  A third friend has recently decided to do without alcohol as a way of supporting his brother-in-law who is a recovering alcoholic.    None of these choices is what I would call an ethical absolute, because it is not doing without itself that is the question but the reasons for doing without them and, conversely, the reasons for doing with them.  Email is not essentially unethical, but it may be unethical for me if what I am doing with it is distracting myself from more important things.  Alcohol is not essentially unethical, but it may be unethical for me if it shows disregard for the struggle of a friend.

If I follow this kind of reasoning consistently, however, it often puts me into apparently contradictory positions.  For example, my wife and I have chosen to do without a car, without cable, without a dishwasher, without a clothes dryer, without a power lawnmower, without a cellphone, without air conditioning, without fast food, without commercial pesticides and fertilizers, and without many other things too small or too obvious to mention.  On the other hand, we have also chosen to have a fairly large house in downtown Guelph, and many people see this as contradicting a lifestyle that seems otherwise to be based on the principle of doing without.  In actuality, however, both our choices to do with things and our choices to do without them are based on the same principle, which is the choice to act ethically and purposefully and intentionally, and to let this principle determine whether we will do with something or without it.

In this sense, I choose to do with a large house for many of the same reasons that I choose to do without a car, because I want to live a more convivial, familial, neighbourly life.  I do without a car so that I can walk through my neighbourhood and come to know it, so that I can make this place a home, so that I can make its inhabitants my neighbours.  I choose to do with a house so that I can live with my extended family, so  hat I can live with others who happen to need a place to live, so that I can open my home and my table to those who need a place to sit and eat and be at home.  It is not the with or the without that is important here, but the doing that informs these decisions.  It is not simply about having something or not.  It is about being able to do something with what I have and with what I do not have.

To give a second example, I choose to own many films and books, not because I need them all for myself, though I do use many of them from day to day, but because I want to be able to share them with people, to lend as a way of introducing people to things that I think are worth reading and watching.  I do not simply have them.  I choose to do with them, to do something with them.  The choice to have them or not is secondary to the question of what I want or need to do with them.  The with or the without is  secondary to what I am doing, and this enables me to do with things or without them purposefully, to do with them or without them while avoiding the temptation to take the with or the without as a commandment, whether it be materialism’s commandment that I need  something or it be radicalism’s commandment that I do not.  The with and the without become intentional expressions of what it is that I choose to do.

This is to do with.  This is to do without.  This is to do ethically.  This is to do.

Many documentaries, because of the subjects that they address, are faced with the question of how to represent the image of death in film, of how to do justice to the image of death without reducing it to an object of mere voyeurism.

I first encountered this problem in Seeing is Believing, by Peter Wintonick and Katerina Cizek, where the filmmakers were faced with the question of how to include images of a man who had been shot in the thigh and who was rapidly bleeding to death. If they showed him actually expiring in the film, how would they avoid turning the scene into a snuff video, into an exercise of fetishism and voyeurism? Their solution was to fade away from the wounded man just before the moment of his death and then to fade back to him afterward, but I am not certain that this approach is all that effective, since it still makes a fetish of the moment and the image of death, only in reverse. It refuses to show the moment of death, but only in such a way that draws attention precisely to this absence. It occludes the voyeuristic gaze of the viewer, but only in order to arrest and fix this gaze on what has been occluded.

There is a similar moment in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. The film’s protagonist and a friend have gone into the wilderness to live among the grizzlies, and they have been attacked and killed by one of the bears. Their video camera happens to be running at the time, and though it is thrown aside so that there are no images of their deaths, the camera still captures an audio record of the attack. When Herzog is presented with this audio, he appears on camera and explicitly raises the question of whether to play it for his viewers. The film then shows him listening to the audio through earphones, so that the viewers cannot listen themselves but can only watch Herzog listening to it, and then the filmmaker declares that he will not include it in the film, having piqued and then disappointed his viewers’ interest. Here, again, the moment of death is omitted, but only in such a way as to fetishise it more entirely.

Spike Lee’s Four Little Girls, which I screened at this past Saturday’s Dinner and a Doc, faces a similar problem, but its solution is different and, in my estimation, more proper. The majority of the film is composed of interviews with the family members of the four young girls who were killed in a church bombing during the civil rights movement, with prominent civil rights activists who were operating in the area at the time, and with other celebrities. Lee inserts into these interviews the period footage that is relevant to them, and there comes a time when the interviews begin to discuss the physical condition of the girls when they were found dead, the wounds that they had sustained, and the process of preparing them for their funerals. The period footage that would be relevant to this discussion, however, raises once again the question of how to employ images of death. Would it be right to avoid these images entirely? Would this be a failure to confront the horror of the acts that were perpetrated? On the other hand, would it be any more right to put the images of these broken bodies on the screen as objects for the fetishising gaze of strangers?

Lee addresses this problem by including photos of the dead girls, but only very briefly. The images are introduced hardly long enough for the viewers to register what they are before the film returns to the person being interviewed. Rather than showing everything but death, and thereby fetishising death all the more, Lee shows death in a way that refuses to make it into an object of voyeurism. His approach does not shy away from the fact that these girls were broken and killed, but it refuses to dwell on this, refuses to let its viewers dwell on this, and chooses instead to emphasize how the girls are remembered by their families and friends and how they influenced the growing civil rights movement.

This, to me, is a more profound understanding of death, one that refuses either to avoid or to fetishize it, but that chooses instead to put death in its proper place in relation to the life that it follows and the memories that it precedes.