donderdag 16 oktober 2008

Crisis of ethics or of thinking?

It was to be expected that, in response to the financial crisis, people everywhere would appeal to ethics as an answer and incantation. People talk about revitalizing old virtues. Journalists look for the guilty ones and the public wants to hear confessions and repentence.

Most of the indignation is about greed. But in my opinion greed did not do much more than use our thinking and its inherent illusions as a vehicle. So, to really touch the crisis, discussions should rather focus, not on greed, but on the thinking which legitimizes that greed and gives it an unlimited free ride. That thinking should be the object of critical reflection.

This asks for something else than spontaneous, holy indignation about so much greed. This asks for insight into the tricks which our thinking plays us. Of course the airing of deep indignation relieves us, but it also is an easy way out. It is powerless and fails to be really critical. In a certain way it's a symptom of the problem. Which is that we are not critical enough on our own thinking. With the consequence that we let ourselves be taken away by and too easily believe in our own ideas. Until the illusions appear untenable any longer and the bubble bursts.

So the real question is: who or what is able to stop (in time) the free ride of our illusion producing thinking? That question has been leading in the philosophical examination which Levinas undertakes in his works. And his answer was: only an external force, like the Other, can fulfill that critical role. The other shows his distress and resistance caused by our acting and thinking, and by doing so breaks through the euphoric stubborness with which we believe in our own plans.

But how complex the present crisis is, may perhaps be derived from the impossibility to unequivocally answer Levinas's central question: ‘Who is the Other who, in this subprime madness, could have stopped us?’

For one could not say this role was played by the American slum dweller who got a subprime mortgage foisted on him by a bank. That slum dweller may, at the time of the transaction, have been very happy with it. And he doesn’t suffer that much now, because by returning his key he gets rid of his mortgage debt. He just returns to his old situation. In the worst case he will be a bit more desillusionated than he was before.

It may be the lower middle class figure - let's say Joe the Plumber - who, before having his luxury mortgage, had already a decent dwelling and now is being expelled from his dreamhouse into a slum neighbourhood. This kind of distress can hurt considerably.

But the deliriously rushing, frantic financial figures hurted themselves as well. Bankemployees, mortgage brokers and house-agents also suffer on a large scale. They are their own Other. But if so, what remains then of the externality of the adjusting force of the Other, which has, according to Levinas, as most important feature its very externality? Crucial for Levinas is that no one can ever fabricate by himself the correcting effect of the other’s distress, for the very reason it is external.

Apparently, Levinas’s philosophy and its capacity to clarify what thinking does to us, reaches its limits here. What remains is my preference for Levinas’s critical distance towards our thinking and its effects on us, over against a powerless moral indignation about so much human greed. For this last attitude does not help us any further in the fundamental reflection on our thinking.