donderdag 15 december 2011

Levinas and Egoism

Egoism is bad. That's what we learned and the idea is deeply embedded in the surrounding Christian culture. But the idea is definitely not limited to Christians. The well known British Jewish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman for example propagates the same idea in his numerous books. He opposes to the strivings of the ego selfless devotion to the Other and thereby confirms a mindset that is deeply rooted in the West.

Many people who think this way believe their views about the badness of the ego and selfishness to be confirmed in the writings of Levinas. By his emphasis on the ‘Face of the Other’ and on the inroad the Other makes on the I, Levinas seems perfectly ready for annexation into the originally Christian ideas about original sin, the wickedness of man and his selfishness. That could also explain why, precisely in the Calvinist Netherlands, Levinas relatively early became popular. Levinas is thus placed in line with the Christian denouncers of human selfishness and messengers of neighbourly love. According to this view he is, in short, an outstanding example of a moralist.

I have always objected against this view and fortunately recently a thesis has been published which goes into this matter more deeply. The thesis has been written by Henk den Uijl, who graduated in Philosophy of Management and Organization at the Amsterdam Vrije Universiteit, and is entitled Beyond Egoism and Altruism. A Levinasian Approach. In it Den Uijl calls, using the work of Levinas, for considering egoism as morally neutral.

That’s quite something, precisely because this call conflicts with the prevailing thought which by Den Uijl is characterized as a form of dualistic thinking. With dualism he means a polarized system of two opposing poles, of which one pole is good and the other bad. In this case, altruism is good, egoism is bad.

According to Den Uijl the prevalence of this dualism comes to the fore in the observation that “when theorized about it, people will say that altruism is better than egoism”. To this Den Uijl opposes that, “to say this (the ego) is wrong or good is a categorical mistake, the egoism is the (not yet) about ethics or morals”. Egoism has its own area where it is in place and should not be seen in a hierarchical relation to altruism. “Egoism is ethically neutral, and is good in the sense of enjoying life, yet not in an ethical sense. There is no definite hierarchy between egoism and altruism. Egoism is not something condemnable; it is no normative notion at all”.

How for this position Den Uijl harks back to Levinas becomes clear in his presentation of Levinas’ assessment of egoism. From that presentation I will present a few sentences that together summarize Den Uijl’s argument and which for the occasion I cite one after another. “He (Levinas) does not see egoism as a vice, rather, it is the very way a subject in solitude behaves through intentionality; the ego wants to understand, or better, grasp the world so to suspense anonymous being”. “Egoism is the very way an ego stands in the world. It is strange to say that the ego perceives the world wrong, for who else should perceive the world than the ego?”

Den Uijl tells us that when he talks about egoism in these terms to managers and economists, they sometimes find this very hard to swallow. Their reactions are often defensive. Den Uijl explains this because of the negative load the word egoism got under the influence of Christianity.

Apart from that, in those very circles of managers and economists, he also encounters the exact opposite. In those cases altruism is seen as naive and therefore bad, and egoism is hailed because individual ambitions and covetousness could engender the collective’s prosperity. Here dualism appears again, says Den Uijl, with its associated but now inverted hierarchy.

Apparently it’s hard to stay calm when it comes to egoism and quickly ideological terms slip into our discourses : there is either total rejection (as in Christianity) or total embrace (as in the extreme market-ideology). To these extremes Den Uijl (in line with Levinas) rightly opposes the idea that there is no hierarchy between egoism and altruism, and that they constantly alternate.

Once one realizes this, it starts sounding quite outdatedly dualistic to hear philosophers say that in our time the Christian emphasis on charity is crucial. As for example the Dutch philosopher Andreas Kinneging did when he said that “Christianity, based on neighbourly love, makes people less selfish and makes them more focused on the community and the other”. For this reason, according to Kinneging, Christianity coexists better with democracy than Judaism and Islam do.

Kinneging says so despite the fact that by now the Christian dualism and the privileging of altruism are experienced by many people as an overstrained ideology and have lost much of their credibility. It is no coincidence that Alexis De Tocqueville, whom Kinneging holds in high esteem, could define himself as still only a ”Christian by culture”, not by faith. He could not really believe all that anymore.

Also see A Real Shame and Emergency Shelter

dinsdag 6 december 2011

Greek and Jew

Hannah Arendt's observations about Eichmann remain to the point. They show it is not necessarily far-fetched to see a connection between totalitarian thinking, bureaucracy and our common desire for the creation of order. If such connections exist indeed, honest family men just can become schreibtischmörder à la Eichmann and evil can get a somehow banal character.

But occasionally Arendt could be off and run on. At such moments she had ideas in her head and she was only interested in events that corresponded with those ideas. One of the prosecutors in the Eichmann trial, Gabriel Bach, recounts: “A few days before the trial at once a philosopher arrived, who only used the testimonies and documents which fitted her ideas. With us, the prosecutors, she never even wanted to talk”.

Moreover Arendt could be very severe in her opinion, especially when she speaks about the attitude of the Jews during World War II. According to Bernard Wasserstein she divides Jews roughly into two categories: on the one hand, the passive majority that let itself be led to the slaughter, and on the other hand the members of the collaborationist Jewish councils.

I am inclined to link Arendt's harsh assessment of the Jewish attitude during the Second World War to her predilection of the autonomous, sovereignly acting subject. This predilection is associated with a certain disregard towards people in situations in which their free agency is seriously hampered or absent. That is: people in a tight corner, for example by persecution, poverty, or other kinds of dependency. This contempt is there despite the fact that Arendt, as a German Jew, experienced firsthand what it means to be unwanted. She had to flight to France and finally to America to find safe shelter.

Maybe she found that to be the only dignified way out for independent thinking people. In any event philosophically she felt most at home with the ancient Greeks, who also believed that there is little glory to be gained by carrying out activities directed at earning a living or at creating a minimum of security. Entirely in the classical Greek vein she sees unbound thinking and acting as the most sophisticated and the most pleasant thing a person can do.

It is true the Greeks went a step further and organized things in such a way that servants and slaves performed the lower types of work. Thus free citizens could be completely devoted to the worthy work, such as politics and philosophy. Arendt definitely doesn’t go that far, because in her book The Human Condition she pays much attention to those inferior kinds of work which she calls ‘labor’ and ‘work’. Together with the (political) ‘acting’ which for her embodies the highest species, they constitute the human condition.

Yet Arendt was not unequivocal in this respect, she sometimes contradicts herself. On the one hand she says: one cannot cut up reality, all types of work are part of being human. But elsewhere she argues to sharp distinguish between different types of work, and she puts the lower kinds of work on their place: laboring man is actually an animal laborans, a toiling animal. And no craftsman transcends the result-directedness in the same way as the unbound polismember could. Between the lines it is possible to hear Arendt’s craving for the sovereign existence of the Greek free man.

From that predilection I explain the reserve she shows on more than one occasion towards the Jewish conception of human existence. Because the latter deviates at this point in an important way from the Greek conception. Whereas the Greek view extols a life purified of labor and work, in the Jewish tradition there is no question of such a strive for purity. Sure, a person shall be praised for the time he spends on Torah and study, but the depending economic existence that we lead should be taken fully seriously. Purifying that away would mean, for the Jewish mind, nothing less than a reduction of reality.

Also see Hannah Arendt's Heroes and Levinas and Arendt