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