vrijdag 17 mei 2013

Thick and thin morals

Very often anti-Semitism is just vulgar. Historically, it is attributable to fear of an unknown,  different religion, or to jealousy because of a certain prosperity. And up to this day these factors are still effective.

That does not mean that anti-Semitism is easy to combat, but in a sense one can stand above it. Why should one not be different, why should one not be prosperous?

But it’s not always that easy. Certainly in the past there was more than prejudice or jealousy, then philosophical positions were at stake. An important one was the appreciation by ancient and Christian traditions of universalism in our thoughts and actions. For Socrates and Plato something was only true if a reasonable person thought so, because then it would be true for everyone. And for Jesus and Christianity charity is only authentic if it is performed to everyone, no matter how far away and how unknown.

Opposite this kind of love for globality any particularism is in a difficult position. And particularistic the Jewish people has always been and has always wanted to be in some degree. It constituted a clearly defined group, with its own identity, its own tradition and preferably its own country. That could not but collide with a philosophical tradition that never did with less than universal validity. And defense of its own particularism was certainly not easy because many Jews themselves were not immune to the beauty of a universal morality and law.

This ode to universalism is still widely sung. Recently by a Dutch columnist who wrote disparagingly about the morality of monkeys that would be focused only on the own group. The lots of attention for that morality under the influence of primatologist De Waal makes him fear for the universalism of the Christian message. And without universal Christian message, all morality will break adrift, so he fears.

But this love of universalism already for a long time lost the obviousness it once had. A few decades ago postmodern philosophers already put the Great Universal Stories on a side track. More important is that nowadays an increasing number of sober, modest philosophers have an eye for the fact that universalism as a guideline creates abstract, sterile, say thin relationships, which may well be worldwide, but at the same time lack content. The philosopher and historian Ankersmit says it like this: “If you are in solidarity with everyone, you’re with no one in particular; in fact then you are in solidarity with no one”.

More than before there is the realization that people and groups always have to start somewhere, in a limited, manageable context, in particularism. That’s to say in thick relationships, in which you feel comfortable, and of which you hope you can expand the circle of people that belong to it.

That this is so, could be inferred from the fact that nationalist feelings nowhere were so virulent as in universally orientated Christian Europe. It is amenable to consider this as compensation for too lofty universalist ambitions.

This plea for thick, rooted relationships is not a license to indulge in ethnic or racist prejudices targeted at other groups. But it is a plea for a revaluation of particularism which does justice to the complex reality and thereby can achieve more than a sterile universalism ever could.

Also see The Trap of universalizing Reason