donderdag 24 september 2015

Basic Income

At the time – thirty years ago – I would have been helped with a Basic Income, I think. In fact, I was quite desperate then about my ability to earn a living. And then people could say: it’s all not about what you have or what you earn but about what you are. But that sounds sincere only if the funds are delivered with it. And that’s exactly what a basic income does.

So if I call myself a supporter of the introduction of a basic income, I have my own motives.  They don’t, for example, include, as is the case with other supporters, the pursuit of greater equality. I think that’s definitely worth pursuing, but the introduction of a basic income would not help achieving that goal. Because the one person would regard his basic income as no more than a small beginning, and he would, working hard or not, strive to add a substantial supplement. The other would be satisfied with it and devote his time to art or lounging or gardening. On balance, you keep big differences this way.

Neither, in my view, the basic income would be an answer to the take-over by robots, ie the displacement of human labor by robots and computers, as announced by some authors. Because other experts in their turn believe that we are going to have laborshortage on a large scale in the West, an argument that is currently playing a role in the mass admission of migrants.

Indeed, as to me it would be about the possibility to save a inner self that is not fully exploitable. That one does not have, as the liturgy of the Jewish High Holidays says so beautifully, “to sell your soul for bread”. You could make the choice of the poet Mustafa Stitou: “Most of all I would like to read, think, write all day about what it is ... I almost wanted to say: to be human ... but I mean: to be thís man”.

In an interview Stitou tells about the tricks he has to perform to maintain that space for himself. That he does not have a family to support and anyway has few needs, but that yet he time and again has to account for his choice. Perhaps a basic income is exactly that: a break with the economistic thinking which lies behind this accountability pressure.

Also see The dominant economy

donderdag 17 september 2015

Levinas as I (can) understand him

Chancellor Merkel must be careful not to run too far ahead of the troops. But for the rest it is quite nice to see so many people come to the rescue. Volunteers distribute bread to refugees at border crossings, doctors and translators welcome refugees in German refugee centers, municipalities improvise extra care.

That’s nice to see, as long as it does not get simplistically ideological in the sense of: let everyone come here so that finally there is global justice. I’m sorry, but I do not believe in that. But I don’t think it is like that, I think most people help because they can not bear the misery of the refugees, and that seems to me a good motivation.

Like the motivation of the former Dutch parliamentarian Jacques de Milliano, who in an interview recently told that he became a physician because he is moved by the concrete suffering of individuals: “The essence of being physician is to truly make a difference for that one person. On the battlefield or in the office, it does not matter”.

De Milliano did not stop there. He wanted to do well on a larger scale, and together with others he established Doctors Without Borders Netherlands and therewith did many good things in a more structured manner. However, gradually something simplistically ideological crept in, in the sense that at one point he took as his task: to be always ready for anyone in the world. There in my eyes ideology starts to become uncomfortable and megalomaniacal.

Fortunately, in the eyes of De Milliano too. The doctor without borders must then learn to draw his own boundaries. He became a general practitioner in Haarlem. “The general practice was a reset. I had to catch my breath, get my head to be in one place.”

For the philosopher Paul van Tongeren, in a conversation with ethics professor Ingrid Robeyns, the current refugee crisis raises the problem: why is it that I do nothing, while I feel I should. Because that would be “morally the right thing to do”. Robeyns believes it’s because you need others for that. As long as people around you do nothing, it all has to come from yourself and that is too much to ask.

Actually, I think the latter is not quite the case, for there are various groups of volunteers. One could easily join them. But one way or another, Paul van Tongeren does manage to do so. He once more states that action for refugees would be the only correct thing to do and then concludes: “My problem is that I don’t do it.”

I would say Van Tongeren’s problem is rather that he speaks of ‘the ultimate morally right answer’, as if there is only one moral position possible. That seems to me to be his real problem. For matters are not so clear and unequivocal, as also may appear from the story of De Milliano. Van Tongeren’s statement departs from the idea that one’s responsibility is infinite: it relates to every other human being, always, wherever on earth.

I find that questionable. I maintain that keeping up a decent democratic and tolerant society like ours just as good embodies an important value. And that for that we badly need to people who have their heads in one place.

What the hell, I hear people think, how do I reconcile that with my favorite philosopher Levinas? Indeed, the one of ‘the infinite responsibility’?

Admittedly, the latter characterization is true, according to the interpretation by which Levinas has become popular in the Netherlands and which is actually nothing more than a continuation of Christian beliefs with Jewish means. Including an infinite guilt. And, to be honest, the late Levinas himself gives ample reason for this interpretation, through concepts such as ‘vicarious suffering’ and ‘unconditional responsibility for every other’.

But that’s not my Levinas. Because my Levinas is the one of his earlier books, including Totality and Infinity. These indeed dó speak about the Other and responsibility and infinity. But these words then don’t have the color yet of the later universally valid claims that fit in so well with Christian thought.

In Levinas’s early and middle period infinite responsibility must not be taken as valid always, everywhere and in respect of everybody. But rather in the sense in which the philosopher Derrida later expresses one of his key points: as the occurrence of the extraordinary (infinite) in the ordinary (finite). And it does not have to last forever and not to concern everyone. It can refer to a split second, in interaction with just one other person. Thereafter, the finite takes over again, until a new strike of infinity hits you, and so on and so on. Thát Levinas appeals to me. And I think to De Milliano too.

In rejecting the later Levinas, I am not alone. Many right-minded people reject his position as being impossibly radical and demanding, so for the same reasons why Christianity for many people turned out to be untenable. Besides, the Netherlands Refugee Council also does not recommend radical solutions, and does not encourage people to take a refugee in the house.

But strangely enough attention to the much less radical, but more viable Levinas from the early and middle period is scarce. It is partly due to the Leuven philosopher Rudi Visker that we have good understanding of this valuable variant of Levinas.

Also see Levinas and Empathy and Compassion or Competition

woensdag 9 september 2015

Compassion or Competition

Last week the frontpage of my newspaper presented an article by Marli Huijer under the title: “Try to imagine: you fight for air in a refrigerator”.  With me this headline generated the following thought: before I let all kinds of suggestions from others in response to the refugee crisis foist upon me, I want to elucidate for myself this kind of admonitions and exhortations.

In Huijer’s article I come across the following exhortations, whether or not interconnected: feel the proximity of the refugees; remember that you could have been one of them yourself, make yourself an idea of the situation; identify with the refugees. Below I try to unravel for myself what I think of each of those admonitions.

1.Feel the proximity. “That refrigerator-truck could as well have stood close to us around the corner on the highway. Austria, that’s European soil. Such proximity makes we are even more addressed in our responsibility. Our commitment is increased. We realize: we could ourselves have been it.” This passage follows the observation by Huijer that already earlier we were shocked by reports about boats and other dramas that took place outside the European continent.

I do agree with Huijer that physical proximity of misery touches you stronger than when it is farther away. Note in this connection that such an observation also works the other way: the further away the sorrow, the less we feel accountable. So there is no absolute responsibility on our side for refugees, closeness counts.

Furthermore, if you’re talking about proximity as a factor that counts, then this immediately also implies cultural proximity. That kind of closeness will count as well. Which can, very consistently, again work both ways: we are not waiting for more imports of Islamic fundamentalism or anti-Semitism. But perhaps we dó sympathize with critical, emancipated Middle Eastern citizens who are fed up with the backwardness of their governments.

2. Consider that you could have been it yourself. “Nobody wants to imagine to choke as a refugee in a truck, but you just have to imagine ... We realize: we could have been there ourselves.”

In this motivation to imagine what refugees go through, a certain sense of reciprocity and enlightened self-interest resounds. Something like: we might also once find ourselves in such a pitiable situation. If we help them now, we may hope that we will also be helped then by others. By the way, there is nothing wrong with this argument.

3. Identify yourself with the refugees: “We are able to identify with other people. That we can have compassion for the other, proceeds therefrom; we are rather similar.”

I think that’s true. When you recognize yourself in someone else that máy evoke  compassion. But, as the philosopher René Girard keeps emphasizing tirelessly,  recognizing the other as yourself can also trigger competition and mimetic desire: I want the same things and safety as the other, or rather I want to avoid for myself the insecurity which I see another is experiencing. Properly functioning mirror neurons work both ways: it can lead to competition and fencing off of what the other person wants from you; and it can lead to compassion.

This observation is consistent with the two camps that Huijer sees arise in the Netherlands. One camp is driven by compassion and wants to help but does not know how. The other camp is afraid of being eclipsed by what is coming down upon us. “It is up to the politicians to deal with it”, Huijer says. That last thought I might find the most convincing, but also the least spectacular.

Huijer’s other thoughts leave me, after the above weighing, in a state of moral confusion, coupled with the unpleasant feeling of being addressed somewhat moralistically.

Fortunately European politics, with the joint initiatives of Germany, Britain and France over the past week, now get some movement. That is – apart from the grand scale spontaneous reception of refugees, whether or not driven by mirror neurons – is a good thing, I think.

Also see Where do universal values bring us? and Levinas and Empathy

woensdag 2 september 2015

Not that bad

It is time for Europe to wake up from its decades-long sweet sleep, says Caroline de Gruyter in her column. She believes that for decades an immense allergy to power politics is the foundation of the EU. Foreign policy, according to the leading politicians, is mostly about trade, human rights and humanitarian development, while America takes care of our military protection. We must, according to De Gruyter, learn to understand again what True, Big Politics is: land grabbing and treasure hunting.

Measured by the standards of De Gruyter Israel does not do that bad. As to land grabbing it takes part even quite literally, although De Gruyter will not encourage that. What does fit into her vision is the sharp Israeli awareness of geopolitical threats, such as IS or Iran. Obviously, because their hostility towards Israel is no secret. But one of the results is that Israel does not make one step without a thorough assessment of the power political consequences. And it will continuously try to influence these effects. Failing to do so the country simply can not afford.

Well, de Gruyter tells us, no civilization can afford it, not even Europe. Continued neglect of the great political power game might once seriously break up Europe.

In terms of character and disposition I do not feel right at home with the approach propagated by De Gruyter. I do like peaceful sanctuaries, where art and culture and thinking can flourish. But she undoubtedly has a point. Paradise reserves don’t remain in position just by itself, and when you are realistic you will see that scary power political formations such as Russia and IS come closer. Without power thinking Europe will never find an answer.

It’s just very hard not to end up on a slippery slope, as Israel in the occupied territories. Or would appropriating them be a power-political and military necessity?

Also see I don't understand