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