donderdag 22 oktober 2015

Levinas and calculation


There is a lot of emotion in the air in recent weeks. It is all about compassion, fear, disgust, enthusiasm, all triggered by the influx of refugees. The commotion is accompanied by sensible commentaries calling for restraint of the emotions using our reason.

Such as that of Nelleke Noordervliet: “The emotion reigns. The ratio has a tough job to tame that monster. Essentially the sick tweets about drowned refugees do not differ much from a consignment of cuddly toys.”

And Kim Putters, director of the Dutch Social Cultural Planning Department, believes that, “whether  you want to close the borders or to show abundant mercy”, we may need to develop new democratic methods to deal with these problems.

My reaction to such statements is: let the different emotions struggle, also within each individual. The outcome of that fight will probably yield many intermediate positions, which can be stepping stones to more reasoned outcomes.

Meanwhile, we should not pretend that there is nothing to choose or that choices are not made. The Red Cross suggests that in its advertisements in newspapers and on the radio, with the slogan “Don’t let us choose”, ie between refugees to be helped.

I think that’s a seriously misleading slogan, because of course choices are constantly being made. Politicians, like Merkel and Orban, do so on a daily basis by opening and closing boundaries a little more or less. UNHCR selects refugees in the region for resettlement in Europe, and thereby uses ‘objective criteria’, not the ‘subjective desire’ of the refugee. And chance selects because some people are precisely at the right time in the right place while others are not. I would not know how this could be avoided. Not everyone can come here, that is precisely the tragedy behind the whole thing.

The Red Cross’s utopia assumes the same malleability as the journalist Ron Frese who recently with a penetrating look asked our prime minister “Mr. Rutte, you are surely in control?”. This malleability is far removed from the necessarily always utilitarian colored political acting. Decisive in that arena is what is feasible for the greatest number of people, citizens and migrants, and then always a certain degree of collateral damage is acceptable. It is a form of calculation.

Shouldn’t something like that offend my favorite philosopher Levinas, and therewith myself, squarely? Indeed, isn’t this at odds with the attention that Levinas calls for the other person?
Yes, it definitely is. Especially when you explain Levinas in such a way that you have always to stand ready for everybody everywhere. Actually this is not my standpoint, but yet a complication in his philosophy remains that the Other whom I meet may compete with  another Other, even several Others. To them, I also have the absolute obligations which Levinas is talking about, but because of that the various obligations get relativized to some extent.

Levinas recognizes this socio-political complication, and does not run away from it. But in fact he offers no new perspective and at this point simply joins the Western political-philosophical tradition. Which already for centuries is engaged in reflection on balancing all  competing obligations that people have towards each other. Levinas embraces with enthusiasm the political and legal institutions of our society where that weighing of interests  occurs. He considers their existence of very great importance.

As Levinas’s added value may indeed be considered that he shows that this somewhat bleak socio-political weighing of interests is never just right. Due to the balancing and the corresponding calculation, the original moral obligation will always be betrayed to a certain extent. However blessed the work of our legislators, judges and academics, the institutions in which they work at times exhibit a complacency that in the eyes of Levinas is by definition misplaced. And the stability and quality of their products have a high illusionary content, measured by whether perhaps too much violence is done to the original moral obligation. Levinas never tires to ask attention for that.

Also see How naïve is Levinas really? and Totalitarianism is with us