11.02.2009

"...a word I rarely use without thinkin'..."

I can't find any of the specific recent sources that are moving me to write this, but my vague impression is that too many academics are getting too comfortable with phrases like "social responsibility" and "collective notions." I'm particularly leery about those academics who work on Ethics uttering these kinds of phrases.

A friend recently posted a link on Facebook with this comment appended:
Alarming story over on /. today: not in the short term, but rather in the long term. Privacy continues to erode. Which is, perhaps, a good thing? Are we only ethical when someone is (potentially) watching? Panopticon?
One of his friends beat me to the reply button: "How is that a good thing?"

I remember having, a couple of years ago, a mind-blowing/eye-opening conversation with one of my most "progressive" friends about ethics. I kept trying to get him to review his own behavior, to evaluate his choices, etc. He kept trying to ask me "What about the poor?--what are you doing for the poor?" Then I asked him, "So, you think voting Democrat is an ethical act?" "Yes!," he finally proclaimed.

That completely stupefied me. His notion of ethical responsibility had become entirely impersonal (unless you count trudging to the voting booth as "personal"). Justice, for him, happened entirely at a collective/social level. Societies were just or unjust, but he wasn't interested in justice at a personal level.

I couldn't find any of the specific articles that I've encountered lately -- but trust me, they're out there -- articles that begin by saying things like, "Now that America has turned its focus from self-interest to collective responsibility...." I'm disturbed by this rhetorical trend. I'm not sure if it's occurring more or if I'm simply noticing it more; in either case, I don't like it. Inherent in that kind of syntax is a removal of ethical responsibilities from individuals and to abstractions like "government."

A different friend, a struggling wedding-photographer and part-time Buddhist who lives with his parents, posted this status update yesterday on Facebook: "[J- B-] opposes social control." I clicked the "like" button. As Scottish folk singer Donovan once sang (in one of the great songs of the 20th century), "Freedom is a word I rarely use without thinkin'." I'm thinking now. And I'm talking about Freedom. I feel like I live with a generation of scholars who has no emotional investment in that notion -- and the Devil always attacks where lukewarmism reigns. Now, go: write me a 250 word essay on what Freedom means to you.

No, wait. Here's a list of things I do wrong:
  • I smile and say "Yeah, ok," and then don't follow through.
  • With people who have power over me, I say what they want to hear; with people who don't have power of me, I speak too bluntly.
  • I don't do enough of my (pregnant) wife's errands.
  • I lie by omitting to mention my lustful thoughts.
  • I'm afraid of so much, so afraid.
  • I half-ass it most days.
  • I am not fulfilling my academic potential.
  • I eat much more than I need.
  • I have closed my mind to certain ways of living.
  • My e-passwords are relatively easy to guess.
  • I never send birthday cards, even to my mom.
  • I teach my students things they're not ready for yet.
  • I argue just to have something to do.
Although this is nowhere near a comprehensive list, it is representative of the kinds of list I wish more academics would start generating in response to the recent surge in "ethics-scholarship." I think it would make the world better than the kind of discourse that focuses on vague abstractions about "others" and "social responsibility" and "collective notions of--."

In other words: I believe that Ethics that has to do with reforming the Self could change the world; and that Ethics that has to do with "collective, social notions of responsibility" can change the world... but not the way you'd want to see it changed. The kingdom of G-d is not out there*, is not over here; it is inside, friends. Explore thyself, Soto! All of the wisdom of all ages points in that direction. All of the folly points outward.

N.B. -- I realize, of course, the dreadful irony at the center of this post: in asking other academics to look inward, I fail to set an example for them. Callooh! Callay!

*A reference to saying #3

2 comments:

Insignificant Wrangler said...

I think the notion of the social-collective is a reflection of postmodern fragmentation of the subject. /end broken record. But, to put a new spin on it: one cannot be ethical alone. Ethics is never a matter of the individual alone.

Although, I will agree that the responsibility to the ethical is an individual labor. We must be accountable for our actions. But accountable to what? Not the self. Nor (because I am agnostic) to God as normally defined. So, to what are we ethical? To the other. THE Other. In the presence of others. But this orientation requires we abandon the Aristotelian conception of ethics in terms of a positive knowledge of Right, Good, Truth, etc.

Rather, it requires accepting a performative notion of ethics, one that does not allow for precise measurements or predetermined ontological choices. Ethics in the moment, and tentative, and hesitant, and unsure. Maybe that's the same broken postmodern record, but I don't think so. I don't think many theorists have paid attention to the fundamental ethical strains of most of postmodern theory. Those theorists didn't just assault modern epistemology and subjectivity. Rather, I think they engage in struggles to rethink our ethical obligation (to others) in the wake of the Holocaust. Oops, there's Godwin's Law. Time to press publish.

Casey said...

I think I understand you a little now... in Emersonian terminology (which is all I have), you're wondering how to bridge the gulf between the Self and the Not-Self ("others" are included in the Not-Self... which might even be a synonym of "The Other" as you use it).

So now let me rewind and answer your original question, having understood it a little: the only way to "negotiate" that space is...

Well, I actually don't want to label it. I think your theorists talk about "aporia?" Something like that. In the old days, they would've talked about mystical communion or something.

I heard an NPR interview the other day with a Baptist minister who was responding to an interview with Richard Dawkins. The first thing he said was, "I don't believe in the God that Richard Dawkins doesn't believe in either. Nobody I know does."

But I won't go too far into trying to argue that academics need to redefine "God" in ways that don't make "God" a straw man. Derrida would want us to.

But back to Emerson, anyway: I know that you are familiar with the ideas presented in "Nature" and "Self-Reliance." It would of course be a stupid thing to stop where Emerson begins: What pretty oracles nature yields us on this text in the face and behavior of children, babes, and even brutes. That divided and rebel mind, that distrust of a sentiment because our arithmetic has computed the strength and means opposed to our purpose, these have not. Their mind being whole, their eye is as yet unconquered, and when we look in their faces, we are disconcerted. Infancy conforms to nobody; all conform to it.

But... to get beyond that view, the Self has to "wake up" to the reality that the separation between Self and Not-Self is only an illusion. This is why I hesitate to either codify ethics or make it "social." The change really does need to be internal -- it's a "change of heart," to put it romantically. Recognition of Oneness is "realization" of Oneness. See it. Once your heart is changed, once you see that "I" and "You" are illusions, there is no question or problem of ethics. There's only being. And it's this. It's this.

(I don't mean any of this to be especially "persuasive," just some stuff to chew on.)

Anyway, say more. I'm hooked.