signposts

I have been doing some computer and files housekeeping, and uncovered an older article from the NYTimes “The Stone” column (about philosophy), that merits comment. The article, “What We Owe to Others: Simone Weil’s Radical Reminder,” by Robert Zaretsky recalls that her “reflections on the nature of obligation offer a bracing dose of sanity in our perplexing and polarizing times.” It’s a great article and deserves to be read in its entirety.

Zaretsky focuses on Weil’s concern about the focus on one’s rights, a personal concern versus what is morally right, an impersonal, universal concept.

The problem, for Weil, with the liberal conception of rights — and the laws that codify them — is that it is rooted in the personal, not the impersonal. Our society, she insists, is one where personal rights are tied at the hip to private property. Taking his cue from Weil, political theorist Edward Andrew suggests that a rights-based society “is the consensual society where everything is vendible at constitutional conventions or the marketplace.” This reveals what Weil, like Thomas Hobbes, believes to be the sole universal truth concerning human affairs: certain groups will always wield greater clout than other groups. “Rights talk” deals with the relative and alienable, not absolute and inalienable. For Weil, the old joke about our legal system — “How much justice can you afford?” — takes on a tragic immediacy.

Weil argues that what is right springs from a sense and understanding of others. Her use of “impersonal,” importantly, does not mean abstract or objective. It refers to moral duties that are not directed inwardly to satisfy one’s selfish interests. In fact, such duties to Weil are the polar opposite of abstract; they arise from the needs and concerns of the other. In the model of the divided brain I have been writing about, these two distinctions, rights and right, correspond to actions that spring from the left and right hemispheres, respectively. The abstract set of rights that can be claimed by someone as the ethical basis for action would primarily involve the left brain, while the right action, that is, empathetic actions that reflect the Other, are primarily rooted in the right-brain. So, here we have yet another example of the dichotomous nature of the way we see and act in the world. In philosophical lingo, the contrast between rights and right corresponds roughly to the difference between utilitarian and deontological ethics. Utilitarians couch the argument for “rights” in some sort of abstract calculus (left); deontology (for pragmatists, like me and others) ultimately derive moral rules from observing the consequences of an actions in real-time (right).

Deontologically based morality has two categories: individual and communitarian. An isolated individual builds a set of rules, obligations, or duties, that is, what the right thing to do, out of right-brain experiences in real-time and subsequent assessments of the outcomes. Communitarian duties, rules, or obligations result from consensus involving outcomes from communal activities, also the result of the right brain. There is nothing abstract about them, although they may appear absolute and timeless. They are fundamentally contingent on the circumstances from which they have been derived. Not being a formal philosopher, I may have blurred these categories, but, in any case, the basic dichotomy between rights and right and left-brain and right-brain is quite evident. In the next quote from the Times’ article, the critical role of right-brain’s form of attention is called out.

Moral situations require, as one of Weil’s great fans, Iris Murdoch, wrote, an “unsentimental, detached, unselfish and objective perspective.” Such attentiveness allows a moral and political clarity that “rights language” simply cannot. Paying attention, for Weil, is the most fundamental of our obligations. It forces us to recognize that what she calls “le malheur,” or suffering, lies in store for all of us. “I may lose at any moment,” she wrote, “through the play of circumstances over which I have no control, anything whatsoever I possess, including things that are so intimately mine that I consider them as myself.”

I disagree with the words that Murdoch uses; they are confusing, butI think she has the basic sense correct, but isn’t clear. Weil is more direct about attention as capturing the immediate situation, and in particular, the “malheur” or suffering. Her use of “attention” epitomizes the primary way the right-brain takes in the scene in its full contextual richness. Weil’s last sentence, above, is especially disturbing these days as it captures the plight of immigrants, especially the “dreamers.” Cruel actions exemplify the extreme opposite of Weil’s morality; they are blind to the suffering of others. The primacy of the avoidance of cruelty was a theme found in the works of Judith Shklar, who saw cruelty as the worst of evils.

Cruelty, as the willful inflicting of physical pain on a weaker being in order to cause anguish and fear… is a wrong done entirely to another creature. When it is marked as a supreme evil, it is judged so in and of itself, and not because it signifies a rejection of God or any other higher norm. It is a judgement made from within a world where cruelty occurs as part both of our normal private life and our daily public practice. By putting it irrevocably first – with nothing above it, and with nothing to excuse or forgive acts of cruelty – one closes off any appeal to any order other than that of actuality. (Shklar, “Putting Cruelty First,” Daedalus 111:3, Summer, 1982, pp. 17-28)

Rorty, similarly to Weil, saw that definitions of abstractions, like rights, depended on the contingent, arbitrary origins of these claims. His pragmatic stance eschews any belief that there is some metaphysical source of truth about the Self, Knowledge, or God that could be used to ground a set of moral criteria, such as rights. Any notion of “right” as a rule for living must have its origin in experience and reflection on that experience.

The dehumanizing and cruelty that is the centerpiece of the President’s politics and policy would certainly have drawn the rhetorical ire of Simone Weil. She wrote in the aftermath of WWII, a global eruption of cruelty. While I cannot compare the present to that moment in history, there is, nevertheless, much too much cruelty being expressed to allow our society to make any claims of the welcoming, caring nation of the American Dream. That we call the children of immigrations, dreamers is the ultimate irony. The late Richard Rorty’s eyebrows would surely be raised.

(Image: William Hogarth, The Reward of Cruelty, 1751)