Ethics and Bare Life; Another Aporia of Modern Democracy
Ethics, according to Emmanuel Levinas, is the first philosophy, elevated above ontology or epistemology. On Levinas’s view, as nicely summarized by Hillary Putnam, the fundamental ethical obligation is to become response-able (responsible) for the welfare of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation. Ethical behavior is fundamentally interpersonal, non-judgmental, face-to-face and established without external imperatives. Bare life, according to the view of Giorgio Agamben, focuses on the excluded, the marginalized, the non-members of society who, through external imperatives by a governing authority are disenfranchised, separated from and isolated from the rest of normative society. Bare life is externally mandated by the sovereign power to eek out an apartheid existence. Sometimes, the isolation is limited applying to a single aspect of life, for example, an unwarranted fear of the other because of skin color, religious beliefs (or non-beliefs), sexual orientation, social class (yes we have social classes in the United States that are not formal but that, nevertheless, exist), politics, or other generalized group membership. We also have examples where bare life, because of a vacuum in political opposition and a well-organized bureaucracy, takes bare life to unthinkable limits where genocide is a political function of the government and is carried out in exquisitely efficient ways so well described by Zygmunt Bauman.
The aporia, the double bind is that of self-directed ethics motivated by the interiority of the self to extend outward to the exteriority and absolute uniqueness of the other and the authoritative imperative motivated by the exteriority of the other and extended inward to invade the interiority of the self in an attempt to reduce the individual into the same, to homogenize the external world into a flat, featureless normality while excluding the uniqueness of the self. Linguistically we might think in terms of the oppositions of diversity/uniformity as representative of the aporia of modernity.
The double bind that is at work here is that one must engage in both worlds, one may choose an ethical stance even in the most horrific exercise of the authority of the sovereign, the one standing outside (not above) the law or one may choose the uniformity of enforcement of separation and isolation. There are, for example, countless stories of people choosing ethics over authority in the death camps of Nazi Germany (read the works of Primo Levy for a few examples). There are examples of those feigning uniformity who, rather than comply, chose to practice an ethical life (think of Schindler’s List as a prime example). And there are also those choosing to comply, even among the victims of the unimaginable homogenization of the death camps (those Jews who chose to do the work of their Nazi guards, to cooperate with their enemy if only to stave off the inevitable for themselves).
While these are extreme examples, we can see the same thing happening in modern democratic societies where the aim of exclusion is not as well defined nor is it as final as the consequences of the Shoah (the Holocaust). Police acting to curb protests, where the police are literally the uniform(ed) arm of the sovereign power, even while the police belong to the same class as those protesting. We see the leaders of religious institutions arguing for the exclusion of others who do not believe in the same specific tenants as they and it is all done in the name of their God or gods while their congregants uniformly accept the preachings of the hate mongers. I witness teachers willingly entering the classroom with the idea of creating a climate of compliance among their students in order to infuse the desire to score well on an imposed standardized test.
In the final analysis, however, the choice of the fundamental ethical obligation trumps uniformity, although that choice is always more dangerous than the choice of compliance, of sinking into the plain vanilla of uniformity. In making the ethical choice, one must constantly confront one’s taken-for-granteds, one’s prejudices and one’s biases in favor of the admission of bias and working to embrace that which one finds different. I recall a personal story as an example here. I was called for jury duty and while my panel was being questioned, one of the attorneys doing the questioning asked something like, ‘Is there anyone who cannot set aside their personal bias and examine the evidence presented to come to a verdict based solely on the evidence presented?’ I found the question a bit strange. I raised my hand and asked. ‘What do you mean by setting aside personal bias?’ The attorney responded, ‘That your verdict be based solely on the evidence presented and that you leave your personal beliefs at home.’ I responded, ‘Then I would have to answer that I cannot set my personal beliefs or bias aside but could only examine evidence in the context of those beliefs. I cannot simply turn off my bias and sink into a uniformity of fair-arbiter. I can listen to all the evidence but I cannot evaluate that evidence unless I evaluate it in light of my core ethical obligations.’ The judge dismissed me from the panel. In order to embrace the other’s diversity, one must also embrace one’s own values as uniquely their own.
The point of this ramble is that the line between diversity/uniformity is one in which we all find ourselves from time to time. The forces of the ethical self are at odds with the forces of uniformity and compliance.