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Ethics and Bare Life; Another Aporia of Modern Democracy

Ethics and Bare Life; Another Aporia of Modern Democracy

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.


Making the Ethical Choice: It’s a Matter of Human Dignity

It does not matter how many people choose moral duty over the rationality of self-preservation — what does matter is that some did.
Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust

Bauman is writing of Jews and Gentiles alike who made the choice to resist the German genocide some refer to as the Holocaust, I prefer the Shoah. But Bauman’s ethics here goes beyond hiding a few Jews from the Nazis or taking up arms to resist. His message is far more ecumenical than that. It is a message that resounds with the courage to resist any and all attempts to substitute morals or ethics with the unrelenting rationality of the modern bureaucratic desire to make any idea one in which efficiency and cost are considered prior to human interaction. Trading proximity for distance is a model for the objectification of the other leading to total separation from that which is social.  It defines the other as outside and thereby creates what Georgio Agamben calls the “state of exception.”

When faced with a difficult decision, one must always choose; decisions are not always easily made. When faced with one’s own mortality, as I am, clearly the choices available are not always clear. Treatment options are presented, research is done, decisions are made. For me, the decisions are made after considering both the ethical and practical aspects of treatment. The first ethical question I ask is will the treatment option help preserve life. Closely thereafter, assuming a positive response from the first question, come questions about the quality of life one can expect from any treatment option available. These are, of course, questions concerning the preservation of life where that life has a quality that is worth sustaining.

There are, of course, other ethical questions to consider. For example, decisions made have an impact on others around me. If I am making the ethical choice I must always consider how that choice will impact those around me. Will I be a burden on those with whom I share a common gene pool or a connection built on love, trust and friendship? Making certain that others are both consulted and kept informed is, for me, a critical consideration as I face my cancer head on.

As of this very moment, I made the choice to undergo the surgical removal of my prostate. During this surgical procedure other organs such as surrounding lymph nodes will also be removed and biopsied to assure that no metastasis has taken place. I rejected options such as proton beam therapy because the overall potential for a cure simply wasn’t there. The surgical option provides me with the best change of long-term survival and so I made it.

Assuming the outcome of surgery is the best possible outcome, I will be available for presenting myself to others with what Hillary Putnam calls Levinas’ Fundamental Ethical Obligation, presenting oneself to the other in order to be of service for the other. Whether the other is family or friend, or simply another human being I do not know, a stranger, my obligation is to present myself without reservation to perhaps be of some help. This ethical obligation comes with some degree of patience. The other has absolutely no obligation to receive help from me and I cannot force the other to accept that help; reciprocation is up to the other. Here I Am…That is my obligation; where are you?

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