Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Acceptance of the Other

Against Justice (or Why John Rawls is Unimpressive)

Justice does not interest me. Ethics can be fascinating; morality and the issues that stem from it are of ultimate concern in almost the Tillichian sense, but justice presumes the existence of that which I find abhorrent: civilized society. Justice seeks to make ethical that which can never be right and good; I believe quite firmly that humans should never live under conditions such that a system of justice becomes necessary. One way to argue this would be with the tradition of anarchist thought, but I am not well enough versed in that literature to lay out the socio-political arguments against civilization in a convincing manner. Instead I will make a philosophical argument for why the divide between the self and the other cannot be bridged, and from this will follow the same essential conclusion for political life as that of 20th century anarchism.

I offer the following as a disclaimer: I am aware of the intensely psychological undertones of this discussion. The central element of my experience is my oppositionality; it is what lies at the root of the vast gulf between my views and those of most of my peers (and what causes me to conceive of things in terms of vast gulfs). The principle result of this is, and has been for some time, isolation. I am alone – I feel alone – to an extent that I gather is quite uncommon. I offer this disclosure, personal as it is, because of how it likely colors the metaphysical points I am about to make. The social creature may well find what I am about to argue nonsensical, to him I stand in mute incomprehension. To the man who feels nothing but empathy for his fellow men and sees the right and good in everything, my philosophy is useless. It is to those who feel otherwise that I write, those who intuit otherness when they look into the face of their brother, those who have no, and want no, place in civilized industrial society.

The Self and the Other

When people talk about the idea of the self and the other they often do so in a way that I feel dismisses the seriousness of the distinction. An example of this is the feminist rhetoric that takes issue with that which they claim is necessary for the deeply rooted misogyny of our culture: the male view of the female as other. They seem to be saying that if only we could see our inner oneness with these things we consider other, we could overcome our problems with them. What I intend to argue is that, in terms of human interaction, the difference between the self and the other is the problem, but it is not a problem like skin color for racial relations, where it is a superficial difference that points to no deeper division, rather it is a problem like gravity for the pioneers of flight – it is real, it is powerful, and it is absolute. The distinction between the self and the other is inherent in our epistemology, and thus should be reflected in our metaphysics. It is not to be dismissed or overcome or wished away, rather it is the central fact of our existence. All the world is other, and until we can accept that we are not the same as the world, as rocks and trees and other animals, as other people, and stop expecting to be the same, we will not escape the hell of the empathy-antipathy divide.
The most basic human reaction when we see another person is to compare them to ourselves. We identify them as a member of the same species and then attempt to determine their possible relationship to us: potential mate or potential competitor, native or foreigner, friend or enemy. These are surface-level judgements made immediately, but we continue to judge people against ourselves as we proceed to interact with them. This activity is basically predictive – we are attempting to understand them so as to predict their behavior (which is what “understanding someone” amounts to), although how we do this is where the empathy-antipathy divide shows itself. On the most fundamental, certain, level, all we can know is ourself; therefore we make these predictive judgements by comparing the person, the other, to ourself. If we see similarities, we tend to empathize, if not, we antipathize. But before this process is explained we must establish the claim that the only certain knowledge is of the self.

Kant’s Subjectivity and the Basis of All Knowledge

The founding principle of modern thought was Rene Descartes’ insight that the only knowledge that was completely beyond all possible doubt was the knowledge of our own existence as thinking things. Although his “Mediations” were flawed in many ways, they opened the door for a much more honest examination of what it means to know and what can truly be known than ever before. The great innovator in this field was Immanuel Kant, whose Critique of Pure Reason initiated what he termed a Copernican Revolution in metaphysics. What Kant’s epistemology did was reverse the position of the knower to the known. Because we cannot verify that our sensory data is accurate, our conceptions of objects must be regarded only as representations, rather than things in themselves. While this means that subjectivity is unavoidable, it does not follow that relativity, and therefore skepticism, is inevitable. Our experience of the object, from which our concept of it is derived, is not arbitrary. Experience necessitates understanding and therefore has rules and conditions which can be known a priori (before experience). These conditions of experience, what makes experience possible according to Kant, are space, time and causality. Following the metaphor of the Copernican revolution, before Kant we considered ourselves, us and our fellow men, to orbit the same objective world, but after him we each find ourselves as the center of our own subjective universe, which, though not arbitrary or relativistic, gives us no assurance that what we experience corresponds with the experiences of anyone else.
From this basic epistemological fact comes the necessity of the divide between the self and the other. If there is an existence outside of the self, which is in the Cartesian sense doubtful, it may be of the same basic stuff as ourselves, Arthur Schopenhauer’s Vedantic-inspired “will” and modern physics both give support to this notion, but the way in which we know creates an unbridgeable divide between the self and the other.

The Empathy-Antipathy Divide

This realization about knowledge, that everything we see except ourselves are representations and not things in themselves, must inform all deduction that follows it. Our only base of reference when we are attempting to examine another person’s inner life is ourselves – we look for those traits that we know in ourselves and when we see them we empathize and when we cannot find them we antipathize.
What it means to empathize is to expand the self to include the object of empathy, we see that person as we would see ourself. This should not be confused with some sort of actual “oneness,” like Schopenhauer suggested, but is rather a function of our group-forming social tendencies. There may be an underlying blind will driving everything forward like Schopenhauer claimed, but this is not what we are referencing when we empathize. What we are doing is more of a confusion than an appeal to deeper reality – to act as if another person is yourself is, to some extent, irrational. They are not the self, they are the other; one can bring them into the self by recognizing their similar traits with the self, but there is no mechanism by which the distinction between the self and the other may be broken down.
Schopenhauer believed otherwise and his view deserves mention if only for the purpose of refutation. Schopenhauer’s entire more philosophy was based on the idea that egoistic self-interested actions could never have moral value but that through empathy we could reach compassion, in which the ego is suspended and the distinction between the self and the other breaks down. His argument is fraught with difficulties, beginning with his disinterested dismissal of alternative views of morality and continuing through his often self-contradictory terminology (At first he writes, in On The Basis of Morals, of “what it is that can move human beings to actions of this sort,” but then clarifies this ethical mover as the “genuine moral incentive” upon which “all ethics may be supported”. That there would be an incentive for a moral action implies that there is self-interest involved, for only without an incentive, without any possible physical or psychological reward, could the kind of disinterested moral action Schopenhauer is seeking exist.) The basic problem with his idea of compassion is that if I must imagine another person as an extension of myself in order to act on their behalf instead of mine, which is how he describes compassion operating, the action is still fundamentally egoistic. It is a confused, contorted egoism, but an egoism none the less. What Schopenhauer claims is breaking down egoism by suspending the difference between the self and the other is actually expanding it – instead of acting for our own self-interest, we act for the self-interest of our collective self.
But returning to our social tendencies, the self and the other expresses itself in political life as an Us and Them mentality. On the most basic level, the “Us” is the self and the “Them” is the other, but in order to live in society we expand the self via empathy to include a group of similar individuals. The fact that these individuals remain individuals, that is, individual selves that are other, can be seen as the basis of the denial of society that will be posited in the conclusion. In contemporary liberal circles it is fashionable to express disdain for “Us and Them” thinking, but this is an empty rhetoric. The “Us” may be the human race or the the animal kingdom but it remains an “Us” to which there must be and always is a “Them.”
To antipathize is therefore the opposite of all of this. It is to specifically designate someone as not-self, other with all the most hostile implications of the word. But otherness does not necessitate antipathy – antipathy only occurs when we look for ourself in another person, expecting to find it and instead seeing something foreign. How this examination produces antipathy is vital to my argument. What advocates of diversity and tolerance often seem to forget is that there is not an underlying oneness we will see in all people if we look deep enough. We are, of course, all humans, all members of the same species, and therefore my last point can appear nonsensical. We must, however, realize that the notion of a “species” is a human invention – it is a useful categorization that refers, according to the theory of biological classification, to the ancestry of all organisms, but all that it really means, the judgement upon which we specify what constitutes one species versus another, is the ability to mate and produce genetically functional offspring. Therefore, there is a degree of difference between the genetic material of myself and my sister, this is smaller than the degree of difference between myself and a South African tribesman, and both are smaller than the degree of difference between myself and a pigeon, but in a species differentiation is always a matter of degrees of difference and never of fundamental unity.
Returning to the issue of antipathy, close examination of another person in the light of the self can produce empathy, but just as often produces antipathy. However, this is not inevitable to the examination of the other; a personal example will make this clearer. I come into contact with people with whom I feel no sense of oneness every day. I attend a Jesuit Catholic University on Capitol Hill - besides an x chromosome I have nothing in common with most of the people I am surrounded with. This causes a great deal of antipathy – they are other, but they are an other that I feel should not be an other; they are people, they speak my language, why should I not see more of myself in them? Compare this with how I feel toward a continual source of fascination for me, the oak tree outside the window of my classroom. It is certainly other, if I call it self I must be including all life, but I feel no antipathy toward it; neither do I feel empathy, it is not like me and I am not like it – there is no reason for it to be otherwise. I can only do this, feel no antipathy towards something so other, because I would never think to look for myself in it.

Ontological Isolation and the Acceptance of the Other

A brief summary of the points that have been covered is in order. Because the divide between the self and the other goes back to our most basic philosophical position, Kantian epistemology, it cannot be overcome. Civilized society is doomed to antipathy because it attempts to present oneness, when no such unity between the self and the other exists, or can exist, but if that oneness is rejected from the start, antipathy is impossible – one could as easily feel threatened by a rock or a tree as by the otherness of a person. The remaining questions are what the practical expression of this acceptance of the other would be and where this leaves empathy, the two are intimately connected.
The denial of oneness with the other completes the ontological isolation begun by Kant’s epistemology, for all rapport with other people must be seen as illusory. And without this oneness the hope of empathy disappears, leaving the threat of antipathy to drive away all desire for relation between the self and the other. In the wake of this revelation, human society becomes abhorrent, and justice an empty notion. Yet there is peace in the blackness of this anti-sociability. The desire to breach the gulf between the self and the other is found in the hope for empathy, and the true pain and horror of antipathy is the denial of that desire. So without it, with the full acceptance of the totality of ontological isolation, there is, in the Buddhist sense, no suffering.
The practical expression of this philosophy is admittedly, despite the introductory words on justice, not the goal of this essay. I do not know what degree of antipathy must be endured to live in the world, or whether the inevitable conclusion must be ascetic hermitage. Regardless, society must be seen in this light as a thing unnatural to our basic character as thinking things.

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