Volume One, No. 3 | June 2001
j_spot online edition ISSN 1481 8 5842
What to do about ethics?
Ethics is a problem in postmodernity. Thinking along Heideggerian lines, one might argue this problem started with Nietzsche's proclamation of the death of God and his critique of all values hitherto. But even Nietzsche shuddered a little at the thought of losing morality; he felt the coldness of space encroaching as the light of religion and its absolute values dimmed in 19th century Europe 1 Nietzsche is all too often understood as heralding a Dionysian modern era, but he was also a self acknowledged heir to "the ascetic" tradition of Western morality).2 If even Nietzsche feared the repercussions of letting ethics go, what about the rest of us? John Caputo, who admits to being kept awake at night by Nietzsche's philosophical insight into the problem of ethics, begins his book Against Ethics3 by professing his trepidation about coming out against the venerable name of ethics. But what else is to be done if the foundations of ethics have been swept away, if every cultural, historical, theological or metaphysical support has been called into question? What is to be done if there is no knowledge in ethics, no certainty, no absolutes, no saving laws or formulas which solve all problems before they begin?
But perhaps the situation is not as dire as that. There is something suspicious about this assessment of the state of ethics. It seems too easy to say that ethics once dealt strictly with what could be "cognized" as objectively certain and universally true, whereas now, after Nietzsche, after Heidegger, after the end of Western metaphysics, we find ourselves in a precarious situation. The problem of ethics is a problem which recurs in the strangest times and places, manifesting itself before those who have eyes to see it or ears to hear it coming. The problem of ethics in postmodernity may have more to do with the way contemporary theorists tend to think of ethics. It has become common to connect ethics with cognition, designating it as a form of knowledge to be grasped by the cognitive subject. This view of ethics presupposes that there was once certainty, well-cleared ground, precise formulas and consensus regarding their legitimacy, but that since the cognitive subject has been knocked off its pedestal, a hole as been left at the centre of all of these schemes. On this view, the loss of certain knowledge leads to the destabilization of ethics, and to a certain amount of hand-wringing: How are ethics to be conceived if not as a matter of knowledge? Are we not lost on a sea of radical heteronomy where any number of approaches to ethics drift beside one another, sometimes colliding when the weather gets rough? This loss of a ballast seems to leave us with what Jameson calls a postmodern antinomy,4 a situation where on the one hand there can be no ethical certainty while on the other we find ourselves treating ethics as an important question, and, even more significantly, relying on and presupposing at least a rudimentary or minimal set of ethical conditions that structure the relationships between persons.
If it were really true that each of us occupied a position which was incommensurable with the position of every other, it would also be the case that there would be no debate over ethics, only silence, no matter how loudly one spoke. The fact that people still talk about ethics is very encouraging then. We might even go so far as to say we are still speaking ethically or unethically, or at least that we are still seeking modes of discourse that respect the dignity of those involved. The fact that we can and do have debate must at least say something about the place of trust and listening as forms of respect for and engagement with the other. But these responses to the problem of ethics can be seen less as a solution to Jameson's antinomy than a covert attempt to resolve it by one-sidedly favoring the rules and structures that govern discourse. This one-sided formalism reveals a deeper problem with ethics, one that goes beyond the question of how to interpret the "tradition of ethics."5 Formalism imposes abstract economic structures which regulate what is exchanged, gained or lost in the actual relations between persons. Formalism circumscribes the diverse interactions between persons with the simple maxim - which can always be universalized - know the rules and play the game properly. Such rules have very little to say about those who do not play the game of ethics properly. For example, how can they be used to account for an act of violence? One of the results of this view of ethics would be the reduction of violent acts - rape, abuse, murder - to performative contradictions, a disregard for the rules of engagement with the other. In such cases the formal structure of the dialogic relationship between agent and other is grossly exceeded by the content within it, the act itself. No economic system of reciprocal relations between self and other, of debt, repayment, and equality between participants, could comprehend the violence and brutality such acts involve, nor could it begin to address the damage done to the victims.
The problem of the excess that cannot be bound within the formal economy of exchange is not limited to such extreme negative instances alone, but also extends to positive acts: giving to the other goes "beyond economy," the limits of a system of exchange.6 Caputo makes the case that deconstruction, a deconstruction of ethics, goes beyond the economies of traditional ethics. He describes ethics as deconstructing its own economic relations from within, at its very heart, viz., its desire to preserve and defend "obligation".7 Obligation, which in its most primary sense is the obligation to the other, is at once "within ethics" and beyond it. Obligation goes beyond ethics by disrupting all attempts to regulate, measure or calculate what is given and what is owed through an economy of relations. In Derrida's view, responsibility to the other and for the other does not and cannot find a grounding in knowledge. Responsibility as praxis cannot be carried out through calculation and decisions based upon the contingencies of any given situation. Responsibility, justice and giving all go beyond the economy of calculation, leaving us perpetually in the crucible of undecidability. And yet Derrida also argues that there is a structure to responsibility and relationships between others. Deconstruction, then, is not the end of ethics, even though it often expresses itself hyperbolically as being "against ethics" or going "beyond" ethics. Deconstruction does not lead to the destruction of ethics but to its salvation.
The price of salvation is the loss of reliability, the reliability of calculative mechanisms, cognitive certainties and universal foundations. But how can a structure of responsibility or obligation be maintained without an economy of exchange, of owing and giving, of recognition and reciprocity? Will economic considerations not always creep in as soon as judgments are made about what to do for another? If I give to one person, group or cause, is it not, as Derrida suggests, at the expense of another person, group or cause? Making a decision requires that one's energies and resources are channeled in certain directions and not others. And yet it does not follow from this that one is absolved from responsibilities and obligations to others; and if it did, that would mean responsibility and obligation are circumscribed by economic considerations. Caputo argues that such considerations must enter the field of obligation at times as a corrective to the idea of an infinite or absolute other who might displace the particular others to whom one is obliged. This leads him in turn to place certain limitations on which others count as others, and therefore on the scope of obligation. Derrida tends to take a different approach, emphasizing instead the inevitable failure of responsibility, the impossibility of being responsible to all to whom one should be responsible. By looking at the tension between Caputo's more circumspect take on obligation and Derrida's view on the impossibility of responsibility, I hope to shed light on the question of how a deconstructive ethics positions itself in relation to the economic arrangements of exchange, reciprocity, owing, giving, and further, how it might account for or legitimate its use of these arrangements without binding "the ethical" to the limitations of formalism.8
Responsibility and Obligation: Caputo, Derrida and Deconstructive Approaches to Ethics
Responsibility and obligation press upon us in the actual experience of dealing with others in everyday life. One is responsible and one responds before one has a chance to perform a transcendental deduction to figure out what it means to be responsible and what is required in order to be responsible. If there is any weight to the situation, one will probably spend some time judging, mulling, assessing options, weighing concerns and so forth, but this is not the same as reviewing the structure of responsibility and the complexities of the relationship to the other qua other. If I do something as simple as answer a call, from a friend or from a stranger, I have responded. Responding is something we all do every day, and not merely on those more rarefied occasions when we are called upon to decide the fate of another person and to become heroic or tragic through our moments of decision.
To say this about responsibility is not to slight the gravity of those moments, or to water responsibility down to a point where it becomes so diluted as to be meaningless; instead, it is to speak to what Derrida calls the difficulty of "thematizing" responsibility.9 According to Derrida, no effort to reduce or confine responsibility to a theoretical doctrine can ever capture what it means to be responsible: "The activating of responsibility (decision, act, praxis) will always take place before and beyond any theoretical determination".10 That theory cannot capture this moment of responsibility in its fullness and depth is not due to an insufficiency on the part of cognitive knowledge. Responsibility is not an object of knowledge, not something to be cognitively analyzed and set down in the form of a set of rules or doctrine. This of course does not mean that we cannot think about or should not think about what it means to be responsible, it only means that responsibility cannot be reduced to a calculation or formula. Responsibility is always about practice first and foremost, and it is only found in practice, taking place in the interaction and engagement between self and other(s). Caputo puts this point very succinctly when he writes, "obligation happens".11 We experience obligations, we feel obliged to others all the time, but we cannot, according to Caputo, go beyond this experience to know why we are obliged or how it happens that we become obliged, what transcendental conditions shape our natures such that we experience the phenomenon of obligation.12 Obligations simply occur by virtue of the fact that we interact with others, that we see their faces, talk to them, witness their suffering or pain. It is the encounter with the other that both initiates any particular experience of responsibility and determines its general structure. When the other approaches, responsibility and obligation begin. When a call is sent, even a silent or indirect one, conveyed by an expression of suffering on a face or body, or through a cry of pain or vocalized appeal, then one is called to respond, even obliged to respond. Caputo never tires of pointing out that this is fundamentally different from the Heideggerian call of Being and that "the call of the other" comes only from the suffering of beings with flesh and blood.13 Others are always coming, always heading toward us, whether in our immediate proximity or thousands of miles away in another country. The only way in which these claims end is in death, in one's own death or the death of all others.
The talk of the other, of "every other (one) as every (bit) other" (tout autre est tout autre) as Derrida says,14 of the perpetual and endless coming of the other which can never arrive without annihilating all experience of the other, is indicative of the quasi-transcendental, quasi-biblical dimension of Derrida's view of responsibility and Caputo's view of obligation. Derrida speaks of the "messianic" structure of the coming of the other, of the conception of time and history it entails.15 Caputo repeatedly acknowledges the Jewish roots of obligation, opposing them to what he sees as the Greek and Germanic dimensions of the Western philosophical tradition. In addition to this, both acknowledge their debts to Levinas and Kierkegaard.16 This debt to biblical religious thought is significant because it indicates the distance Derrida and Caputo see between responsibility and obligation on the one hand and "traditional philosophical approaches" to ethics on the other.
Where Derrida stresses the sense of the infinite distance that characterizes the coming of the other, Caputo tends to emphasize the here and now of the other's presence in the form of a suffering human being. A subtle yet important difference in the way Derrida and Caputo configure the other begins to come to light here. For Derrida, the distance of the other does not lead to a lack of responsibility, or to a non-response, turning away, or complacency. One must act even when the act is bound to fall short, to be inadequate, even sinful in the sense that one cannot do right by every other. Attending to one person, to one situation, will, in Derrida's view, inevitably lead to neglect of another, as he clearly indicates in the following passage from The Gift of Death:
Caputo does not cast obligation in such grave terms, which is not to say that he doesn't address the difficulties involved in attending to the other. But there is a righteous joy which comes through his words when he writes of obligation that is absent in Derrida's account of responsibility. For Caputo, certain others are at a distance, beyond the pale of consideration because they are not in need. Caputo tends to focus on what he calls "disasters." By disaster he means the other who has been struck by life and incurred an "unrecoverable loss" as a result, the one who has fallen outside of the smooth economic operations of formal ethics.18 This conception of the other allows those who are most in need to come into relief, to stand out from the rest. Someone on the other side of the world, known to me only by the disaster that she has endured, can be closer to me via obligation than a person sitting beside me on the bus on my way home. Distance and proximity are reconfigured in the light of obligation. This also true for Derrida, except as he describes it, responsibility makes it even harder to decide which other I am closest to or furthest from, the one I owe the most to and the one who is not (as) deserving. In his view, responsibility is hyperbolic, it always goes past its limits, its markers, the boundaries of the territory it sets for itself. The coming of the other, always at a distance, keeps the horizon ahead open.
When Derrida writes that we are all of us at every moment of every day in the land of Moriah,19 the place where the other is sacrificed for the sake of another other, he radicalizes both responsibility and otherness in a way which Caputo does not. Certainly, Caputo allows for infinite possible obligations to various others, but he limits quite strictly his definition of otherness to victims, to the Levinasian other(s) found in the persons of the widow, the child, and the orphan.20 Derrida, although clearly sympathizing with victimized figures (and who wouldn't if she wanted to remain responsible?), presents a very different view of the other(s) to whom one is responsible. It is not only the suffering one who is the other, not only the victim or the one who has been marginalized within a corrupt system, it is also the one who is close to one's heart, such as a child or friend, or, in contrast, it is the other who does not speak one's language and to whom one cannot respond. While otherness is not a genus, a universal category or an abstract idea, it is also not limited to the world weary other who most appeals to sentiment or sympathy. Otherness is not restricted to those it is easiest to see as the other. And, even if this were the case, attention to the neediest other will result, inevitably, in the inattention to innumerable others in need. As a result, at any given moment of any given day one has infinite responsibilities to others that cannot possibly be met. In Derrida's view, as hard as it sounds, one is always responsible for one's responses, for another response is always possible, and this means that one is responsible for one's lack of response to anyone. Responsibility is thus the excess of the economic relations between persons, as justice is always in excess of the economy of the law. No one can ever be responsible enough.
Caputo's description of obligation lends itself more to these economic relations because it tends to deal with responses to a certain type of other, focusing intently on the other who has suffered a disaster. In doing so, Caputo narrows the field of obligation considerably. For Derrida, each obligation one takes on is accompanied by a failure to meet a series of other obligations to other persons, groups, causes, etc.. The inevitability of this failure is in part what leads responsibility, if it is to be truly responsible, beyond any notion of an ethical economy of debt and repayment, of reciprocal exchange, of giving what is owed.
Fear and Trembling Beyond Economy: The Test of Abraham and The Temptation of Ethics
In the 19th century, Kierkegaard resolved to makes difficulties everywhere and to slow things down in a European culture that was accelerating rapidly. It was then that he revisited the story of Abraham and suggested that however far his own time believed itself to have gone beyond Abraham, it had not, and indeed could not, for there is no going beyond Abraham's faith.21 Over a hundred years later, certain postmodern students of Kierkegaard have returned to Abraham under similar circumstances. Theorists like Virilio and Baudrillard have argued that techno-scientific culture is speeding towards the complete absorption of the world, a reduction of time and space to a zero point, or to a new form of space and time which in effect is a simulation or virtualization, divorced from the life of flesh and blood that grounds obligation and responsibility.22 Just as Kierkegaard did, Derrida and Caputo attempt to capture the tension between a hyper-accelerated culture and the suspension of time brought on by the relation to the other. There is a paradox in this moment of relation: time is opened up in the same moment as it is suspended. Derrida might characterize this moment of suspense as undecidability. Decisions about how to deal with others may be instantaneous or they may involve weeks, months or even years of deliberation; but whatever the duration, any true decision will have to pass through the ordeal of undecidability.
In the undecidable moment, any chronological measure of time is ruptured by the infinite relation to the other who intrudes and interrupts.23 To speak of the test of Abraham is to speak of this experience, of passing through it, enduring it and being conscious of it. One cannot be unconscious of responsibility or obligation, of the call of the other, since a lack of consciousness here would indicate the corruption of responsibility. Even though the experience of obligation is one of feeling, of feeling the presence of the other, the weight of the other's needs, obligation is not simply about following inclination or sentiment. If there is no thinking about or no questioning of responsibility, what could the ordeal of Abraham mean? If Abraham knew what to do without having to spend a moment's time reflecting on whether it was "right" to obey the call of God, then his story would be one of a monumentally difficult sacrifice (which thankfully he did not have to make), but it would hardly be the ordeal described as a horror religiosus in Fear and Trembling or mysterium tremendum in The Gift of Death.24 The decision to sacrifice Issac would be unspeakably painful, awful, outrageous, even tragic, but nevertheless it would be understandable given the logical structure of the hierarchical relationship between God as the author of law and Abraham as its duty bound subject. Abraham would merely be doing what he knows is right, and what everyone else who lives in fear of God knows is right. In other words, he would be living within the realm of ethics. And yet, following the Kierkegaardian reading of Abraham's test, this is precisely what he does not do.
The fact that Abraham doesn't do this reveals why his test is so important to Caputo and Derrida, and why it is still a test in postmodernity. The test defies all calculation and all knowledge, as well as the absolute status that might be granted to virtue, the public good, law, or the realm of the ethical in general. If Abraham could have been justified before the laws of the ethical realm, he would have been a hero, but not a "knight of faith;" and yet, if he were subject to the standards of the ethical alone, he could only be judged a madman and a murderer.25 The remaining space, which is not simply between the two options of criminal or hero but in excess of them, is the space of undecidability, the space of the test the other puts to us. Undecidability is not limited here strictly to the Abrahamic test of relating to the other; it also comes into play in the way we think about or interpret Abraham and his test. If one draws Abraham back towards the ethical, towards an economy of exchange, decidability, calculation, the normative, the knowable, then the significance of the Abraham story is lost.26 The relationship to the other would then become conditioned rather than absolute: rules of thumb would be issued in order to know whom to give to, and explanations could be offered regarding the selection of one's obligations. The ethical realm, with its lucid communicability, is itself a temptation for Abraham.27 The test would not be what it is if ethics were simply cast aside as valueless.28 The public space of ethics, of disclosure, of communication and comprehension, this is where the worst tribulations of a moral agent are comforted and eased, where the burden of heroic tasks is lightened by public recognition of the nature and character of the hero's deeds. There would be no horror, no disgust, no fear or trembling over Abraham's trial if these things were not true of the ethical realm, if one were not tempted to dwell within it for all of one's days.
Then again, the stakes involved in Abraham's test might be considered from another point of view, one which is more concerned with mercy towards the other than establishing the inner depths of an agent's sense of obligation. Caputo provides an alternative reading along these lines in Against Ethics, commenting on a version of the story told from Sarah's perspective as the wife of Abraham and mother of Issac.29 In this version, "the moral" of Abraham's story is that abstract duty is replaced by the obligation to the particular other. The face-to-face encounter between father and son at the moment the sacrifice was to take place caused Abraham to break down, and, in that instant, to forsake the economy of blood sacrifice, the only purpose of which was to prove absolute obedience to God.30 According to Caputo, the "story" of Abraham is thus shifted or decentred to become the story of Issac and, even more importantly, the story of Sarah, whose conception of God as merciful differs radically from that of Abraham's ascetic God who wishes the faithful to sever all connections to the world. Yet the story is still about obligation, the profound moment in which one becomes obliged to the other. This reading thus allows the story to retain edifying value without binding obligation to an incomprehensible sacrifice. Further still, it offers a critique of a certain economy, viz., the sacrifice of an irreplaceable other to an abstract, remote voice which calls for obedience to duty at all costs. Caputo's reading of this version of the story - which he does not claim as his own but as one given to him by an anonymous author who was identified only by the pseudonym Johanna de Silentio - does something very different with Abraham than the author of Fear and Trembling.31 This version is also much closer to the judgment of "good conscience," which would be more than happy to offer a critique of blood sacrifice but not as happy with the terror, silence, madness, incomprehensibility, and death associated with Abraham's test in Fear and Trembling.
Where does Caputo stand with respect to the test of Abraham? Is there more than one test that Abraham's story offers? There is no question that in Caputo's view, obligation finds one of its great heroes in Abraham; it is Abraham's story which is to be opposed to the tendency exhibited by certain philosophers to beautify ethics.32 According to Caputo, the story of Abraham is incomprehensible to philosophical ethics because it denies the comfort and cleanliness of ethical universalism in favor of obligation. And yet obligation is not just Abrahamic, not just Jewish, but "jewgreek" in Caputo's terms.33 Caputo unapologetically distances himself from what he calls the Levinasian conception of the infinite other.34 It is the consideration of the particular that brings Caputo back towards the Greek, to an Aristotlean conception of action with a strong emphasis on self interest, an interest which can never depart from itself, its desire for happiness or eudamonia.35 He questions, as we have already seen, which others deserve attention, but he also questions the motives of self-sacrifice, and in doing so he argues that considerations of the self are impossible to eliminate. As he puts it, one is always on the "margins" of obligation, on the margins of the practical impossibility of obligation, of an obligation which can never be realized perfectly.36
For very sound pragmatic reasons, Caputo will not completely surrender himself to obligation. It follows from this that he need not and will not surrender the idea that obligation has at least a minimal economic structure, and that therefore one's resources only ought to go to those most deserving of them. His "reality-check" on obligation allows him to encounter the other in a way that upholds the idea we looked at earlier, i.e., that the other is always the victim, always the downtrodden, always the oppressed. This view of the other then becomes the first principle of the economy of obligation, followed closely by a second, which is that "the power of obligation varies directly with the powerlessness of the one that calls for help".37 It could be argued that Caputo's defence of obligation avoids the excess of infinite otherness, or the infinite Other. The problem of an infinite obligation to the other derives not only from the impossibility of its fulfillment, but from the potential undesirability of its consequences. It would be easier to take on a great responsibility, one that requires sacrifice and guaranteed personal loss, if a good outcome can at least be reasonably expected. For Caputo such an outcome would be that the suffering of an other, an other who has been victimized, abused, violated, shunned, is alleviated. But even among these people (if we can justly restrict ourselves only to them), to whom do we give and how do we justify our choice? As Derrida points out, meeting one obligation will necessarily result in the failure to meet another. To give to one stranger may result in the practical impossibility of giving to another, thus leaving her suffering unattended. The economy of giving is always exceeded by the infinite debt to otherness, a debt which can never be repaid, that will be forever on the books, so to speak, as long as one lives.
Caputo's position on obligation is a little more sanguine than is Derrida's (or Kierkegaard's) on the paradox of responsibility. For Caputo, a deconstructive approach to ethics is based on "(good) judgment and know how" combined with undecidability.38 This is true for Derrida as well, up to a point, but he pays more attention to the paradox of decision that keeps ethical judgment from finding a firm foothold or solid ground. The paradox lies in the fact that an agent's decision to honour one obligation leads to the failure - not the negation or canceling out, but the utter failure - to meet another, thereby rendering every decision to act ethically inadequate. It is with this view of responsibility in mind that Derrida speaks of going "beyond economy".39 Nothing would make responsibility easier than if one could become resigned to failure. This would ease the conscience of the conflicted agent or respondent, torn between calls from the other. But resignation that would result in the abrogation of responsibility is not possible. Economic considerations can never absolve responsibility. The "economy of sacrifice" must lead then to a "sacrifice of economy," a moment in which all calculation comes up short and no hedging of bets or delegating of resources can take away the fear and trembling of being responsible, of having to respond and to make a decision. That is why for Derrida, Abraham is such an important example of the paradox of responsibility, not because he was willing to sacrifice one valued relationship (that with his son) for the sake of another (his love for God), but because he valued both immeasurably and still decided. Derrida reads more complexity into Abraham's dilemma than Caputo, and in this way comes closer to Kierkegaard's interpretation of the story. Derrida argues that he, or Abraham, or anyone "can respond only to the one (or to the One), that is, to the other, by sacrificing the other to that one".40 God is the figure of "the wholly other," the constant demand that any one other can place on me to sacrifice the needs of another.
If Abraham's responsibility to Issac were the highest in his life, then his decision to obey God would be unjustifiable. But if the highest duty Abraham has is to God, and everyone knows this and recognizes it, then he should do whatever God asks, even if the Lord's request comes in a private conversation one day in the fields. In both cases, the rationale for a decision can be made public through speech, and hence justified under common principles or norms that everyone can understand (to the extent that everyone participates in the economic system of exchange within the ethical realm). For Derrida, as for Kierkegaard, Abraham cannot speak in these terms, which is why he must remain silent. Any speech in favor of his course of action would be seen as an attempt to return to the economy of ethics, an economy of distribution, reciprocation, and a hierarchical ranking of duties and obligations.41 Silence, then, is connected with the aporia of responsibility; it is another way in which undecidability is expressed. At the same time, not speaking, or deciding to suspend a decision to act one way or another for fear of failing also leads to failure. What Derrida calls undecidability is not the same as indecision, nor does it describe the impossibility of making a decision.42 Undecidability is rather the condition for the possibility of all decision, the uncertainty one faces when confronted with multiple calls from the other which allow for the possibility of various different responses. It is "practically" necessary that the responsible agent make some calculation, some judgment about how to use her resources, whatever they may be. But these choices can never be fully justified or decisively validated. Calculation, understood in terms of exchange and reciprocity, would inevitably draw responsible practice back "within the ambit of economy".43 In order to avoid being drawn back in, ethics must go beyond itself, beyond the economy of the sacrifice or recognition, of the gift that expects or awaits a return.44
On this last point, Caputo and Derrida are basically in agreement. Both depart from any symmetrical model of ethical relations that involve a process or circuit of giving and getting back. And yet, to use Caputo's own terms, he is never quite the "perfect fool," never quite the Abrahamic figure who commits himself to self-destruction or to the destruction of one he loves for the sake of obligation.45 He would also maintain the right to be selective about his obligations, giving to an impoverished widow rather than the CEO of a multinational corporation. Derrida would agree with Caputo and share his concern that victimizers not displace the victimized; that would be foolish, but in all the wrong ways, and no amount of reflection on responsibility would make it seem otherwise. However, when it comes to articulating the structure of responsibility, Derrida is more sensitive to the implications of the openness it requires, implications which always run the risk of scandalizing the lovers of obligation and good conscience.46 Giving, being just, caring for the other in the way that Derrida describes is, for all intents and purposes, impossible, economically and practically speaking. Yet this hyperbolic sense of responsibility, of what it means to be responsible, is the standard which ought to haunt every judgment of good conscience; it is perhaps the only way that the radical alterity of the other (as every other) is revealed.
Conclusion: Infinite Debt and the Problem of Practice
It could be argued that while it is all well and good to say that each decision ought to be accompanied by fear and trembling, and that this ought to disturb any complacency each of us might develop as we decide on responsible courses of actions or select which obligations to fulfill, the hard practical fact is that we always exclude others in the calculations we make and there is no getting around this. Thus to preach about remaining conscious of the full weight and implications of responsibility to every other really has very little to do with the actual act of being responsible, especially when we consider, as Caputo does, that the others we ought to turn our attention to are more or less clearly recognizable. They are the suffering ones, the damaged ones, in whatever form, those who call out and demand response by virtue of the dire straits in which they are found. This is not to say that difficult (even impossible) choices do not present themselves in deciding who to help and how to help them, but it is to say that, at the very least, the choice to help someone whose suffering is clearly of the highest order - a person with no home, a refugee from a war zone, a starving child - should always take precedence over any claim that one who contributes to this suffering might make upon us.
But it is not always easy to determine who contributes to the suffering of the other, especially since the causes of suffering are so often overdetermined. The problem of the overdetermination of suffering raises the thorny issue of the political dimensions of obligation and responsibility. This issue puts even more pressure on the ethical moment of decision and wrenches it out of the individualistic context of the single agent brought face-to-face with the other. Because this question opens up an entirely new field for consideration, the following reflections will be limited to the more abstract aspects of this problem. This may seem a bit of a cop-out since these issues are never abstract, and it could be argued that if their concrete implications are not addressed directly one is only building castles in the air. This is true if "abstraction" is understood in the most pejorative sense; but there are various modes of abstraction in philosophical and theoretical discourse, and the type I am referring to here is not defined by a retreat from the world. It seeks above all to both describe and prescribe in the world and within the experience of relations to the other, and to offer itself as a principle of critique for ethical and political life.
The practical problems of responsibility hinge in part on the relation between ethics and politics. Politics always makes things harder for ethics, at least to the extent that it complicates things, makes them even messier than they already are. Dealing with the desires, needs, requests, and reactions of one person or a handful of people is task enough, but dealing with governments, institutions, social policy, foreign relations, diplomacy, national interest - that is something else. For this reason, politics is often conceived of as operating entirely independent of ethics, as somehow occupying a different space in human affairs. The distinction between public and private often comes into play here. And yet ethics is frequently extended further than the "private sphere" of personal relations into the areas of business and labour, medical and health services, domestic and international law, and human rights discourse. What this demonstrates is that the boundaries between ethics and politics are not easily set, that the "line" which separates them is arbitrarily drawn, often by those whose interest it would be to pay as little attention to ethics as possible. This arbitrariness is not accidental; it stems from the fact that the space of ethics and the space of politics, the arenas in which each hold sway, are never clearly distinguishable.
Derrida deals with the ambiguity between ethics and politics in his essay "A World of Welcome." He explores the question of what it would mean to speak of a politics that is at once political and beyond the political.47 This phrasing echoes his discussion of responsibility in The Gift of Death: to speak of responsibility in terms of ethics is to simultaneously go beyond ethics while remaining within the space of ethics. Ethics, in its attempts to be responsible, necessarily relies on the political, while at the same time giving the political its only possible justification.48 A politics that does not go beyond itself, that does not remember that it must bend its knee to the other, is an irresponsible politics. There are shades of another paradox here: if politics attempts to retreat to the normative through juridical rationality and fixed laws, if it attempts to alleviate its own responsibility by justifying itself only through its own institutional resources, then it cannot justify itself except through the language of Realpolitik. Politics so construed would come dangerously close to politics that exists solely for its own sake, for the sake of the maintenance of the nation, the law, the balance of power, or power itself. Politics would then bear no responsibility to the other, or, even more dramatically, it would deny such responsibility on the grounds that it is outside its sphere of interest, foreign and domestic.
The point of these reflections is not to say that all political institutions are somehow invalid, nor is it simply to point out that the ethical is always in excess of such institutions. This might produce a form of political "good conscience" that resigns itself to failure in the face of the impossibility of realizing "perfect" justice. The need for real political decisions is never lightened or abated; they must be made every day in more or less dire circumstances. However, the fact that such decisions must be made can never provide an ultimate justification for any one of them. Ethics and politics are bound to the same standard, the same structure of responsibility. All of this seems to subordinate the political to the ethical, yet ethics, of necessity, must become political, it must politicize itself. If ethics wanted to avoid politics, to keep its hands clean, so to speak, it would be irresponsible, and worse, ineffectual, for in order to carry out complex actions it can't help but turn to the mechanisms of politics. It is the undecidable moment, the moment when one is called and placed under obligation and the moment when one responds, that keeps the space of political and ethical practice open. Undecidability can keep these modes of practice from collapsing into totalitarianism, or from abandoning the infinity of otherness by adopting criteria that allow the other to be familiarized, domesticated and easily defined. Although calculative considerations always exist and always exert pressure on us to take action in the moment of undecidability, a consciousness of responsibility of the kind Derrida articulates is absolutely necessary in order to be truly (yet never perfectly) responsible, whether in the so-called private realm of ethics or in the so-called public realm of politics.
1. These sentiments come through in the famous "madman" aphorism in The Gay Science (Book III, Sec. 125). Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1974. [return to text]
2. In the third essay in On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche outlines the complex relation between what he calls the ascetic will to truth (the will of philosophers and modern science) and his own work on truth and its relationship to the will to power. Nietzsche acknowledges that he, too, thinks within the ascetic tradition as a modern "man of knowledge," that he knows and understands the ascetic ideal of truth from "too close up perhaps" (Essay III, Sec. 24). It is this problem of proximity that keeps him from upholding "the end" of morality as a moment of Dionysian liberation and ecstacy. Rather, he sees the demise of morality as ambivalent, as "terrible" and "questionable" at the same time that it is "hopeful" (Essay III, Sec. 27). All citations from On the Genealogy of Morals. Translated by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage Books, 1967. [return to text]
3. See the section title "Losing a Good Name" in Chapter One of, Caputo, John. Against Ethics: Contributions to a Poetics of Obligation with Constant Reference to Deconstruction. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993. [return to text]
4. Jameson discusses four postmodern antinomies in the first chapter of The Seeds of Time (New York: Columbia Press, 1994). The antinomies of postmodernity are symptomatic of the way thinking oscillates between the poles of "Identity and Difference." Postmodern thought cannot find a position of epistemological certainty from which to theorize or act with confidence (Jameson, 68). Jameson, however, much like Derrida, takes this as an opening to the future which cannot be known or determined in advance, not as a sign of the futility of both theory and practice (Jameson, 70-71). Although Jameson does not specifically discuss the antinomy of ethics as I have set it out here, it fits well with his description of the antinomy of anti-foundationalism and anti-essentialism. This antinomy moves between the affirmation and critique of concepts of human nature and universalism (see Jameson 32-52). [return to text]
5. This is not say that the "tradition of ethics" is an unimportant topic, or that ethics can be understood from some transcendent standpoint that is indifferent to the various ethical or moral theories developed in the history of Western thought. In some ways, this is the most important question. The contemporary dilemma of ethics cannot be fully understood unless its roots in the tradition(s) of philosophy are carefully explored. As I have suggested so far, it is not clear that the tradition of philosophical ethics can be so easily (or reductively) defined through the Nietzschean-Heideggerian lens that contemporary theory often uses to inspect Western history. Both Derrida and Caputo suggest that there are "other" voices within this history, e.g., those of Jewish and Christian religious traditions, that inform the discourse of ethics and open it to different possibilities than those offered by "philosophy." While I think this philosophy-religion distinction is drawn too sharply by both authors, their reflections help to widen the understanding of the divergent influences operating within the "tradition of ethics." [return to text]
6. See the last chapter of Derrida's The Gift of Death for a discussion of the ways in which giving goes beyond economy. Translated by David Wills. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995. [return to text]
7. Ethics [return to the text]
8. Caputo's Against Ethics and Derrida's The Gift of Death will be the primary texts I use in my analysis. [return to text]
9. Gift 25-26 [return to text]
10. Gift 26 [return to text]
11. Ethics 84 [return to text]
12. Ethics 8 [return to text]
13. Caputo plays with the idea of "the call of Being" and sets it off against the call of the other. He is against philosophical accounts of "origins" that rely on metaphysical concepts such as "Being" or "Spirit". See the first chapter of Against Ethics for both a general discussion of his position and in reference to Heidegger specifically. [return to text]
14. Gift 78-79 [return to text]
15. Derrida provides this formulation of the structure of the messianic: "This universal structure of the promise, of the expectation for the future, for the coming, and the fact that this expectation has to do with justice - that is what I call the messianic structure." This a quote from a speech delivered at Villanova University. See Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida, pg. 23. Edited with a commentary by John D. Caputo. New York: Fordham University Press, 1997. [return to text]
16. I will say more about this connection to Kierkegaard in the next section. Although the connection to Levinas is also important, I have decided to concentrate on Kierkegaard here in order to show the divergence between Derrida and Caputo when it comes to relating obligation and responsibility to economic considerations. [return to text]
17. Gift69 [return to text]
18. Ethics29 [return to text]
19. The land of Moriah is the place God determined Issac should be sacrificed by Abraham (Genesis 22:2). [return to text]
20. Ethcis 119 [return to text]
21. See the epilogue to Fear and Trembling for Kierkegaard's meditations on the possibility of humanity going beyond the faith of Abraham. Edited and Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983. [return to text]
22. For examples of this see Baudrillard's The Perfect Crime (New York: Verso, 1996) and Virilio's Open Sky (New York: Verso, 1997). [return to text]
23. It is important to note that this is an explanation of the psychologico-existential experience of time. The amount of time one has may be extremely relevant in some situations in which a response is called for, without question, and yet it can never be the deciding factor in a decision. The passing of time cannot make the decision for the respondent, for if it could, this would amount to a suspension and eradication of responsibility, even if only for an instant. [return to text]
24. See Kierkegaard, 61. Derrida uses the phrase mysterium tremendum throughout The Gift of Death. NB the following passage: What is it that makes us tremble in the mysterium tremendum? It is the gift of infinite love, the dissymmetry that exists between the divine regard that sees me, and myself, who doesn't see what is looking at me; it is the gift and endurance of death that exists in the irreplaceable, the disproportion between the infinite gift and my finitude, responsibility as culpability, sin, salvation, repentance, and sacrifice. (Gift, 56). [return to text]
25. Kierkegaard describes the paradoxical position of Abraham in this way. See Problema I, "Is there a Teleological Suspension of the Ethical," in Fear and Trembling. [return to text]
26. This is a paraphrase of Kierkegaard's remarks at the end of Problema III in Fear and Trembling: "Thus, either there is a paradox, that the single individual as the single individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute, or Abraham is lost" (Kierkegaard, 120). Put in Derrida's terms, either the relationship to the other is absolutely beyond all ethical economy, knowledge and calculation, or Abraham's relationship to otherness is lost. [return to text]
27. Ibid., 115. [return to text]
28. Gift 66 [return to text]
29. Ethics 139 [return to text]
30. Ethics144 [return to text]
31. Against Ethics plays on the name of Johannes de Silentio, the pseudonymous author of Fear and Trembling. Johanna de Silentio is the name attached to "The Story of Sarah" in Caputo's text (Ethics, 139). The inclusion of this reading of (the patriarch) Abraham's story in Against Ethics is indicative of Caputo's hesitancy to interpret the legacy of the biblical story - of Sarah, of Isaac, of Abraham - in the terms set out by Kierkegaard. [return to text]
32. Ethcis11 [return to text]
33. Ethics19 [returnt to text]
34. Ethcis123 [return to text]
35. See chapter six of Against Ethics, "Almost Perfect Foolsfor a discussion of the role self in obligation and Caputos views on Aristotlean agency action (Ethics, 123-128). [return to text]
36. Ethcis 126 [return to text]
37. Ethics5 [return to text]
38. Ethcis 106 [return to text]
39. Gift95 [return to text]
40. Gift70 [return to text]
41. Derrida develops this point throughout the third chapter of The Gift of Death, but makes it particularly clear in the following passage: "Whether I want to or not can never justify the fact that prefer sacrifice any one (any other) other. will always be secretiveheld secrecy in respect of thisfor have nothing say about it(Gift, 70-71). [return to text]
42. In a recently published interview, Derrida defines undecidability in the following way: "Far from opposing undecidability to decision, I would argue that there would be no decision without some experience of undecidability. If you don't experience some undecidability, then the decision would simply be the application of a programme, the consequence of a premise or matrix." See "Hospitality, Justice and Responsibility" in Questioning Ethics: Contemporary Debates in Philosophy. Edited by Richard Kearney and Mark Dooley. New York: Routledge, 1999. [return to text]
43. Gift112 [return to text]
44. One might push Derrida a little further towards Kierkegaard and say that it is only when the full paradox of responsibility is acknowledged, when one is caught in the grips of the aporia, that one can "get back" on "the strength of the absurd" what has been sacrificed. This getting back is not a reacquisition, not a "having" in any simple sense. For what does it mean to have a child, for Abraham (or Sarah) to have Issac? Abraham loves Issac. The boy is the fruit of all his days, of his faith in God, and more, he is the promise of his future, his great reward. But what if he were to lose him, if the boy were to die? Is this possibility even conceivable to Abraham? How could he react to such a loss? Would it not be the end of everything, the death of his faith, insofar as this faith is attached to the promise the boy represents. One might argue that the test is meant to see if Abraham's relationship with Issac, and thus with God, is bound up in an economy of exchange. That is why the test is the greatest gift to and of faith: the gift of the "paradox" through which all finite relations between Abraham and otherness are sacrificed and the infinite relation to the other revealed. The other is revealed in a boundless field among countless others, in relation to them. The tender boy is not Abraham's to keep, to hold or possess in his singularity (although he is singular); nor is any other other he encounters, not Sarah, not his grandchildren, not even the God of his faith. It is the test, and his own faith in the face of the test, his response to it, that truly allows Abraham to stand in relation to Issac as an other, the one who is closest to his heart and yet still an other like any one else, one who cannot be prized above all others as more unique, as more of a treasure. [return to text]
45. Ethcis125 [return to text]
46. Caputo speaks of obligation scandalizing ethics and disrupting its order (Ethics, 7). But it seems that his notion of obligation might also be scandalized by the loss of calculation. It is good conscience, the desire to always do what is "right," to serve the right other, to support the right cause, that keeps obligation from falling prey to fear and trembling, that is, from recognizing its infinite, impossible responsibilities. [return to text]
47. Derrida develops this position about politics and ethics in the final part of the essay "A Word of Welcome." In an analysis of Levinas and Kant on the question of peace, he builds the argument that "ethics enjoins a politics and a law." By bringing ethics and politics together in this way, Derrida does not subordinate the latter to the former; rather, he shows how each necessitates the other, and not in a purely conceptual fashion, but in terms of practice. A politics that does not go beyond itself to ethics is an irresponsible politics, irresponsible to others. But the same is true of an ethics that does not want to be political, that cannot or will not recognize the pressure to be effective in the world. See "A Word of Welcome" in Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas. Translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. [return to text]
48. Ibid, 115. [return to text]
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