Friday, May 20, 2011

More like "Boresmopolitanism"...

I have, until about a week ago, been reading an excellent book by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri called Empire, and I was looking forward to writing a little on their association of theology with governmental sovereignty. Regrettably I have to put that off--I will hopefully remember to get to it--since I've been distracted by a book I just finished reading for seminar. I'd like to talk about this book for a moment in stead.

The book is one I have recommended, prematurely, to at least one of you, and though it's not a bad book, I must rescind my recommendation. It is not a waste of time, but it is also not time particularly well spent. The book is Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism.

The gist of this book is that as citizens of the world we are all responsible to one another, and that we therefore must do the best we can to be good to one another. The banality of this position is the main reason I no longer recommend the book. (My growing impression is that American philosophy busies itself only with tackling such challenging questions as this.)

Rather than issuing a full-fledged critique of the book, which would waste all of our time, I'd like to rehash a discussion from class. Toward the end of his book, Appiah reviews a prominent American philosopher's claim regarding moral obligations. If you were walking down a country lane dressed in your finest and saw a child drowning in a pond just off the path, would you dive in to save it, ruining your expensive cloths? The obvious answer--few would disagree--is yes; the life of an innocent is more important than the finest of finery. Would you stop and pick up an injured hitch-hiker, knowing both that if you did not, he would lose his foot, and that if you did he would bleed all over the leather interior of your brand-new Jaguar? (Nevermind this question: would you kill a cow to make your car comfortable?) Here more people would equivocate, but most surely would save the man's foot at the expense of the car. So then, if you could donate $300 to save 10 starving African children, would you? What if you just did; would you again? (Surely the second 10 children are as important as the first 10.) When would you stop? When would you be ethically permitted to stop?

The philosopher Appiah cites claims that you stop donating money when your life is at risk. Appiah finds some faults in this problem. The strongest sticking point is the: would you save the drowning child from the first example if you knew you could sell your suit and save 100 more children?

Now, in our class discussion of this, I asserted that it is patently obvious that the ethical decision, given perfect information, is to live in poverty so that others--many many others--needn't. I further asserted that this truth was evident to anyone with access to perfect information. My philosophy colleagues were eager to provide contradictory evidence from their experience teaching ethics to undergrads: it is apparently common that undergrads are willing to sacrifice a stranger's life for a latte. Overwhelmed by the urgency of my colleagues' rejoinder, I returned that this is an error based on incomplete information: the student doesn't really know what is at stake, because s/he does not know suffering.

I think this response was correct within the framework of our discussion, but it is incorrect in terms of a pragmatic ethics. The problem none of us addressed, and the problem that plague's both Appiah's book and all of the American academic philosophy I've read so far (which is admittedly not very much) is one that many continental philosophers have incorporated fully into their epistemology at least since Adorno, and more likely since Marx. We are trying here to address a question of ethics solely from the perspective of exchange value.

The question Would you exchange a latte for a person? is the wrong question, and it always leads to the followup quesiton, How many lattes is a person worth? (Or how many people is a latte worth?) The undergrad above didn't cling to his/her latte because it was more valuable than a stranger, nor because s/he didn't understand fully the concept of suffering (though this too is true, no doubt. Isn't it always true?) We have to conceive first of the starving person as something other than an object of exchange, and second (this is even more difficult but in this case no less crucial) we must conceive of the latte as something other than an object of exchange.

We have the vocabulary readily at our disposal to talk about humans as unique and unexchangeable, and I won't rehears this step here; surely it is still abhorrent to most people to consider people in terms of their dollar value (hence in part the success of "Fight Club"). What about the latte?

I submit that the reason we have a difficult time thinking of the latte outside of the system of exchange (aside from the fact that we are very used to exchanging money for lattes) is that we tend to think of human identity in terms of bodily coherence. A person, common sense tells us, is that which is that person's body. We know from psychology however that our brains don't really work that way. Mirror and "Gandhi" neurons obscure this ostensibly clean boundary (which is why, in part, maybe only in small part, local violence is much more distressing than distant violence). We also know that when a person drives a car or uses a tool, that tool becomes a part of the person's body image; we literally conceive of these objects like parts of our body. Why would the latte be any different?

The argument here is that the latte, though it may seem to have an exchangeable dollar value (it does not: try selling your latte to the next person in line) actually constitutes a part of the undergrad's identity. Now, we can still expect, ethically, that a person be willing to sacrifice a part of his or her identity for the safety and comfort of another, but talking about this in terms of monetary value misses the point; it is founded in capital, and essentially does not value the human life it argues we must support. We should expect the undergrad, whose identity is more or less constantly under pressure from peers and parents and others (though surely not so intensely as it was in high school or before) to cling more ardently to their identity than a more confident and safe adult--though certainly many many adults are also constantly anxious about the safety of their identity.

For a concluding remark, I would like to follow this thread quite far afield from the previous topic. Now most reasonable people, it seems, do not like our compatriots in the tea party. We call them stupid, racist, selfish, short-sighted, and we tend to think of them as a group that deliberately tries to hurt our country (and in particular women and the urban poor). What we typically refer to as identity politics is extremely important to the tea party phenomenon: its base is conservative white Americans who organized in response to the election of a black president, they ardently oppose gay- and women's-rights, they are vociferously and inhumanely anti-immigrant. From the progressive perspective, it is easy to think of them as simply evil (or to think of them simply as evil), and while their political agenda is surely, obviously, patently harmful, it does us no good--it gets us nowhere--to call them evil. When we conceive of their political position in terms of anxiety--misplaced anxiety, I would suggest--about identity, we are in a better position to redirect their power positively. I do not have any idea how we would actually do this on anything other than a person-to-person scale. :/

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