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Ethics, Politics and Emotion

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I spoke of the ultimate concern for the other as a prerequisite for, indeed, as the very foundation of, true revolutionary thought and action. I even ventured on the genealogy of the emotion, not to mention the moral thought behind it, from relatively humble beginnings, rooted in practicality (“necessity” is a more poignant term!), due to harsh material conditions in which mutual aid and cooperation, rather than competition, were the preferred mode of social organization. This transcendence, I argued, proceeded by the law of abstraction. As humans have become more and more freed from the drudgery of fending for themselves in terms of mere subsistence, they have begun channeling their energy and resources towards other pursuits. It was thus that “use” became secondary, a mere platform upon which to build.

The transformation was by no means overnight but proceeded in stages. In the realm of art, for example, the appearance of decorations on pots, objects made strictly for use, was the first sign of progress, a benchmark. A pot became a vase. And so it was with craft in general, ultimately culminating in objets d’art, in art for art’s sake. In moral thought, the intermediary stage, as best I can surmise, consisted in developing feelings of affection, eventually friendship, towards your neighbor, a clansman, whomever, regardless of your immediate need or their immediate use. From thence, things progressed to form an ideational kind of concept and sentiment, well expressed by Kant’s categorical imperative, whereby all were of equal standing and deserving of equal respect. Moral equivalence was the gist of Kant’s moral philosophy rendered by the familiar maxim, treat everyone as ends, never as means!

To make a long story short, form became divorced from use/content to result in just as equal, if not greater, pursuit. The abstract was born out of the concrete, along with a new brand of human and a world in which the word reigned supreme. The transcendence was complete, and so was the evolution.

Before I proceed, a word of qualification is in order. The aforementioned, anthropological account isn’t the only one, nor is it all-convincing. To a deist, for example, for all its reasonableness, it’s bound to sound false for a deist presupposes, it’s one of the tenets of faith, that morality was writ large in the human heart by the finger of God, end of story! A deist needn’t resort to theorizing as to the origins or the genesis of morality because to a deist, it is a given. Be that as it may, even a deist shouldn’t object to the fact that morality, that all-important aspect of what it means to be a human — the all-defining aspect can be accounted for, however clumsily or in a roundabout kind of way, even to non-believers. I shan’t say anything more on the subject except that we live in a predominantly secular world, and the account is geared to our secular-minded friends.

So far so good, you say, but what’s the relevance? More importantly, perhaps, how does this impact the world we live in, our politics, our faltering economy, our everyday lives? And what has it got to do, if anything, with revolutionary thought?

By way of connecting the dots, let me open another Pandora’s box, the all-too-oft ignored and unspoken of relationship between emotion and reason. We live in the age of science and technology, a world in which we’re virtually assaulted by scientific breakthroughs, technological innovation, all manner of gadgets. Barely a day passes by when we’re not introduced to something new and different, something that’s supposed to alter our lives, make things easier and better; a promise of a better tomorrow. Indeed, it’s difficult under the circumstances to resist the power of reason, scientific reason, the kind of reason we can readily import to any area whatever because if it works in science, it’s surely bound to work anywhere at all, or so we think. We do live in the Age of Reason, and we’re mesmerized by it.

What of our emotions, though? How do they fit in?

It would be imprudent of me to suggest I’m the first or the last to point to the conflict, but conflict it definitely is and conflict it shall remain, Not insofar as science is concerned or the work you do in the number theory. What conflict could there be between reason and emotion when you’re so preoccupied, when you’re Robert Oppenheimer, let’s say, or Doctor Atomic? These aren’t exactly the areas of our concern. Politics is, and how we view ourselves and our fellow humans.

I needn’t reiterate the plain truth that whenever emotion and reason are in conflict, emotion always wins. And the usual aftereffect of that conflict, unresolved, has got to be a personality disorder, no two ways about it. Which leaves us with only one resolution: since you can’t subjugate your emotions to reason, you must make your reason serve your emotions. There‘s no other way of escaping the conflict, no other way to freedom.

Let’s face it, emotions rule, and reason is only a rationalization at worst, a justification at best. Which doesn’t make reason superfluous, far from it. Even the finest of our emotions cry for articulation whether by a written or spoken word. In the absence of such, they’d be dumb for not having been expressed, of no particular account, nothing other than a cry of the beast. It’s the uniqueness of humankind, it’s special attribute, that we can and do pay homage to our emotions.

Shakespeare’s sonnets are nothing but the enduring monument to love, none better. Pauline theology, a magnificent edifice erected on behalf of the emotion we call faith. Works of art, a homage we pay to our appreciation of beauty, an expression of our aesthetic impulse. Forget science for a moment if you will! Our enduring legacy, what we’ll be most remembered for, is and always will be the poems we write, the works of art we produce, the music we compose. Literature, art, music; these are our highest achievements. Science too, but only the first three speak to our humanity and our emotions. Humanity and emotions are inseparable. Our emotions define us.

So how do we move from here to the ultimate concern for the other and morality, the presumed basis of all right-headed political thought and action? In particular, how do we move from here to revolutionary thought and action whereby morality and the ultimate concern for the other serve as the cornerstone?

The concept of justice is the link you want, the only link you’ll ever need. In a manner of speaking, all politics is about justice, and if it isn’t about justice, it ought to be. And so is morality, somewhat restricted, it’d seem, to the sphere of personal relations but not by very much. It, too, is about justice first and foremost, elementary justice, nothing but justice: just evaluation of the self and the other.

The connection with politics is not only indisputable but irrevocable as well, the latter being but an extension of moral concern and specifically moral outlook to the social, so as to encompass ever and ever greater aggregates of humanity and all forms of social organization, and to hold all of it by one single eye, by unitary vision, moral kind of vision, just as the force of gravity may be said to account for and to circumscribe the movement of the planets.

The classical, Aristotelian conception, whereby politics is but an extension of ethics, is not only well-taken but it still holds two thousand years and counting after the initial pronouncement. And it fits hand in glove with Kant’s universal vision of humanity at large, irrespective of ethnicity or borders, skin color or cultural variation, again all bound by the one underlying thread, the leitmotif­– the moral equivalence of persons. Treat everyone as ends, never as means!

Which should make us appreciate the meaning of the Socratic quest, the never-ending quest in pursuit of justice, for it’s only in our conceptions of justice that we really differ. All the differences we may have, major or minor, can be effectively distilled to this one question, the question of justice.

There aren’t really that many dishonorable persons in our midst, as Mark Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar clearly attests, very few scoundrels indeed. Most of us, as a matter of fact, do our damndest to live by our own lights, and we shouldn’t diminish anyone simply because we disagree. Again, different conceptions of justice are at stake, nothing more. To raise it to another level, to deny a person their basic humanity simply because we disagree, to regard them as somehow different from you and me, categorically and absolutely, is to commit a far graver error than they themselves may be guilty of. It is to regard them as somehow less than human. Apart from the self-serving, emotional satisfaction such pronouncements may or may not serve, the far greater damage comes by way of breaking off all communications with the very people you should want to reach. There’s just no point.

The Murder of Mary Phagan, a miniseries first and then a period movie from 1920 Georgia and based on real-life events, make my point better than I ever could. I haven’t seen the former, but here is the movie version, compliments of hulu.com. If you haven’t seen it, you don’t know whatyou’re missing.

The manager of a pencil factory, Leo Frank, is accused of killing a fourteen-year-old girl, an employee. It didn’t help matters that the manager and the owner were Jewish. The community’s wrath wasn’t racially motivated, although some might argue otherwise. The South was humiliated by the loss of its agriculture-based means of sustenance, having been forced to send even their young, like Mary Phagan, to make ends meet at ridiculously low wages for menial work. It resented the industrial North. And then, to top it all, the sweet young girl at the zenith of her youth gets murdered, and brutally so. Sexual impropriety is alleged but never proven, strictly hearsay. No matter, the community’s wrath will not be appeased.

Nor is it appeased when the governor of Georgia, John M. Slaton, first reviews the case and then commutes the sentence. In fact, passions escalate and come to a peak. A great injustice has just been perpetrated and the people won’t have it.

“The law is the law,” people say, “and whoever breaks it deserves what they get, be they’re a Jew or a Gentile, a honky or a nigger.” And to level with you, I tend to believe it, even identify with the sentiment to a point. The law, however cruel or unjust the law, is the people’s defense, their only defense against the predicament life has dealt them, their only handle on things, on egalitarianism which was promised them but never delivered.

I don’t know about you, but that’s justice to me, skewed and misdirected justice but justice nonetheless. And so it was when the crazed mob abducted the poor fellow from his jail cell and hanged him like a dog from the nearest tree, a perverse sense of justice, you say, but justice still.

Not much has changed in the state of Georgia since the twenties I’m afraid; need I recall the recent execution of Troy Davis? And Jack Slaton had lived the rest of his natural life in relative obscurity. But there’s an object lesson in here for all of us, a lesson which bears repeating until it sinks in: all our differences boil down more or less to our different conceptions of justice. Which again brings into sharp relief the everlasting importance of the Socratic project.

What is justice?

If there’s one question that’s coextensive with humanity’s lifespan, a question which shall forever be asked and forever remain relevant, I can think of none other.

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About Roger Nowosielski

  • jamminsue

    Justice is one slippery concept. And, I agree, the most important for humanity.

  • One further qualification, to anticipate a possible objection — the linguist’s account of language acquisition (insofar as that account takes for granted a notion that language is innate).

    I believe Chomsky was a pioneer of the idea, as per Cartesian Linguistics, but I was fortunate enough to have listened this morning to a recast interview with Jean Berko Gleason on one of the NPR stations, and the following podcast is (I believe) as good a popularization of Chomsky’s idea as any. By all means, treat yourself and listen. It’s fascinating stuff. Still looking for the darn transcript, for those who prefer the written word.

    But to connect to my point, the linguist’s account as to the origins of language stands in contrast to that of a deist (see last paragraph, page one); it’s impossible, however, to develop the whole tree in an article like this (nor would there be a point).

    On unrelated point, am not happy with the damn title. Haven’t detached myself enough from the subject to come up with a happier one.

  • @1

    The only one we got, though, jamminsue. It’s either this or nothing. There’s no firmer basis upon which to construct true human alliances that will last.

  • Anarcissie

    Justice might be like beauty: almost everyone agrees that it exists, at least conceptually, but people do not agree as to what constitutes it or what belongs to it. Empirical investigations (the ones I know about) only reinforce this impression. So if justice, like beauty, is necessary to human life, then this uncertainty and irresolution is one of the problems we have to deal with.

  • It’s a moral ideal, just like virtue, fairness, honesty, trustworthiness is. That’s how moral concepts function, for crying out laud. (Should say, one of the way they function.)

    It’s all in the language. Moral language has always been a language of self-discovery and ultimately, the proven line of defense against the injustices all around us and way of rectifying or removing those injustices.

    Nor is there any doubt on the part of everyday speakers of natural/ordinary language what justice “means” in the elementary sense: we all know how to use to term simply because we’re the speakers. Even fringe uses — e.g., “I did justice to that steak” — displays everyone’s language competency, perhaps even more so.

    Empirical studies aren’t of much help when the processes of self-reflection and self-examination are called for. “Know thyself” rings as true today as when it was first inscribed to adorn the Delphi oracle. Morality has got nothing to do with counting noses or statistical studies, only with what’s the right thing to do, with arriving at the best possible moral judgment.

    All political debates, whether here or in congress are only about “what’s the right thing to do” — at bottom. I can’t see how you folks can seriously discuss politics all the while ignoring its main underpinnings in ethics.

    So yes, justice is necessary to human life, and yes, it’s veiled by an aura of uncertainty, but isn’t not irresolvable: in fact, it is always resolvable (however imperfectly), as testified by every single piece of law or legislation that gets passed. It’s the quest and thirst for justice that is at the bottom of every upheaval, protest, revolution or revolt, yes, the quest for perfection, however unattainable, which fires it all. That’s how moral ideals work.

    You’re argument, Anarcissie, seems to come down to the following: since no two people can ever agree in every single respect on what love is, then what’s the value of love.

  • Anarcissie

    Indeed, that’s a very good question, but taken straight rather than rhetorically, and considering ‘value’ to be a social rather than an individual entity, and one which must apply to many contexts rather than any particular context.

    I disagree, however, that a thirst for justice is behind every upheaval or revolution, unless by ‘thirst for justice’ you simply mean ‘desire to live and work one’s will.’ In any case, those who suppress revolutions generally seem to believe they are acting justly as well. Indeed, some of the major organizations of social repression in our communities are often named for ‘justice’ or something like it. And, too, the theories and practices of the revolutionaries and those of the established order they fight against are remarkably similar with regard to justicial matters, for example, Lenin’s use of Tsarist police and juridical personnel, organizational principles, physical plant and general practices.

  • I never engage in rhetoric when it comes to morals. That’s a sophist’s game, and Socrates devoted his entire life to discredit the sophist. And he paid dearly because they were in control.

    Of course “justice” is a social thing, at least it aims at “the social,” though it starts with the individual, every individual. It’s the only thing that binds us, truly binds us, the only basis for building lasting and unseverable connections. There is none other. The one thing we humans have in common, the one thing that really counts. A human is fist and foremost a moral agent before anything else. And if he or she falls short of that, they’re somehow diminished. Again, our only strength, our only worthwhile attribute.

    I don’t believe the counter-examples you’re citing disprove the point. True, I spoke rather loosely, more intent on addressing the spirit than anything else. Both of us know that unscrupulous people will make use of even the purest of movements to their own ends, or, to be less severe in our criticism of them, resort to unseemly measures in order to preserve the vestige of the original, revolutionary idea. I’m not condoning any of that, just saying …

    But think of the liberation movements, for example, or the anti-colonialism struggle? Haven’t they all been motivated by the unquenchable human desire for justice — in these instances, political independence and freedom — whatever “crimes” were committed in the interim? Think of the IRA revolt, for instance, or that of the Indian people, against the British rule (Freedom at Midnight), or to go further back, of Brave Heart. The examples are countless.

    I’m glad we’re talking at last. About time.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Roger –

    1 – I strongly agree that the greatest single factor in all major political upheavals is a desire for justice, although sometimes that desire is misdirected – and often intentionally misdirected – thanks to the ignorance of the populace.

    2 – Look once more at the grand sweep of human history. It would not be inaccurate to see it as a journey towards a world of tolerance and, yes, even of justice. It’s been full of starts and fits and stumbles (slavery, ethnic cleansing, etc.) punctuated by leaps and bounds (Magna Carta, the Renaissance, etc.), along the way…but the overall journey has been strongly towards the side of tolerance and justice even if all we’ve done is taken baby steps along the way…

    …after all, even baby steps, if enough are taken, will bring one to the top of the highest mountain.

    3 – I find it interesting that you say you never engage in rhetoric when it comes to morals. Perhaps you could say you refrain from the overuse of metaphor, but rhetoric? Come now!

  • Rhetoric and morals don’t mix, Glenn, unless one or the other is trying to be perverse.

    What are you trying to say? I’d like to know, really?

  • @8

    Perhaps we associate different meanings with the term “rhetoric.”

    But I am glad we see eye to eye on some things. To cite Martin Luther King, “The moral arc of the universe bends at the elbow of justice.”