Thursday, September 4, 2014

Philosophy Thursday: My System of Ethics

First, start with the Universe

So last Thursday I discussed some of my beliefs about the universe. I wrote that I believe the universe is a thing that tends towards consciousness, self-awareness, sentience, whatever you'd like to call it and that it will always tend towards this state but not with any will or intention.

But I forgot to add a few points:

1. For me, a deity or cosmic intention is a paradox. Why would the universe tend towards consciousness and thus intention, direction, or purpose if that already existed somehow outside of the system? Why would we be the universe observing itself if someone or something has already been observing us all this time? The parental metaphor, for me, makes no sense. I can understand the universe with that floral metaphor I wrote about last week.

2. The second point I left out is that this whole human business, for me, is contingent rather than necessary. This shell -- this vehicle of consciousness evolved the way it did because those were the biological structures that won out (according to Gould), and delivered self-awareness into this particular world. But if some other structures won out instead, there would be no consciousness in this world at all. But that isn't to say that there would be elsewhere in this galaxy, or the next galaxy over, or the one beyond that. And it would look totally different from us. Probably not even hominoid.

3. Of course, this opens up the possibility of self-aware or at least sentient alien life elsewhere in the universe. And why not? To extend the floral metaphor: there are thousands upon thousands of different flowering plants on this planet. There is even more than one sentient species here. So why wouldn't there be different kinds of conscious awareness throughout the universe?

4. And that's the last point that I left out last week. When I look around our own world, or when I think about the materials that make up both stars and biological life, I can see that the nature of the universe is difference. On our own planet, we have biological structures and species that are slightly varied but very similar, as well as those that are crazily different from each other.

And that leads into my ethics.

Then add Levinas

Paris. Author: Shalom Books
Once I had assimilated all the knowledge above, I was introduced to a philosopher named Levinas. It was one of my mentors during my master's degree who, when she heard that I was going to attend the University of Toronto, recommended that I take a particular class in his philosophy.

From what I understand (very badly) of everything I learned about him, Levinas said that his theories were not an ethics, but an ontology. An ontology is a theory about things that exist in the universe. So, if you believe in a deity, then that particular deity is a part of your ontology. In his ontology, the primary thing that exists in the universe is the Other. 

The way I understand it is this: I cannot exist without the Other. It's like back when I was a teenager and I realized that for some things, like opposites, one wouldn't exist without the other. There would be no day if there was no night, right? If the sun somehow never set and everything was daytime, then there would be no daytime and no word 'day' because there would be no opposite to define it by. Everything would just be. So if there was no difference in the world at all, I wouldn't exist. If we all lived as some swarmy hive-mind there would be no me. Individuality would dissolve into a mass.

So it's not that I exist first, that I am the universe looking at itself (as I explored last time) and everyone else here are just background that I am looking at, it's that I actually owe my existence to the differentiated and multifarious ways that the universe looks at itself. First there was the Other, and it because of that Other that I exist. 

A Terrible Interpretation

So if I owe my existence to the Other, what does that imply? Well, for Levinas it implies a philosophy that he doesn't call ethics, but I certainly do.

Specificially, he says:

"The other's face is not an object, Levinas argues. It is pure expression; expression affects me before I can begin to reflect on it. And the expression of the face is dual: it is command and summons. The face, in its nudity and defenselessness, signifies: “Do not kill me.” This defenseless nudity is therefore a passive resistance to the desire that is my freedom. Any exemplification of the face's expression, moreover, carries with it this combination of resistance and defenselessness." (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

But this "do not kill me" that the Other's face commands and summons is more than just literal. It is literal, yes, but it is also a metaphor which helps me understand Levinas' definition of "violence". When we think of the term violence in the quotidian sense, the first thought that flashes to mind is physical violence. Blood, bruises, et cetera. But when Levinas uses the word violence, he means it in another way. To kill the Other is to take up too much room. A want to kill the other, to commit violence against the Other is to subsume their existence into one's own. To try for that collective swarm mind, to make everyone reflect me.

Sure, I have freedom. I can think of people who do not think like me, who have different beliefs as me or different lifestyles or appearances as wrong and the way I live as right. I can categorizes folks, I can pigeon-hole them in my consciousness with language. But all of this is denying Otherness, killing difference, it is a violence towards the Other to whom I owe my existence. 

Ethics as Last

For me, this call by the Other is, as Levinas points, a non-reciprocal responsibility. That is, the implications of these theories on my everyday life breaks down if I start to think of it as, "well, that person is taking up too much room and is not letting my otherness flourish." Rather, it is more important for me, in being my authentic self, to make sure that I am not doing a violence towards the Other. And that's what it comes down to. This is the theory that informs my actions and stance on everything: that I not do violence to the Other by thinking of them in my terms: that I allow for individuality, difference, and self-determination by other people.

Some Caveats

1. The first is that this is not an easy ethics. In fact, Levinas says that since I can never get out of myself, since I can never escape my own consciousness, I will always be thinking of others in my own terms. So I will forever be committing a violence against the Other. 

But that's not to say we shouldn't try to be ethical beings by this, my system cobbled together from all these badly interpreted theories. Instead, I have to rise to the challenge of my own ethics and as I learn to do better, to do better. The best I can every hope for, he says, is to ask forgiveness and do better next time. Not a thing wrong with that.

2. The second caveat that I must make is that I am terrible at following these ethics. I don't want these blog entries to seem preachy or judgemental, and I think each of us has to find what works for our lives. This is what works for me, when I am being ethical. However, I am not good at not committing violence towards the Other. 

I am far too impatient with people. I am extremely judgemental. I hate crowds, I hate lines. In my life, I've been a bad tenant, a bad roommate, a terrible friend, and a selfish girlfriend. I constantly grumble about folks and their lack of common sense, their bad life choices, and the awful way in which they raise their children. I am guilty of wanting everyone to be like me, although that would be impossible since it would require about 100X the size parking lots that exist today (I always park at the back of lots so I'm guaranteed to have less humans around me). I tend towards a hermit existence and rather than allowing for difference, I'm much more likely to take a similar attitude to:

(if you didn't catch that, it was the ranting. I rant far too often about far too much).

So I am bad at my own ethical system. But this is the one that I have, this is the one I have chosen to live by.  

3. There is one more caveat. And that has to do with Levinas' ideas about justice and the third. Because human relations never just involve me and everybody else, right? There are all sorts of acts of violence that happen in the world everyday, and so how do those fit into this theory? What happens when I am witness to acts of violence? That is something that I struggle with, personally. And I think it's something we'll have to get into in the next entry. 

In the meantime, I think I've earned my cookie for today. :P