OF THE PERSONAL AND THE OBLIGATORY

Hillel-the-Elder-Feat

^ the personal is the ethical, and the ethical is the personal : Rabbi Hillel the Elder teaching Torah to the student, one to one.

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When door-knocking for a candidate, as I always do when I’m in a campaign, you quickly learn that every voter has his own vote to give and only his. I’ve met a wife at the door, discussed my candidate with her, and then waited as she called her husband to talk to me, each entirely for themselves only. That I may win the wife’s vote in no way wins me the husband’s vote. The same is true as I go from door to door. Winning Joe’s vote at house number 99 in no way wins me Don’s vote at the house next door nor Mary’s vote at the house after that.

People make up their own minds, and not only about voting. Each of us perceives the external world with our own sense perceptions — not with anybody else’s. There is no skin color way to evaluate what the senses perceive, no judgments to be made because of who one’s grandfather was. I never knew my grandfathers : am I then to refer my perceptions to them ? On most occasions where I must respond to a perception, the response must take placer quickly. There isn’t time to reflect, or very long. The work is mine alone.

Now there are some who will say, “but your responses to perceptions are inherited, or they were taught you early on by your parents, who learned them from their parents.” That may be true, though I’m skeptical; but even when true, the act of perceiving is yours alone because hat you perceive happens now, not 60 years ago when your grandparents were alive, and what you perceive has itself likely changed from its categorical predecessors: for things that take place influence what takes place afterward : cause and effect does happen. Thus your perceptions and responses are yours. What is learned from them, you learn, and only you.

If skin color were a part of perception and response, or one’s ancestry, then what you perceive would be perceived similarly by others of the same skin color, or ancestry. So far as I can tell, that does not happen. What I perceive, only I perceive. A person of the same ancestry as myself, or the same skin color, can be standing right next to me and not perceive any of what I have perceived, much less respond to it. I may speak the same language as the person standing next to me, even the same local dialect or trendy slang, and be of the same age with him; yet I would probably find it difficult to convey to him what I have perceived, or for him to understand what I have perceived by my telling, or, if understood, for him to respond in the same way as I did.

We are born alone and die alone. We pay our own taxes, nobody else’s. We vote our vote, not our ancestral kin’s vote. Is there any important life decision that we make jointly other than those we agree to, such as marriage ? But I am putting my weight on the scales. I assume that there is individual decision. There are persons who deny that individual decision occurs. Count in this number the biological determinists, who assert that what we call “decision” is nothing more than learned, electrical impulses. Well, I don’t know about that. That sounds like mistaking effect for cause.

To import a bit of Bishop Berkeley’s philosophy of knowledge :

Berkeley claimed that abstract ideas are the source of all philosophical perplexity and illusion.  In his Introduction to the Principles of Human Knowledge he argued that, as Locke described abstract ideas (Berkeley considered Locke’s the best account of abstraction), (1) they cannot, in fact, be formed, (2) they are not needed for communication or knowledge, and (3) they are inconsistent and therefore inconceivable.

In the Principles and the Three Dialogues Berkeley defends two metaphysical theses:  idealism (the claim that everything that exists either is a mind or depends on a mind for its existence) and immaterialism (the claim that matter does not exist).  

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All of the above is preamble to my main purpose : to argue against those who see human ethics, politics, and social obligation in terms of group rather than individual. There is nothing new about this rivalry of self and collective. In the ebb and flow of human history, group has often seemed more dependable than self during periods of social decline. We act individually, but most individually in times of great social cohesion in which the mutual obligations of each to all are honored as a matter of course, when there is no debate whether such obligations are actually obligatory. Roman portraiture during the age of Augustus is far more realistic, and more fully fleshed, than during the time of Constantine, when social norms had severely fractured and depictions of persons crashed crudely and stereotyped; and to the magnificent candor of the mid-6th Century mosaics in San Vitale at Ravenna, made 200 years later, but in a place where the rule of Justinian was taken for granted, I contrast Gregory of Tours’s hackneyed annals of gossip and rumor, written barely 30 years later in a city where anarchy as more the rule than civic certainty.

We are told today, by temporary typists, that there is such a thing as “whiteness”; or that “one should be proud to be Black”; and that so and so is a “racist” if he or she exercises “white privilege”; and that we must learn to be “anti racist.” Whatever do these admonitions mean ? What to say about an assertion that assumes its own conclusion ? It isn’t easy to debate a circular target, and I don’t presume to a conclusive antidote.

When discussing human beings, however, one thing that is never, ever ethical to do : deny any person his or her individual dignity, her autonomy, his perceptions and imaginings personal to him alone. Begin with the individual, because individual people do exist. Attempts to categorize two or more people, on any basis, step into the realm of speculation. We can say, without too much risk, that a certain 330,000,000 people are all Americans — though there are many who would deny that all 330,000,000 are that. Much riskier is to categorize people with dark skin color. Many who do not have dark skin color consider themselves Black because of ancestry, and many who do have dark skin do not consider themselves “black,” because of national origin or other reason. But you may say, “well, white people do group dark skin people together and then ‘other’ them” ? To which I respond, maybe so; maybe people do do that; but not all “white” people do it, and in any case, a person is not what others call him; a person is who he actually is, an autonomous individual with his own life to risk and decide about. Nor do I accept there exists a category “white people.” There is nothing that applies to all people with light color skin except having light color skin. The category “white people” is a circular assumption, just as the category “black people.”

There can be no ethics where there is no actor. Only individuals make ethical decisions. And the rule of Rabbi Hillel the Elder sums it up : “whatever is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. this is the whole Torah, the rest is explanation.” Note the terms that Hillel uses : “what is hateful to YOU” and “do not do to YOUR FELLOW.” For Hillel, ethical obligation is personal and person to person, an act of reciprocity between one person and another. The rule becomes societal when all members of a society follow the rule as individuals.

Hillel taught at the height of the Jewish political revival under Herod the Great. 1000 years later, when Pope Gregory VII and his successors felt under threat from various Christian heresies and even a faddish attraction by many to Judaism — the threat was not imaginary at all; in the south of France and cities elsewhere in Europe, heresy and Judaism abounded —  he anathemized “the Jews” and saw to it that Jews were segregated residentially. (Sound familiar ?) For the next 250 years most of Catholic Europe (but not Islamic Spain !) exploited “the Jews,” expelled them, isolated them. As a group, not as individuals.

Did Jews in Europe thereby become ‘a group” ? They did not. Individual Jews made their way individually, some to great success. Individual Jews disputed other Jews. Some converted to Catholicism. Some were agnostic. Many were friends with individual non-Jews, as the stories in Boccaccio’s Decameron make clear. Nothing united them except in being oppressed as “a group,” which was the legal situation but not often the actual. They were “a group” only to those who chose to not know any Jews.

That many in today’s America assert group “pride,” group “culture,” group ethics and group existence is a measure of our social collapse. Of our loss of personal confidence. Of our fear of our fellow man. There is nothing at all good in any of this. Where the individual loses his or her personal sacred; where he or she finds succor only in the company of those who “look like” him or her; where we judge that “racism” is anything other than an absurdity — there we step into an undertow with no bottom, a falsity with no truth, a circular argument which is actually an eddy sucking us into it, though of course we feel it as liberation — the freedom that comes with death spiritual as well as epistemological.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

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