Saturday, November 6, 2021

 526. Self and other                                                       

This is the third in a series of 14 dilemma’s

Perhaps the greatest dilemma in life is that between the ideas, perspectives and interests of the self and those of others. In ethics there are, in the West, three streams: utilitarianism, which looks at outcomes of actions, aiming for the greatest utility for the greatest number of people, deontology or duty ethics that judges actions by what is right, regardless of outcomes, and virtue ethics that does a bit of both, oriented at the ‘good life’, at becoming the person one wants to be, with the right character traits, not ignoring utility but also aiming for moderation and consideration of the other.

     An argument for self-interest is that it is in the nature of the human being to strive for its survival. This was professed, for example, by Spinoza, with his notion of conatus, the drive to survival, by Nietzsche with his notion of will to power, and Plato with the notion of thymos, mentioned before. Nietzsche denied that the drive for survival determines all, and claimed  that people regularly engage in activities that jeopardise their survival. Thymos is the source of discovery, entrepreneurship, science, art and theatre that I would not like to shed.

    Conservatives argue for the drive of self-interest out of the conviction that this makes for welfare, in the market system, as argued before.

    Two prominent authors oriented at the other person are Emmanuel Levinas (1982, 1991, 1995) and Martin Buber (2004). They both argued that the other and the relation with him/her supercede the ego. They made a fundamental departure from the old view, going back to Descartes, that the ego, the subject, has a pre-established identity, looking at the world, the object, from the outside. Levinas and Buber, among others,  objected that this objectifies the other, and turns him/her into an instrument. It thereby foregoes, withers, the intrinsic, ideosyncratic value of the other. Self and other are different and cannot merge, and the other should be accepted and valued as such. For Levinas, by the epiphany of his/her ‘visage’, the other was high, and had to be cared for and obeyed unconditionally, in an asymmetric relationship. The face of the other issues a call, affecting us prior to our action, and triggering the imperative to care, surrendering oneself to the other. It is not like opening the door to an existing house, but letting the other participate in building the house. This admittance of the other is unconditional. Levinas says literally that one should even accept one’s henchman. For Buber, on the other hand, the relation had to be balanced, in dialogue. The relation, the ‘between’. (Buber) is prior to identity. In the I-It relation the other is treated as an object, instrumentally, but in the I-Thou relationship one is oriented at the intrinsic value of the other, letting oneself be influenced. The I-It relation has its value, and is inevitable, but lacks depth of humanity, although it can incidentally carry the I-Thou relation.

Inspired by Buber, Rosa (2019) pleaded for resonance affecting the other and being affected by him/her, like a tuning fork sending and picking up vibrations. I add that although it can be spontaneous, mostly resonance requires effort and dedication. One needs to immerse oneself in the other, grow understanding and empathy. One needs to immerse for resonance to emerge. One may have to coach the other away from closure out of fear or mistrust, try to access his/her sources of opinion and creativity, and accept such endeavours of the other on oneself.

    According to Rosa, we can resonate not only with other individuals, ‘horizontally’, but also ‘vertically’, with higher level entities, such as institutions or communities, with God if one is religious, and ‘diagonally’, with objects. How can the latter be? According to Rosa, in resonance with things, they ‘speak’ to us or ‘call’ us. Of course, he does not mean this literally, but what, then, does it mean? The thing can also, like a person, elicit unexpected thoughts, memories, associations, emotions, feelings and actions from its hidden potential. But how can I affect that thing? I can cherish and adorn it. I can affect its elicitation in me, by playing the piece of music or looking at the painting. I can affect the object’s potential to affect me, but cannot fully control or predict what it does. An object can give ongoing surprise, and this makes it interesting and enticing. Comparably to love, friendship or trust, what the thing means to me does not wear out. Like those, it deepens in its use. Rosa (2020) gives the example of a pianist who does not get bored by the piece he plays. Every time he plays, it affects him differently, but to achieve that he has to play it. In French, playing a piece is ‘interpretation’, which varies not only with the person playing, but also with his/her performance. I can resonate with my writing. Formerly, before computers, writing in fluent longhand felt like playing a violin. Now, I experience hammering at a keybord as playing a drum. Once, I whitewashed a wall and enjoyed the swish. Playing tennis, I enjoyed the ‘plock’ of a good hit. Can I resonate with my hammer? Formerly, craftsmen decorated their implements, and warriors their swords. Chain gangs sing. Soldiers on the march do. Perhaps craftsmen still cherish their tools, but decoration as a connection of craft with art has largely disappeared, though sometimes it appears in design

    For Bubers’s I-Thou relationship and Rosa’s resonance one must resist the impulse to control the other. Rosa (2020) argued that modern Man tries to control everything, which is only partly possible, and hampers the resonance that we really cherish. He argued that after the demise of the expectation of an afterlife, to fill our finite lives we want ever more than we have, which requires ever increasing efficiency, with the use of technology and the drive of capitalism, causing acceleration, going faster in everything (Rosa, 2016), and this hampers the attentive give and take of ‘resonance’. This is ‘bad faith’, doing something we do not really want. Resonance carries uncertainty: you cannot fully control the other person, and you cannot predict every action that may arise in his or her conduct, or indeed your own. We should seek resonance of people with each other and with the natural environment. In the recent past, in the US there has been no resonance between democrats and republicans. Across the world, people avoid resonance by locking themselvers into ‘filter bubbles’ or ’echo chambers’. Ecological disaster is looming from lack of resonance between people and nature

    Resonance is part of the intrinsic value of a relationship, value in itself, beyond any extrinsic, instrumental value. Kant already said: never value another only as an instrument, but always also as a goal.

Trust, for example, has instrumental value, in aiding collaboration, but also has intrinsic value. The UK entered the EU for its economic value, at a time that the British economy was not doing so well, in comparison with the continental countries, but in its ‘splendid isolation’, chauvinism and traditional atagonism with especially France, it never saw much intrinsic value in the EU, and that resentment won out and developed into Brexit.

As Rosa argues, excessive control may be counterproductive, but on the other hand, if dilemmas, for example, are part of life, the urge to control them also is. From his beginnings, the human being tried to manipulate its environment, making flintstones and implements of wood and bone, and mastering fire, to give warmth and improve digestion of foods by roasting or cooking. Such endeavour and inventiveness are part of humanity. Husbandry of animals is a form of control, but the herdsman can still resonate with his cattle.

According to Rosa, the absence of resonance yields muteness, no call or response, comparable to Buber’s I-It relationship. Rosa (2020:25) referred to a poem by Friedrich Schiller, in 1788, entitled The Greek Gods , as an example of an uncontrollable world, reigned by the gods, in contrast with our present world that is over-controlled and mute as a result. But those gods were full of thymos, inflicting control on humans and each other. The human being had no effect on the gods. Ulysses could not control the storms and vortexes inflicted by Poseidon, the vindictive god of the sea.

The benefit of control depends on how far it goes. Rosa (2020: 17) identified four stages of control: making visible, making reachable, making manageable, and making useful. Excess control can mute resonance, but resonance also requires the first two stages of control, of visibility and acessibility, to achieve affect and being affected. It goes too far in the stage of making manageable, which is one-sided, and making useful, giving instrumental value, and threatening intrinsic value of a relation. Rosa (2020:44) granted that resonance requires ‘semi controllability’

As I discuss elsewhere (Nooteboom 2002), part of the art of trust is moderating the urge to control, exercising the virtue of patience. One can to some extent control the conduct of others, but only partly and not always. Trust entails the acceptance of relational risk, in giving room for conduct, relinquishing control. As a result, trust is to some extent a ‘leap of faith’ (Moellering 2009).

Lindenberg (2003) employed the notion of relational signaling. In relations, he distinguishes two basic mind frames: one of protection, ‘defending one’s resources’, and one of ‘solidarity’, in which one is prepared to grant resources and one is capable of listening to reasons or causes, giving the benefit of the doubt in case of some mishap. ‘Voice’ demands the second frame on both sides of the relationship, but that frame is often less robust than the frame of suspicion and defense, and can easily switch over to it. The human being by nature has an inclination to both. In evolution, defending one’s resources is obviously adaptive for the individual, but solidarity is adaptive for the group. One may have have an inclination to one or the other, on the basis of experience, and it depends on the situation, especially signals that others send in what they do or say, including body laguage or what Pierre Bourdieu called habitus. You should respond to e-mails even if not strictly necessary , lest the counterpart starts wondering if you are interested at all. You may infer frames people are in from how they treat a waiter when you have dinner together, prior to a negotiation.



-          Whose ideas do you prefer, those of Levinas or those of Buber

-          Do you often experience resonance, Buber’s I-Thou relations

-          Is resonance real or illusory

-          Are you aware that you are continually sending off relational signals

-          Does trust have intrinsic value



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