Excerpt from A Common Humanity: Thinking about love and truth and justice by Raimond Gaita. Published by Routledge. Copyright 2000 Raimond Gaita. All rights reserved. Article history
Common Humanity is a beautifully written book about how the humanity of our fellow human beings is sometimes not fully visible to us. Drawing on the examples of the Holocaust, the David Irving Affair, the case of Mary Bell and the taking of children of mixed blood from Aboriginal parents in Australia, Raimond Gaita examines the reasons for this. Amongst them, he argues, are a moralistic conception of morality that runs deep in our culture and an impoverished conception of reason and understanding. Both encourage a false opposition between moral judgement and compassion and between head and heart. Try our exclusive extract
In the early 1960s when I was seventeen years old, I worked as a ward assistant in a psychiatric hospital. Some of the patients had been there for over thirty years. The ward was an old Victorian building surrounded by a high iron fence. White gravel lay on all sides between the fence and the building. There was no grass. One or two scraggy trees provided mean shade. It reminded me of some of the enclosures at Melbourne zoo. When patients soiled themselves, as some did often, they were ordered to undress and to step under a shower. The distance of a mop handle from them, we then mopped them down as zoo-keepers wash down elephants.
The patients were judged to be incurable and they appeared to have irretrievably lost everything which gives meaning to our lives. They had no grounds for self-respect insofar as we connect that with self-esteem; or, none which could be based on qualities or achievements for which we could admire or congratulate them without condescension. Friends, wives, children and even parents, if they were alive, had long ceased to visit them. Often they were treated brutishly by the psychiatrists and nurses.
A small number of psychiatrists did, however, work devotedly to improve their conditions. They spoke, against all appearances, of the inalienable dignity of even those patients. I admired them enormously. Most of their colleagues believed these doctors to be naive, even fools. Some of the nurses despised them with a vehemence that was astonishing.
It probably didn’t help their cause for the psychiatrists to speak of the inalienable dignity of the patients I described. Natural though it is to speak this way, and although it has an honoured place in our tradition, it is, I believe, a sign of our conceptual desperation and also of our deep desire to ground in the very nature of things the requirement that we accord each human being unconditional respect. To talk of inalienable dignity is rather like talking of the inalienable right to esteem. Both are alienable; esteem for obvious reasons, and dignity because it is essentially tied to appearance. Like the protestation of rights to which it is allied, it will survive only if one is spared the worst. Those who are not spared, those whom Simone Weil described as having been “struck the kind of blow which leaves a being struggling on the ground like a half crushed worm”, depend on the love of saints to make their humanity visible. That is why Weil also said that when compassion for the afflicted is really found “we have a more astounding miracle than walking on water, healing the sick, or even raising the dead”.
One day a nun came to the ward. In her middle years, only her vivacity made an impression on me until she talked to the patients. Then everything in her demeanour towards them—the way she spoke to them, her facial expressions, the inflexions of her body—contrasted with and showed up the behaviour of those noble psychiatrists. She showed that they were, despite their best efforts, condescending, as I too had been. She thereby revealed that even such patients were, as the psychiatrists and I had sincerely and generously professed, the equals of those who wanted to help them; but she also revealed that in our hearts we did not believe this.
The time, as I said, was the early sixties—the time when thoughts about what life could mean were about to be shaped by the optimism of the “beautiful people” and their discovery of self-realisation. Later, reflecting on the nun’s example, I came to believe that an ethics centred on the concept of human flourishing does not have the conceptual resources to keep fully amongst us, in the way the nun had revealed to be possible, people who are severely and ineradicably afflicted. Only with bitter irony or unknowing condescension could one say the patients in that ward had any chance of flourishing. Any description of what life could mean to them invited the thought that it would have been better for them if they had never been born. Later, such thoughts about such lives were commonly voiced, first in discussions of abortion and then in discussions of euthanasia. It would be no fault in any account of ethics if it failed to find words to make fully intelligible what the nun revealed, for she revealed something mysterious. But there are philosophies that leave or create conceptual space for such mystery, and there are some which close that space. Most do not even see the need for it.
I do not know how important it was that she was a nun. One is inclined, of course, to say that her behaviour was a function of the depth of her religious beliefs. Perhaps it was, but typically beliefs explain behaviour independently of their truth or falsity: a person’s false beliefs explain his behaviour as effectively as his true ones. Seeing her, however, I felt irresistibly that her behaviour was directly shaped by the reality which it revealed. I wondered at her, but not at anything about her except that her behaviour should have, so wondrously, this power of revelation. She showed up the psychiatrists, but if I were asked how, exactly, then I would not elaborate on defects in their character, their imagination, or in what would ordinarily be called their moral sensibility.
Of course her behaviour did not come from nowhere. Virtues of character, imagination and sensibility, given content and form by the disciplines of her vocation, were essential to her becoming the kind of person she was. But in another person such virtues and the behaviour which expressed them would have been the focus of my admiring attention. I admired the psychiatrists for their many virtues—for their wisdom, their compassion, their courage, their capacity for self-sacrificing hard work and sometimes for more besides. In the nun’s case, her behaviour was striking not for the virtues it expressed, or even for the good it achieved, but for its power to reveal the full humanity of those whose affliction had made their humanity invisible. Love is the name we give to such behaviour.
If the nun were questioned she might have told a religious or theological or metaphysical story about the people to whom she responded with a love of such purity. But one need not believe it or substitute any other metaphysical story in its place to be certain about the revelatory quality of her behaviour. That certainty is not a blind refusal to acknowledge the possibility of a mistake. It rests on the fact that there is no clear application here for the concept of a mistake as it would normally be understood in connection with claims about the metaphysical or empirical properties of the people in question. The purity of her compassion ruled out for me speculation about whether it was justified. Not, however, because it alerted me to natural or supernatural facts about the patients which justified her demeanour beyond possible doubt. To speak of those patients as “fully our equals” is not, even implicitly, to pick out something about them that could be known or even specified independently of this kind of love.
My assent to what her love revealed did not, therefore, depend on my acceptance of an hypothesis about the grounds of that love. That is one of the great differences between goodness and, for example, great courage. One can acknowledge that beliefs which one judges to be false have inspired great heroism. The heroism is beyond doubt, but it gives no support to the beliefs which inspired it.
The nun almost certainly believed that the patients with whom she dealt were all God’s children and equally loved by Him. One might therefore be inclined to say her behaviour no more supports that belief than the courage of martyrs supports their beliefs in what they died for. That is half true. The purity of her loving behaviour proves something, but not any particular religious faith or doctrine.
If the revelatory quality of her loving demeanour towards those patients depended upon her belief in a metaphysical fact about them, in something that could, quite independently of her love, become a focus for speculation, then her love would have no greater power to reveal reality than inspiring courage has. I do not say, flatly, that it would be wrong to say that her love of God and her belief that the patients were all God’s children inspired her behaviour. After all, as I have acknowledged, she would probably say something like that herself. It can, however, be misleading because it can suggest that those words gesture towards describing some fact of the matter towards which one could take a speculative stance.
What is wrong with adopting such a stance? This, I think. Whatever religious people might say, as someone who was witness to the nun’s love and is claimed in fidelity to it, I have no understanding of what it revealed independently of the quality of her love. If I am asked what I mean when I say that even such people as were patients in that ward are fully our equals, I can only say that the quality of her love proved that they are rightly the objects of our non-condescending treatment, that we should do all in our power to respond in that way. But if someone were now to ask me what informs my sense that they are rightly the objects of such treatment, I can appeal only to the purity of her love. For me, the purity of the love proved the reality of what it revealed. I have to say “for me”, because one must speak personally about such matters. That after all is the nature of witness. From the point of view of the speculative intelligence, however, I am going around in ever darkening circles, because I allow for no independent justification of her attitude.
Nothing I can say will diminish this affront to reason. Love, goodness, purity and beauty— the last being, as Simone Weil said, the word that comes first to mind when we think of saintly deeds— ;these have recurrently come together in a (rather marginal) strand of our philosophical and religious tradition with talk of reality and truth in spiritual and moral matters. That part of the tradition is right, I think, provided one understands these notions to go together with a distinctive concept of reality. They do not refer to peculiar epistemic routes to a reality for which, as speculative metaphysics would have us believe, factual reality is proto-typical. Reality and truth are words we use in many ways.
The nun’s love was unconditional. So too is parental love. I mean that parental love is defined by the requirement that it be unconditional, not that it always or even mostly meets that requirement. Both forms of love are unconditional but they are not unconditioned. Their existence depends upon certain practices and customs as much as it informs them, and also upon certain facts of the human condition. Neither is universally an ideal amongst the peoples of the earth, and even in cultures such as ours where they are (or have been) celebrated, people’s hold on them is often fragile. They are, I believe, dependent upon one another. I doubt that the love expressed in the nun’s demeanour would have been possible for her were it not for the place which the language of parental love had in her prayers.
Theology and philosophy, both being discursive disciplines, seek ways of formulating the relation between the nun’s behaviour and her religious beliefs which are more abstract and more tractable to a certain conception of reason. Elaborating on Kant’s claim that the commandment to love one’s neighbour could not be taken literally because love cannot be commanded, a philosopher recently argued that the philosophically perspicuous rendering of the biblical command is, “Always act so that you respect every human being, yourself and another, as a rational creature.” Such formulations will not find their way into books of prayers and hymns. Philosophers and theologians are, for reasons that go deep in their disciplines, inclined to say that the language of prayer and worship, anthropocentric and often poetic, merely makes moving and therefore psychologically accessible to less than perfectly rational beings, things whose intellectual content is more clearly revealed in the abstract deliverance of theological and philosophical theories. I suspect that the contrary is closer to the truth— that the unashamedly untheoretical, anthropocentric language of worship has greater power to reveal the structure of the concepts which make the nun’s behaviour and what it revealed intelligible to us.
For us in the West, the claim that all human beings are sacred is the one that bears most directly on the question of how to characterise the nun’s behaviour. Only someone who is religious can speak seriously of the sacred, but such talk informs the thoughts of most of us whether or not we are religious, for it shapes our thoughts about the way in which human beings limit our will as does nothing else in nature. If we are not religious, we will often search for one of the inadequate expressions which are available to us to say what we hope will be a secular equivalent of it. We may say that all human beings are inestimably precious, that they are ends in themselves, that they are owed unconditional respect, that they possess inalienable rights, and, of course, that they possess inalienable dignity. In my judgment these are ways of trying to say what we feel a need to say when we are estranged from the conceptual resources we need to say it. Be that as it may: each of them is problematic and contentious. Not one of them has the simple power of the religious ways of speaking.
Where does that power come from? Not, I am quite sure, from esoteric theological or philosophical elaborations of what it means for something to be sacred. It derives from the unashamedly anthropomorphic character of the claim that we are sacred because God loves us, his children. Its significance will be evident to anyone who reflects on family life. Children come to love their brothers and sisters because they see them in the light of their parents’ love. Often, we learn that something is precious only when we see it in the light of someone’s love.
Sometimes parental love has powers of disclosure similar to the nun’s love. When their love is pure, parents who love a child who has become a vicious and vile adult remind us that this person, whose deeds are evil and whose character appears irredeemably foul, is fully our fellow human being. The requirement on parents to love their children unconditionally is not an external standard imposed from elsewhere. It is one of the standards internal to that love itself, standards which determine its real, as opposed to its counterfeit, forms. It is also fundamental to an account of the way in which the child appears as precious to its parents if their love is pure— that is to an account of why the child appears to them as precious, period.
But the power of parental love to reveal that even this evil and foul character is fully our fellow human being— its having that to reveal— depends, I think, on the impartial love of saints. Were it not for the love saints have shown for the most terrible criminals, were it not for the generalising authority of such love which we take to apply to all human beings, the love of mothers for their criminal children would appear to be merely the understandable, but limited, love of mothers. Because of the place the impartial love of saints has occupied in our culture, there has developed a language of love whose grammar has transformed our understanding of what it is for a human being to be a unique kind of limit to our will. We express our sense of that limit when we say that human beings are owed unconditional respect, or that they have inalienable rights, and similar things. These ways of speaking express a disposition to find a basis for what love has revealed which is more steadfast than love itself is believed to be and which will make the fruits of love’s work more secure to reason.
The greatest philosophical expression of that disposition is found in Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. He is virtually alone amongst the great philosophers to emphasise the importance of our sense of the individual to the authority which morality claims over us. It is captured in his famous injunction that one should act so that one always treats a person as an end and never merely as a means, and in his ideal of rational beings fully and unconditionally respectful of each other in the Kingdom of Ends. The first part of that injunction has great rhetorical power and has been influential well beyond philosophy despite the obscurity of the second part which tells us to treat people as ends of action. Kant also said, as I noted earlier, that because we cannot love on command, the biblical command to love one’s neighbour could not be taken literally. He took it as a rhetorical way of expressing the duties whose nature he believed he had revealed more clearly in the abstractions of his philosophy. Magnificent contempt was all he would accord the position I argue in this book:
Against the slack, or indeed ignoble, attitude which seeks for the moral principle among empirical motives and laws we cannot give a warning too strongly or too often; for human reason in its weariness is fain to rest upon this pillow and in a dream of sweet illusions (which lead it to embrace a cloud in mistake for Juno) to foist into the place of morality some misbegotten mongrel patched up from limbs of very varied ancestry and looking like anything you please, only not like virtue, to him who has once beheld her in her true shape.
It is not, however, straightforwardly true that love cannot be commanded, if that means that we cannot be required to love better. Love has its standards and lovers must try to rise to them. Rush Rhees, one of Wittgenstein’s most eminent students, said that there would be no love without the language of love. There cannot be love without certain ways and tones of speaking of what we love, without argument about what is appropriate or even intelligible to love, about whether something is worthy of our love and whether what we feel really is love. The standards intrinsic to love in all its forms are partly an expression of respect for the independent reality of the beloved. To the eye of a moralist, that can look like a straightforwardly moral requirement, independent of love as a passion. It is half true. We would not have a sense of the independent reality of the beloved if we did not think of her as someone who could be wronged. But we would not have the sense of her as someone who could be wronged, if we did not have a sense of her as precious in a way that has largely been conditioned by the language of love. The requirements of love and those of morality are, I believe, interdependent and, as we shall see, sometimes conflicting.
It is true and important, as Kant insisted, that we have obligations to those whom we do not love. We misconstrue its importance, however, if we follow Kant in imagining that we would acknowledge obligations towards people we believed to be beyond the possible reach of the love of someone like the nun or, to take a more public example, Mother Teresa. We would not find it even intelligible, I think, that we have obligations to those whom we do not love unless we saw them as being the intelligible beneficiaries of someone’s love. Failing that, talk of rights and duties would begin to disengage from what gives it sense. One of the quickest ways to make prisoners morally invisible to their guards is to deny them visits from their loved ones, thereby ensuring that the guards never see them through the eyes of those who love them. That is a fact of considerable importance to reflection about the nature of morality. Our talk of rights is dependent on the works of love.
Our sense of the preciousness of other people is connected with their power to affect us in ways we cannot fathom and in ways against which we can protect ourselves only at the cost of becoming shallow. There is nothing reasonable in the fact that another person’s absence can make our lives seem empty. The power of human beings to affect one another in ways beyond reason and beyond merit has offended rationalists and moralists since the dawn of thought, but it is partly what yields to us that sense of human individuality which we express when we say that human beings are unique and irreplaceable. Such attachments, and the joy and the grief which they may cause, condition our sense of the preciousness of human beings. Love is the most important of them.
The readiness of lovers to disregard prudence, to love and to suffer for it despite status, class, race, nationality and moral merit, conditions and awakens in us a sense of the mystery and preciousness of human beings. The loves that form our sense of the preciousness of individuals are therefore not only the more edifying kinds. As well as the nun’s love, there is Othello’s destructive love for Desdemona. To deny that the latter is real love because of the ideals implicit in the former would be as misguided as to deny (as Kant did) the moral importance of both in the name of obligation. When we are tempted to say that Othello did not really love Desdemona whom he was destined to murder, we should consider whether such moralisation of the standards by which we distinguish real love from its semblances might not undermine the very thing on which such judgments depend, namely, our sense of other human beings as irreplaceable.
Love takes many forms, some of which are in tension with one another and some of which are in tension with morality. The reasons why love commends itself to morality are also reasons why it offends it. Moralists will try to resolve this tension by moralising our understanding of what love really is and by declaring Othello’s passion to be many things but never love. If they were to succeed in denigrating all love that conflicts with morality as false love, then they would undermine what is best in our morality— the faith that human beings are precious beyond reason, beyond merit and beyond what most moralisers will tolerate.