Philosophy in Practice | Cape Town


QA 20. (Dec 09) Reason of the heart

QA 20. (Dec 09) Reason of the heart

  • Posted by Helen Douglas
  • On December 3, 2009
  • altruism, racism, solidarity, ubuntu

Talk about racism moves like a veld fire. It flares up, is spread by strong winds, then hunkers down until the next spark ignites. It would be best to stop feeding it, but mostly we keep on producing more wind. Why?

It feels like intransigence, as if people have dug in their heels, refusing to yield unless the other side meets some impossible demand. A deadlock. Couldn’t that indicate a secret longing for something alive, and open? Something unconditional, something that could surrender itself without shame. Something fearless. Something like love, or ubuntu, although these words grow more unusable by the day.

This intransigence locks us inside our skins (our culture, our side), like they were our very essence. In some sense, of course they are. But if this is the only truth, or the highest truth, then we have nothing ahead of us but the endless war of all against all.

We try to manage these conflicts of interest, but that only damps the fire down. It doesn’t bring peace. What is needed is a counter-logic, another understanding of our humanness.

It’s not going to be simply what we have in common. Finding commonality with others is lovely, but our differences are not going to disappear. This is not a bad thing – quite the contrary. Blaming difference for our troubles leads directly to dreams of totality, of “one big happy us”. If there is anything we should know from history, it is that this is a seriously bad idea. Our differences matter.

It’s not going to come from willpower, as if we could (and should) simply decide to get over ourselves, as if we could (and should) shed our own skins, if only we had the right intention. Nevertheless, intention – like identity and community – matters.

It can’t be through idealism. We must find this logic already operating in our lives, equally as evident and imperative as the logic of our desire for self-preservation and identification with self-same others – and yet contradicting it entirely.

And of course it exists. Two millennia ago, Rabbi Hillel framed it as elegantly as anyone has: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? When I am for myself alone, what am I? The first appeals to the reason of self-interest. The second is to the reason of ethics and justice, of finding oneself responsible for the lives of others.

It’s difficult to speak of this. One can’t praise one’s own humbleness or preach it to others without running into what philosophers like to call a “performative contradiction”. Nevertheless, it’s all around us. Even something as simple as letting a stranger go ahead of you in traffic can refute the myth of almighty self-centredness.

If we started to notice this essential goodness of human being, if we didn’t dismiss it, but accepted its reality as unquestioningly as we accept our instinct for striving and self-defence, what then would become possible?

And if not now, then when?



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