QA 45. Much obliged?

For months I’ve been like a hound dog barking at a rabbit hole. Then I think I fell in because things got kind of strange. Here’s how it went…

Step 1 (QA 44). The development of philosophical practice as ethical and emancipatory leads me to think about human dignity as integral, inherent and immeasurable. And a source of great confusion. What is that about?

Step 2. I find that “dignity” is defined in terms of “worth” and “value”. Unlike dignity, these words have both material and moral meanings, which are different (e.g. a man of worth might not be worth much at the bank). Also strange: my dictionary lists both meanings as primary.

Step 3. I start to notice how many words share that crossover quality. We speak of credit, debt, appreciate, account, responsibility, balance, equity, interest, share in both economic and ethical terms. I know that “the Good” is not the same as “the goods”, but this indicates a very close relationship. What could it be?Step 4. It has something to do with our sense that doing the right thing means doing the equitable thing, the fair thing. Fair also in terms of reward and penalty, of what we’ve earned. This sense of the good as quantifiable and subject to account. Santa Claus and Saint Peter are keeping their lists!

The problem with this apparent commensurability is that it lays the ground for two mistakes. The first maps the moral onto the material, believing that good deeds will – at least should – be rewarded and that cheaters never prosper. That’s clearly not true (not in this lifetime anyway). The second collapses the moral into the material, rendering us as rational little units pursuing our own interest. Greed is the new good and everything possible is permissible. That’s clearly not good enough. Neither is it true. So what is the relationship between moral and material worth?Step 5. At the philosophy café, we’re talking about how conversation is different from other kinds of talk. Someone says, “What can be most important in a conversation is not the content but what happens between us. Sometimes there’s a hard truth that someone needs to say and I feel I can’t duck out or let myself off the hook. I feel obliged by the other person to be present. And when I do stay present, something powerful happens.” I ask about the nature of that obligation. “Is it like you owe it to the other person?” Someone interrupts, “Yes – but not in the material sense, not like a debt.”

Step 6. Aha! Obligation is a key to the cipher, and whoops! down the rabbit hole.
So… maybe… the ethical is separated from the economic order precisely when it is superfluous (overflowing), inordinate (disproportionate), gratuitous (given freely – even on demand). Like someone who feels obliged to show up for a friend, even knowing it’s likely going to hurt. That is good, and true. It isn’t fair. Fair comes later.

I’m still digging down. Anyone who knows the philosophical writings of Emmanuel Levinas recognises this territory – but here is evidence inscribed in the English language of how human dignity is caught up in the intrigue of being and goodness. For instance, owe shares a root with own and ought. Do we owe what we own? Do we have to give?

And how quickly coercion comes on the scene to exploit this energy. Then we find ourselves obligated rather than obliged, our freedom compromised…

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