An Ethics of Love and a Common Humanity: Gaita – Lecture 6

August 22, 2016

470_prof_raimond,0So far we have investigated the critique of morality from Spinoza to Foucault. What is common between all these writers is the view that morality is a smokescreen for power. This does not mean that morality does not exist, since it is clear that morality is very real, but to understand morality, and especially its justification, you have to examine the social logic that underpins it. This social logic, of course is not itself inherently moral, but is the legitimization of power as its changes contingently through human history. This is why we see different moralities through time and in different cultures. Moral discourse, from a Foucauldian perspective, is a kind of knowledge or discourse that attempts to fix and stratify power through apparatuses that can be as diverse as institutions, scientific statements, and moral and philosophical propositions (Foucault and Gordon, 1980, p. 194).

It is wrong, however, to think that Foucault is only interested in the relation between power and knowledge, as we suggested in the previous lecture, because just as much as knowledge attempts to capture power, power, as a relation of forces, also constantly escapes knowledge. If we think of morality as the control of life, then we can also think of life as continuously escaping this order and regulation. So although his work mostly describes how life is captured in apparatuses, anything that shapes or moulds human behaviour, of which morality would be one, he is also interested in the way that life resists capture, and of course must do so, otherwise knowledge and power would have no object.

One way to think about this is through subjectification. In Foucault’s later work, he is not so much interested in the relation of the self to apparatuses as such, but of the relation of the self to itself, a process of individuation produced not by power relations as such, but a subtraction from them. In the example that Foucault looked at, which was the formation of Athenian city, the rivalry between free men was internalised as self-mastery, for only in that way could one free man command another. Such a relation of the self to itself, Foucault called ethics, which was different from morality as an apparatus of external relation of power to knowledge. As Deleuze argues, this analysis was cruelly interrupted by Foucault’s death, but there is nothing stopping us expanding it to other kinds of subjectification, one of which could be the ‘marginalised existence of the outsider’ (Deleuze, 1992, p. 161). This could suggest an even different way of thinking about ethics, which is not the relation of the self to itself, but to the other.

Although Gaita comes from a completely dissimilar way of doing philosophy than either Foucault and Deleuze, this is how he differentiates morality from ethics in his work.[1] Morality has to with rules and principles in which we make judgements and rationalisations, whereas ethics is the relation to the other who I feel an obligation towards that cannot be negotiated away without denying their humanity. His work repeatedly aims at making us see that there is a difference between morality and ethics, because my recognition of the singular obligation I feel for the other is not the same as my rational justification of my actions or my own virtues.

We might be willing, after the critique of Spinoza, Nietzsche and Foucault, to accept that morality is relative, but ethics is not when we think of the harm and dehumanisation of the victim. Take for example the eighth poem from Reznikoff’s Holocaust:

One of the S.S. men caught a woman with a baby in her arms
She began asking for mercy: if she were shot
the baby should live.
She was near a fence between the ghetto and where Poles lived
and behind the fence were Poles ready to catch the baby
and she was about to hand it over when caught.
The S.S. man took the baby from her arms
and shot her twice,
and then held the baby in his hands.
The mother, bleeding but still alive, crawled up to his feet.
The S.S. man laughed
and tore the baby apart as one would tear a rag.
Just then a stray dog passed
and the S.S man stopped to pat it
and took a lump of sugar out of his pocket
and gave it to the dog. (Reznikoff, 2010)

It seems almost a betrayal to write any explanation of this. The words are enough of a testimony without commentary, but surely it would be strange to think that the S.S. man’s only failure is that he hadn’t rationalised his behaviour, or that it is sufficient to explain this action as an expression of his will to power. No doubt you could, but is this the last word we would want to say about his victims?

One way of thinking about the difference between morality and ethics, and whether there is a possibility of an absolute demand of ethics that would transcend any historical or culture context, is the existence of evil. We have already seen from Spinoza’s perspective that evil can only be a relative term, since one person’s good might be another person’s bad. It is difficult to imagine Foucault supporting such a concept.[2] But can we imagine evil not so much in terms of the act or the agent, but action visited on the victim. One striking aspect of Reznikoff’s poem is that as he brutally murders the mother and her child, he seems capable of kindness to a stray dog.

We have to be very careful here of not falling into sentimentality and mawkishness when defending the existence of evil, especially when such a word has religious and theological connotations for us, so it is worth looking at the opening of chapter of Gaita’s book A Common Humanity in some detail to precisely understand what he thinks the difference between ethics and morality might be, and why he can both claim that evil exists and is not a moral concept, but an absolute demand the other person makes upon me when I respond to their singularity without reserve (2000). What is lacking in the S.S. officer is not an absence of thought, but of feeling and sensibility. He does not see the Jewish mother and child as human beings because of a surfeit of intelligibility, and not because he lacks it. His objectivity has consigned them to less respect than the stray dog, but only because he does not experience their humanity in the first instance. They have already become mutilated by his language and discourse, which is the condition for the evil visited upon them.

In the preface to The Common Humanity, Gaita tell us what is central to his understanding of ethics is that every single individual is precious. What does it mean to treat a human being in this way? It means to love them. Our attachment to other human beings is not revealed to us in the language of rights or morality, but love. Yet we wont to think of love as sentimental and emotional, as though love were less than morality. Do we not only love those who are close to us, whereas morality is about the rights of everyone? To show us what he means by this emotion, and why he thinks it is deeper and more fundamental than morality, he recounts an early experience of his youth when he worked in a psychiatric hospital. It reminded him of a zoo and the patients were treated as though they were animals. They had lost everything and their lives had become meaningless. What they had lost above all was the respect from others who might have loved them, and for this reason they were treated ‘brutally by the psychiatrists and nurses (17-18).

What does respect mean in this context? We might think of the counter position, if the patients had been treated properly, as one of dignity and there were some psychiatrists, Gaita tells us, that did speak of the dignity of the patients. We speak of rights and dignity as inalienable, but what we discover like the Jewish mother and child in Reznikoff’s poem that it can quite easily be lost. When someone has lost it, then it needs more than just the law to regain it. They need the ‘love of saints’ (18). One day, Gaita, writes, a nun came to the hospital and he saw what this might mean. In her eyes the patients regained their humanity that they had lost in the eyes of others, even when they spoke of dignity and respect.

Is what was revealed in this encounter dependent on the religious beliefs of the nun? Is this a religious experience the unqualified love of another human being? But this would miss something about the experience, since it turns everything the wrong way around. It is not the nun’s beliefs that determine her behaviour, but her behaviour her beliefs and this behaviour reveals something true about our relation to others independent of any belief, even if these beliefs sustained the nun herself, for it is perfectly possible for someone with the same beliefs would not have behaved in that way, and their actions would not have revealed anything to the young Gaita.

What is particular about the relation of love, which makes it more than just a matter of belief is that what is revealed, the humanity of the other, is dependent on the relation itself. It has nothing to do with a property or attribute of something, or a particular aspect of reality, since that is not why the S.S. brutally murders the Jewish mother and child, or the nurses and the psychiatrists treat the mental patients like animals in a zoo. It is because they already lack love that they do so, not because an attribute or property forces them to do so. This is what it means to say that the love the nun’s behaviour expresses is unconditional. Because philosophy takes concepts and rationality as primary, and feelings and sensibility as secondary, it claims that former is more important than latter, but Gaita wants to argue that without love our morality can become the opposite of justice, for we can fail to see others as human at all.

Such unconditional love is commanded from the other. This is not an attribute but our response to others. To love another is to experience this unconditional love. It exists in the relation, not in the terms of the relation. It seems very close to when Kant says in the Groundwork that every human being is an end rather than means, but this respect for Kant is rational belief rather than an emotion or feeling. In fact, he is critical of the very possibility of resting morality of feelings, since by definition they can come and go dependent on the person who is the object of it. But equally, we might say to Kant, that whether an individual standing before me falls under the concept of end in itself can also come and go, depending on how I define humanity (considering again our example from the previous lecture of Kant’s how clear racism). What Kant lacked was not reason, but love.

Common humanity does not just mean having attributes that are universal to human beings. It is not a definition. Nakedness and vulnerability, suffering and pain, is an appeal to something basic, but it not the same as the expression of a common definition, because we can change the definition so that certain individuals can fall out of it, or because we can still think and speak of human rights and morality, but nonetheless treat individuals cruelly and indifferently who stand before us, because we do not respond to their humanity. I do not have a definition or concept of humanity and then apply it to them, rather my attitude or behaviour to them reveals their humanity to myself and others. Ethics is a response to a ‘living human body’ (272) first of all, before it is reflection on abstract concepts like person and rights that belong to a philosophical and moral discourse. ‘It is,’ Gaita writes, ‘astonishment at alterity, at otherness, at how other than, and other to oneself another human being can be’ (272. Italics in original).

This why racism, the example from Reznikoff’s poem being such an extreme form so that we can see what is lost, is such an important counter instance of what the absence of love might mean for Gaita. For we might think that racism is an illustration of an empirical generalisation. If that were the case, then it would be possible to rationally demonstrate to someone that they should not be a racist, since rational differences are only phenotypical. The only reason that white people are white is because of a colder climate, where white skin was advantageous since it allowed for the maximisation of vitamin D synthesis. Such external traits, like eye shape and colour, tell us little of significant interest about another individual. Yet to think that one could convince a racist in this way is to see the situation the wrong way around, much in the same way as with the nun. It is to think that the racist is a racist because they entertain certain beliefs, which they then subsequently put into practise, whereas it is because they are already racist that such traits are examples of sub-humanity, which in the worse cases could lead to murder and genocide. You already treat others as sub-human, an object of hate rather than love, and it is relation that leads you to stereotype them through an ensuing pseudo rationalisation.

For someone to be treated as an equal, to grant them full humanity as ourselves, already demands an immediate relation to them that recognises their humanity through absolute unconditional love. Without this relation, our morality can end up justifying evil rather than being outraged by it. ‘Our talk of rights,’ Gaita writes, ‘is dependent on the works of love’ (26).

Works Cited

Connolly, W.E., 1993. Beyond Good and Evil: The Ethical Sensibility of Michel Foucault. Political Theory 21, 365–389.

Deleuze, G., 1992. What is a dispositif. Michel Foucault: Philosopher 159–168.

Foucault, M., 1977. Revolutionary action: “Until now,” in: Bouchard, D.F. (Ed.), Bouchard, D.F., Simon, S. (Trans.), Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y., pp. 218–23.

Foucault, M., Gordon, C., 1980. Power/knowledge: selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977. Pantheon Books, New York.

Gaita, R., 2000. A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice. Routledge, London.

Reznikoff, C., 2010. Holocaust. Five Leaves Publ., Nottingham.


[1] If we were to characterise his work, then we might say that it is Wittgensteinian. Philosophy is an activity of clarification and critique. The difference between morality and ethics is neither semantic nor logical but descriptive.

[2] Morality is a part of the intelligible, how we make sense of the world, and for Foucault is never necessary but always historically contingent. There can never be an absolute evil, since ‘evil’ and ‘good’ are moral concepts. Ethics, then, for Foucault would precisely be the recognition of the contingency of morality and to leave a space open for other ‘moralities’. This is one version of subjectification as the ‘aesthetics of the self’. The question that Gaita and Levinas would ask of Foucault is whether the relation of the self to the other is the same as the relation to the self to apparatuses, or the self to itself, as described in his later work. The ethical relation to the other they describe has nothing at all to do with the intelligible or virtual spaces of possibilities within the contingency of reason, but an absolute demand without context. I suspect Foucault would be sceptical about such an appeal. See Foucault’s interview ‘Revolutionary Action: “Until Now”, for his own suspicion of the language of humanism and absolute values (1977). For an excellent explanation of Foucault’s ethics, see Connolly’s article (1993).

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