Friday, June 17, 2005


I think we might see a category mistake at Anti-Climacus:

a human rights problem is first a problem for that particular country. Arbitrary though it's boundaries might be, unchosen by the people in it[....]: it's still first the problem of the people in the country. They are, in a Sartrean sense, condemned to be free; to resist or accept their country's internal situation, and they must choose one or the other[....]But of course--of course--we cannot sit idly by as outside observers; we owe a duty of support[....]
This is, by and large, a comment I can agree with. However, one word juts out and suggests an unfortunate subtext: "first." In what sense is it "first" the troubled citizenry's problem? Nick seems to suggest that the existence of boundary isn't a fact that is to be ethically naturalized, a fact that negates our ethical responsibility to assist the people that lie outside our boundary ("we cannot sit by idly by as outside observers"). As I read Sartre, his position would be that to suggest that boundaries are some in-itself fact of nature would be to live in bad faith. Just as it is bad faith for Pierre to conceive of himself as a waiter (in the same way a rock is hard), it is bad faith to think that our ethical duties stop at national boundaries.

"You see, Mr. X, as a citizen of the other country (in the same way a rock is hard) should really try to help himself first before our ethical duty to assist is triggered." This would be similar to the passage in Being and Nothingness in which the woman on a date feels her suitor's hand on her leg; not knowing what to do, she imagines the hand as a non-human thing that just happens to be on her leg. In this way, she is able to defer her decision and to evade her freedom. That evasion through perceiving the other as other-than-free (an en-soi rather than its own por-soi) is the moment of faith.

So Nick is correct that the other-citizen is bound by the transcendental conditions of freedom; but his/her responsibility to him/herself in no way mitigates our ethical responsibility, our freedom to help. This is noted by Nick, but the placement of that "first" seems to cut against the plain meaning of this admission.

Politically or pragmatically speaking, this "help 'em iff [if and only if] they can't help themselves" may be correct, and is one I endorse, but if it's being used to transform Sartre's ontological notion of freedom into a political philosophy of rugged individualism, then I don't think it's tenable.

Of course, it could be that I've misread the entire post, given that it all hinges on one word.

[ht: Wallo World]