Ethical Perspectives

September 2014


  • Bart Pattyn

The present edition of Ethical Perspectives is evidence once again of the variety in style, methods and goals ethicists deploy and maintain. In two of the contributions, the authors in question place themselves at the service of an authority, searching for a way to answer topical questions within the conceptual framework of a respected scholar.

Arthur Cools tries to demonstrate how one can ascribe a place to tragic decisions within the theoretical framework of Levinas. Majid Makki, on the other hand, explores how space can be made for ‘Identity Politics’ within Rancière’s distinctive body of thought. Sara Belfrage focuses on a concrete human act, that of gift giving, and reveals how ‘giving’ can occasion ‘taking’. The renowned essay by Marcel Mauss already reminded us how destructive giving can be. Belfrage’s contribution steps beyond this authority and offers an analysis of the circumstances in which giving can occasion exploitation. Towards the end of this edition we have an interesting review essay on David Miller’s Justice for Earthlings, which appeared in 2013. Miller doubts whether abstract and theoretical reflections are a healthy basis for establishing normative standpoints on the topic of migration. Esma Baycan disagrees with him, arguing that this sort of scepticism ultimately makes the task of ethicists – making normative judgements – impossible. The sort of ethicist Baycan has in mind is not a commentator or someone who describes and analyses human behaviour. It is someone, rather, who offer concrete indications as to what is morally justifiable when ethical problems present themselves. While Miller accepts that ethicist have to trust what people consider morally opportune in particular situations without basing themselves on ethical theories, Baycan believes that ethicists can develop normative visions under their own steam.

It is the first contribution to the present edition, however, that has given me much pause for thought. Geoffrey F. Scarre devotes himself to the questions ‘how’ and ‘why’ we should remember the Great War. One passage in the article disturbs me. People have the impression, Scarre states, that we owe it to the dead to commemorate the First World War. He goes on to demonstrate, nevertheless, that from a purely rational perspective this makes little sense. If we are to presume that death marks the extinction of the personal subject, then it is plausible to suppose that to be owed something, one first has to be. It therefore appears that the common view is suspect. What is the task of the ethicist in such situations? My personal impression is that when one draws a conclusion as a philosopher that runs so flagrantly counter to what the ‘the common man’ takes for granted, one would be better to ask oneself whether one’s reflections have missed something important rather than assuming that the entire community is mistaken – on a grand scale – and that you are the only one who is aware of it. The fact that people found it important at a certain stage on the course of human evolution to bury their dead and show them respect demonstrates here and now that certain matters may seem irrational in abstract terms while still remaining meaningful. If our rational mind fails to grasp that meaningfulness it is not because such matters are absurd, but because our reasoning is inadequate.

 Page : 319 - 320

To  Ethical Perspectives 3/2014