Rawls, merit, Nz

“The human person, once perceiving that the Revelation of the Word is a condemnation of the self, casts away all thoughts of his own merit . . . . The more he examines his life, the more he looks into himself with complete honesty, the more clearly he perceives that what he has is a gift. Suppose he was an upright man in the eyes of society, then he will now say to himself: “So you were an educated man, yes, but who paid for your education; so you were a good man and upright, yes, but who taught you your good manners and so provided you with good fortune that you did not need to steal; so you were a man of a loving disposition and not like the hard-hearted, yes, but who raised you in a good family, who showed you care and affection when you were young so that you would grow up to appreciate kindness – must you not admit that what you have, you have received? Then be thankful and cease your boasting”.”

That is from the young John Rawls, in his undergraduate thesis at Princeton. Read more about it here. I can’t help but be sympathetic toward the sentiment he’s expressing. There is a huge chunk of luck in any human success — and of bad luck in human failure — and there is always a temptation to make ourselves out to be more responsible than we really are.

But I’ve read enough Nz to be skeptical of that which prompts both Rawls and me to be attracted to this sentiment. That last line — “must you not admit that what you have, you have received?” — sets off the alarms. I think I am smelling some original sin here. The feeling is that what I have done and what I can do is never sufficient to merit any praise. Only the benevolence of the greater reality outside me can give my life any value. I am only the loathsome worm who lucks out. But why feel this way? Why hate my life so much as to deny any possible value to what it can produce on its own? Pathological. “Condemnation of the self” indeed.

Rawls was concerned here with only good luck. It’s easy to extend the same thought to bad luck, though, and excuse human criminality by external causes. But the perspective has to switch. It sounds pathetic when I say to myself, “So you hacked up an old lady with an axe, but who was it that taught you to wield the heavy blade?” etc. On the other hand, it sounds wondrously kind-hearted and sympathetic when I ask someone else, “So you became a bully, but who taught you such hatred?” It is especially wonderful when I say this to the man who just punched me in the nose. Once again, it is not me who was causally efficacious enough to merit the punch in the nose. I am but a poor, ineffectual worm in the cosmos; greater causes from beyond led to the collision of fist and face. I think that when we excuse other cases, of crime done by others to others, by pointing to external causes, it’s only an extension of when we excuse others who hurt us. We’re worried that if we concede that others had it coming to them, we’ll have to concede both that sometimes we may have it coming to us, and that sometimes we’re right — on our own causal oomph! — when we let others have it. (I wonder: do kids learn to forgive violence done to themselves before they learn to forgive violence done to others? My own experience suggests so.)

So the deeper desire motivating Rawls’ sentiment is escapism — I wish to bow out from the universe, shrink into a little bug whose life has no consequence. The truth is messier. There is indeed a lot of good and bad luck shaping who we are and what we do, but regularly we are agents, in varying degrees, and it is almost always difficult to tease apart what we’ve done from what we’ve suffered. In some cases we can sort it out, but lots of times we can’t. The price of being real.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Rawls, merit, Nz

  1. Kleiner says:

    I agree with Huenemann. ‘God gave man the dignity of being a cause.’ – Pascal
    From the Christian point of view, I see this as more of a problem for protestants. Luther described human nature as a ‘dung heap’ after the fall. Man became a worm, capable of nothing good, and God would need to wipe the slate clean. The Catholic notion – that original sin disordered man but did not render him a worm – allows for man to be a genuine cause of both good and evil. Grace perfects nature, it does not destroy it. While the condition for good works is still gift (grace), we must receive the gift by giving it away, and that involves some genuine agency.


  2. Rob says:

    Huenemann skirts too close for my comfort to the hangman’s metaphysics to which Kleiner is, of course, committed.

    Why hate my life so much as to deny any possible value to what it can produce on its own?

    I’ve not read the thesis, just the quotation above; but to me what Rawls is most charitably (!) understood here as getting at is a proto-mystical view that, given our givenness, our being thrown into the world, our ultimate lack of responsibility for what we are — and, by extension, what issues from what we are — the entire notion of something being produced by a life on its own is itself a function of an unenlightened outlook on the human condition. I take it that the dawning of this “luck swallows everything” attitude, perhaps suddenly breaking forth in face of his knowledge of the Holocaust as a soldier, finally emancipated him from the obscenity of Christian piety:

    How could I pray and ask God to help me, or my family, or my country, or any other cherished thing I cared about, when God would not save millions of Jews from Hitler? […] To interpret history as expressing God’s will, God’s will must accord with the most basic ideas of justice as we know them. For what else can the most basic justice be? Thus, I soon came to reject the idea of the supremacy of the divine will as […] hideous and evil. (“On My Religion”, 1997)

    So, I think one could see Rawls’ trajectory as an instance of the self-overcoming, or self-imploding, of Christian morality, in which one element — the insistence on ultimate justice — destroys all the rest, exposes it for the wretched scaffolding it is, yet without (yet) destroying what it supported.

    Of course, as Nietzsche warns, at the end of BGE 22 (after that unfortunate interlude of Langian neo-kantianism stuff), in these matters we’re especially prone to tell on ourselves, to betray our self-experience-based biases, and mine are clearly of an incompatibilist mold: I don’t find it very easy to regard myself as responsible in any sense beyond that of being the object of reparative hostility when I fuck up. (The gods merit the guilt, we the punishment.)

    “So you hacked up an old lady with an axe, but who was it that taught you to wield the heavy blade?”

    I can’t recommend highly enough Robert Bresson’s final masterpiece, L’ARGENT, an adaptation of Tolstoy’s ‘The Forged Coupon’ which, with its brilliant closing shot, indicts the viewer with these issues to grapple with (short after a truly brilliant use of sound and ellipses to distill a murder involving, among other things, an ax and an old lady).


  3. I can give up on the idea that I am “morally” responsible (which I take it is functionally a purely retributive notion) without giving up on the idea that I am causally or agentially responsible, and that I have value or disvalue thereby. So while I would not deserve punishment for hacking up the old lady, the fact that I did hack up the old lady would disclose something about my character, a disclosure that would justify a lower valuation of my character (and probably a very long [consequentialistically-grounded] prison sentence).

    It’s not fair being so evil, but life isn’t fair.


  4. Rob says:

    I don’t see why the punitive measure(s) justified by such a disclosure of character would have to be consequentially-grounded. Presumably, there is supposed to be something erroneous involved in a retributively-grounded response. Yet, as Nietzsche points out in GM 2.4, this is really just a modern prejudice (which, I think, gets voiced most strenuously among those opposed in principle to capital punishment). Nor do I see how or why a consequentially-grounded punitive response would exclude, among the consequences taken account of, those reactive sentiments on the part of the victim’s actual or imagined survivors that would readily underwrite a (more) frankly retributive response.


  5. Rob, I agree that a consequentially-ground punishment will take into account and in some way assuage the retributive pangs of those wronged. But that’s not a retributive grounding.

    I remain agnostic on Nietzsche’s point, which is that acting according to our retributive instincts would be (in some sense) licit without the pretext of ascribing moral responsibility to the wrongdoer. I am chastened in this by my admiration for the apparent mastery of retributive impulses as exemplified in the characters of figures like Buddha, Christ, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and so forth. (Even if the relevant accounts are fictional or highly idealized, they still serve as attractive role models, and I find it hard to see why I ought not to view my admiration for them as in some ways morally binding.)


  6. “…would be (in some sense) licit…”

    That should be ‘could be’…


  7. Rob says:

    This may boil down to a difference in moral taste. To the limited extent I can believe in such a thing as mastery of retributive impulses, it’s not something that strikes me as very aspiration-worthy when compared to, say, honor culture exemplars like Saga Icelanders for whom ‘retribution’ encompasses the fine art of getting payback right, in both good and bad, vengefully or gratefully ( –the same thing, at bottom, as Nietzsche likes to point out: the latter a benevolent form of the former). (Maybe I’ve oversaturated myself with the likes TI, “Raids” 37.)


  8. Huenemann says:

    I’m a compatibilist. so I think it makes sense to hold people causally and morally responsible, though strictly speaking they couldn’t have done otherwise. Mostly this is driven from my own inability to really live as if people aren’t at least sometimes responsible for what they do, but it was Fischer and Ravizza who provided my intellectual defense. The basic idea is that, in any action, you can identify the “mechanism” that prompts the action, and figure out whether that mechanism is responsive to reasons (as opposed to some unreflective response to the environment). We hold people responsible when what they do, they do for a reason.

    Of course, what we do then (punish? reform?) is another matter.


  9. Rob says:

    I guess I’m some confused hybrid of an incompatibilist and retributivist: the ultimacy demand of the former and payback demand of the latter seem to me by now both basic and irreconcilable. In HH1, 2, Wanderer, and Daybreak, Nietzsche seems to have really relished elaborating how the ultimacy requirement renders punishment unjustifiable, and even seems to favor reform in a therapeutic direction. Yet, I think the research behind GM 2 — and may have chastened him a bit, leading him to underscore instead the hope of cleansing sanctions of the metaphysics of the hangman — not necessarily, that is, of the hangman himself. An intellectual/spiritual rather than practical reform. (Though it would be nice if he had elaborated on his observation in 2.14 that “belief in punishment” is teetering. Does he mean simply that will go on, inexorably, but accompanied with doubts about its justifiability, given growing popular appreciation of the ultimacy requirement? Or that it will trend in a therapeutic direction?)


  10. I never understood how reasons-responsiveness is supposed to stand in functionally for free will, though I agree it gives us a useful criterion for distinguishing certain morally important characteristics of the agent (since it marks off actions that robustly, reliably, predictably flow from the agent’s character from those more anomalous actions that flow from some impairment or irregularity). I’m more sympathetic with the Stawsonian argument you cite, that we are unable to live like people aren’t free, which goes back to Rob’s citation of Nietzsche’s argument about the counterfeit nature of moral responsibility, since this deflationary point can be construed as actually opening up a space for a legitimate retribution, viz., retribution shorn of bad faith reliance on desert. And though (again) I’m agnostic on this point, I have to admit I like a good revenge tale. (It’s not business, it’s personal.)


  11. Rob says:

    this deflationary point can be construed as actually opening up a space for a legitimate retribution, viz., retribution shorn of bad faith reliance on desert.

    As usual, Michael, you find a more precise and concise way of distilling the thrust of my messy meanderings.


  12. As usual, Rob, you are too kind.

    By the way, speaking of good revenge tales, I might as well relate my favorite sequence from The Unforgiven, as Will Munny is about to exact revenge against Bill Daggett for Daggett’s murder of Munny’s friend Ned:

    Little Bill: I don’t deserve this… to die like this. I was building a house.
    Will Munny: Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.


  13. Rob says:

    William Ian Miller — whose work I constantly rave about as my candidate for the best instance of the kind of scholarship Nietzsche calls for in the Note appended to GM 1 — has an outstanding analysis of that film in “Clint Eastwood and Equity: The Virtues of Revenge and the Shortcomings of Law in Popular Culture,” in Law and the Domains of Culture, edited by Austin Sarat and Thomas Kearns (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), 161-202. He addresses, among others, precisely those lines you quote.

    A more recent exploration of the revenge genre that has interested me, but which I am hesitant to recommend because it’s pretty damn disturbing (a cruelly, but not, I think entirely gratuitously, protracted, long-take of a brutal rape, which banned the film from Australia and several other countries), but thoughtfully so, in the way it disassembles the genre (a la ‘Memento’), perhaps making it hard to ever fully enjoy a revenge film again. Roger Ebert, a film critic I usually dismiss, got it right, I think:

    The fact is, the reverse chronology makes “Irreversible” a film that structurally argues against rape and violence, while ordinary chronology would lead us down a seductive narrative path toward a shocking, exploitative payoff. […] It starts with it, and asks us to sit there for another hour and process our thoughts. It is therefore moral – at a structural level. […] It does not exploit. It does not pander. It has been said that no matter what it pretends, pornography argues for what it shows. “Irreversible” is not pornography.


  14. Rob says:

    An unpublished note from Autumn 1887 (pp. 192-3 in Writings from the Late Notebooks):

    In the end very few actions are typical actions and really abbreviations for a personality[…] a single deed, whatever it may be, is zero compared to the entirety of what one has done, and may be counted without falsifying the calculation. The fair interest which society may have in calculating our whole existence in just one direction, as if its whole aim had been to produce one singe deed, should not infect the doer himself: unfortunately this happens almost constantly.


  15. Rob says:

    It should read and may be counted out without falsifying the calculation


  16. Pretty astute comment by Ebert. I didn’t think that ever happened.

    I’ll have to check out the William Ian Miller. Thanks for the hot tips, Rob.


  17. Rob says:

    Yeah, I didn’t think that ever happened, either — until I read his positive reappraisal of The Brown Bunny, and his perceptive grasp of the fellatio scene:

    Gallo takes the materials of pornography and repurposes them into a scene about control and need, fantasy and perhaps even madness. That scene is many things, but erotic is not one of them.

    (Alternatively, I think the scene is to some extent erotic, but that the eroticism serves the purpose of drawing the titillated viewer that much more into the psychology of the Gallo character, whom I take to be vainly trying to exorcise his guilt over the death of Sevigny’s character through this fantasy of sexual degradation; and to the extent that it works, the scene should raise questions in the view about his or her own status as a consumer.)

    Another considerable point in Ebert’s favor is that Herzog dedicated Encounters at the End of the World to him!


  18. Huenemann says:

    I am cinematically illiterate, so I have a lot of catching up to do to follow you guys. The passage Rob quoted from Nietzsche reminds me more of Camus’s “The Stranger” than anything else.


  19. Rob says:

    Yes, if only the sun at the beach hadn’t been so damn bright.


  20. I think I have more catching up than you do, Charlie.


  21. Rob says:

    Well, Michael, perhaps you drove under the billboard:


    Improbably, I managed to see the film in Louisville, KY… It won the FIPRESCI prize at the Vienna Film Festival for, aptly enough, “its bold exploration of yearning and grief and for its radical departure from dominant tendencies in current American filmmaking.” Anyhow, apologies for meandering so far afield.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s