Saturday, June 16, 2007


"Thick and Thin"

In his book “Thick and Thin”, Michael Waltzer puts forth a theory of moral perceptions. There are two types of perceptions that help us form our moral judgments about events in the world, which he terms thick and thin. Thick is judgment and understanding that comes from an intimate knowledge of a certain event and the value it carries. Thick is a complex understanding which pertains to local conditions. Thin is a simple understanding that comes from afar, from both an emotional and geographical distance. Unlike “Thick”, it is a cold kind of caring for the other’s suffering and concerns, of us being summoned to universal responsibility. We might approximate the difference he intends to make between thick and thin as the difference between flat and deep, or two-dimensional and three-dimensional. Thin morality is international; thick morality is domestic.

At the core of Waltzer’s theory is in the argument that the moral centres of the thick and thin perceptions always converge and cohere. In other words, while we may not be fully cognizant of all that intricacies that make up a human crisis somewhere, we respond to a certain “bulk” message emanating from it that touches our hearts and minds. And our understanding is of the same value as the understanding of someone at the heart of that crisis who is fully aware of every detail and nuance involved in it.

According to Waltzer, when audiences in one part of the world read and hear about a great rally in some totalitarian country demanding truth and accountability from their government, what we respond to is the thin outline of “truth” as a universally cherished value. Our support for that cause does not translate into the details of what it means for the protesters to have truth and accountability. For them it might mean more food in the markets, or a better health care system while we, from far away, take it to be a difference between freedom and imprisonment, or life and death. There are two perceptions at work here. Waltzer’s contention is that even though the two perceptions differ in complexity and application, they both share a certain core value.

Our solicitude for other people’s well being is being provoked by our shared thin values.

Waltzer’s theory is meant to provide an ethical underpinning to the idea that humanitarian interventions are hard to do and not always desirable. I am not so interested in his conclusions, because I have a problem with his a-priori premises. His theory of the two moral languages is far from being consistently and perfectly applicable to all crises and events.

In today’s world, interest groups have all the savvy and means to present a case which may on its face adhere to the thick and thin perceptions whereas in fact a little probing reveals that the two moral languages do not share a moral code. To cite an example that is close to my heart is the case of the vast support amassed and demonstrated last August in Quebec for Lebanon during the recent Israel/Lebanon war. The rally was called a “Peace” rally. Prominent, mainstream politicians joined its ranks. The “Peace” in the title pretended that this was indeed a demonstration for peace, peace for the two warring parties which suffered death and loss. However, it was a misleading title and only people with ‘Thick” knowledge were aware that the rally was actually an exclusively Lebanese-Arab mass support for Hizzballa, an organization which boasts of a genocidal charter and the praxis to match. This was no peace rally but its very opposite. So in this case alone, the thick and the thin do not converge in their core but rather present opposite values.

It is my opinion that the same chimera is achieved in ‘The Merchant of Venice”. The thin reading of the play, which is the popular view, posits Shylock as the absolutely irredeemable villain of the piece (Harold Bloom’s favourite interpretation) while the hedonistic Venetians are forgiven for whatever moral failure they accumulate. The thick reading of the play exposes the hypocrisy and cruelty of the Venetians, their contempt for other human beings, their self-serving notions of “justice” and mercy. The incompatibility of the “thin” and the “thick” in the play is just an example of why I find Waltzer’s theory unsatisfactory. We cannot easily tell whether the principle that guides us is good by looking at a single case. A principle proves its sustainability and usefulness in making moral judgments when it could be applied to all similar cases.

The denouement is beyond pity to Rights

One of the reasons I am so enthralled to this play is the way it lends itself to modern interpretation. There is a complexity and intricacy to its structure, choice of plot and characters that simply defy time and place.

M. Ignatieff, in his essay: “The Needs of Stranger” makes this comment’

“Need is vernacular of justification, specifying claims of necessity that those who lack may rightfully address to those who have. Without the language of need, and the language of right that derives from it, the human world would scarcely be human: between powerful and powerless only the law of hammer and anvil, master and slave would rule. The pathos of need, like the pathos of all purely verbal claims to the justice and mercy of another, is that need is powerless to enforce its right. It justifies an entitlement only if the powerful understand themselves to be obliged by it.”

It is taken for granted that compassion flows from those who have to those who have not, from those who are imbued with a sense of power to those who are perceived to be powerless. Ignatieff’s essay takes this popular interpretation of compassion and turns it around a bit, to illuminate the equation from the other end, that of need. While compassion is understood to be a voluntary surge of human feeling towards another, less fortunate being, need is described as a hard lack of subsistence or well-being. There is nothing voluntary about need. Want is undeniable. And it’s this very undeniability of the deficiency or scarcity of some essential commodity that gives need its ethical claim on other people’s resources.

The call of Need is answered by compassion. However, need and compassion are not symmetrically balanced. The assymetry can be corrected by that other surge of human feeling – affection, or its younger brother, Ricoeurian solicitude. In other words, solicitude restores balance between giving and receiving, so that the giving becomes the receiving, and vice versa. So we have juxtaposition between compassion and need, wherefore the one, a relatively full vessel abounds towards a relatively empty vessel. But of course, compassion is not at all as simple as that, nor is need just a lack of something. Taking down this duality a notch, it can easily lurch into pity and entitlement.

How is compassion related to obligation? How can we keep our sense of obligations towards other from deteriorating into pity? How can we demarcate the line between the need and the sense of entitlement?

The flourishing emotions of Love and Affection, stop at the gate of pity. Rights are the expression of loveless pity. Solicitude bridges the gap, furnishes the “missing link” between love and rights, and leads to the larger sphere of responsibility: the care for the rights of others. Solicitude pertains to rights on the moral plan, in the same way that justice pertains to the law on the ethical plan. Solicitude and justice work, therefore, along parallel lines, with solicitude nourishing on the compassion, the mercy, needed for justice to be .. just. If, as the philosophers claim, a human being comes into the world already endowed with certain rights, it is Ricoeurian solicitude that both generates and validates these rights.

I think Montaigne opened up the possibility that friendship can occur between unequals, social or economic or cultural. It is the very first rung of friendship of which he speaks. Ricoeur calls it “solicitude” and I prefer to unsetimentalize the whole feeling by regarding it as a simple responsibility, defined as “rights begin where love ends”. We are not called upon to love and care for all in the same way we care for our closest and most chreished friends. But we are called upon to act on the benevolent instinct that inclines us towards others who are distressed in any which way. It is our responsibility to stock that benevolent disposition well, and make sure that our society does not run on the bare structucture of law and order alone. For a society to be a society, a human convergence of interests and individuals, Ricoeur’s friendship is a must. It is as Portia says, very beautifully:

“… mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy”


At 2:06 PM EDT, Anonymous T. said...

Hi Noga. In the little time I have to spare these days
I appreciate having you stir such questions in my
junk-filled noggin.

But before I can comment properly on the "thick" and
the "thin", when you write that "[Waltzer's] theory of
the two moral languages is far from being consistently
and perfectly applicable to all crises and events",
are you yourself holding out for a principle that will
achieve that, or are you merely exposing some
assertion that Waltzer makes or implies?

"A principle proves its sustainability and usefulness
in making moral judgments when it could be applied to
all similar cases."

But would it really live up to its name as a principle
then? As something that is merely [i]applied[/i] - as
a rule or a code is applied - isn't a law in danger of
falling short of revealing what is just in any
particular circumstance?

For Gadamer, as I understand him anyway, it's the
resistances of particular cases, the friction between
what we already understand about the law and whatever
the new thing presents, that brings out what a law is
trying to say - what it is.

Of course new meanings that new cases reveal about
justice are only possible if we're vigilant about our
own resistances, but complacency is an old story.
"Paging Dr. Freud ..."

Your post also has me dipping into Rorty's "Habermas &
Lyotard on postmodernity."


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