In that moment of recognition a realisation occurs – we are met by another person, another person who is equal to us.
Let us be clear, though. That we think we should only choose between deontology, utilitarianism and virtue ethics is a masterful coup on behalf of stagnant philosophies. Each time we engage with such thinking we are evading the issue that is most pressing and purely conducting a solipsistic ritual that has no real influence upon our ethical bearing. To debate which theory we should adopt at any given point is to miss the point of ethics. Ethics is about allowing the humanity of the other person to have impact upon us rather than ignoring them as we devote ourselves to internal cogitations. Ethics is at work when we get stopped in our stride by the mere existence of the other person as we walk up and allow them to be themselves rather than an object to be persuaded, policed or preened over. Ethics is about how we are with other people and not about how we think about ethics.
Debating and cogitating as to how we might act if we stumble across an ethical problem that falls neatly into discussions of moral theory is not what I mean by ethics. Thinking about the greater good, our duty or trying to be virtuous is to pontificate irrelevantly. Concepts of duty and virtue vary with cultural changes in geography and the governing premise that we should act to promote the most good is, to be frank, not good enough. Instead of coolly assessing the merits of each of these analytic traditions we shall cast them aside and leave them to the province of teaching aids for burgeoning philosophy students trying out their newly learned debating skills. The ethics we need operates at a different strata level. We don’t need theories and flow charts that prescribe, we need an ethics that impacts upon us at an individual level.
When you and I collide in the street, even as strangers, something unique and wonderful occurs. In that moment of eye-to-eye contact, there comes into being a recognition that, whilst completely original and exclusive, is repeated an infinite number of times everyday. That instance, the recognition of another, is played out daily in every bar, school, factory, and pavement across the planet wherever someone catches the eye of another person. It is so omnipresent that we take it completely for granted and rarely, if never, think about its presence.
The merest glimpse of another’s face that elevates to eye contact can take place in a clichéd ‘split-second’. This literal, melodramatic, and overused phrase both describes and foregrounds the element of time in the transaction, just as it brashly swamps what it should only really describe. That said though, its place within our thinking on this subject is reasonably deserved because we only need such a small amount of time to comprehend that we are in the presence of another: there is no incremental scale based on chronology that necessitates longevity in order to reach a threshold of recognition. Recognition therefore, not being dependent on time is presumably something other dependent. What is it to recognise the other as a person? What criteria are instantly met and passed through? Is eye contact the thing that is required? Whatever the mystical threshold actually is I’m not concerned, because my interest lies in is what happens as that threshold is crossed.
In that moment of recognition a realisation occurs – we are met by another person, another person who is equal to us. The other person is not a ‘lower’ or different life form, such as a horse or a dolphin. They are on the same level as us. So much so, that the resonance of recognition is palpable every time it happens. We might take our encounters for granted, but the force of them is always there to arrest our journey even if for a ‘spilt second’. One way to avoid such palpable resonating, connection, and interaction is to ignore other people as we go about our daily lives. Avoiding eye contact in the doctor’s waiting room, never looking into the windscreen or side windows of fellow car travellers. Glossing across people walking down the street next to you, can defuse, obstruct, or remove the timbre and tone of humanity if so desired. The problem with this, of course, is that some people don’t want you to avoid them, so they seduce you in one form or another to encounter them. Or, occasionally you have to engage with other people because you need to make some kind of transaction, a purchase or a request. Placing avoidance to one side for the time being though, as a problem for those with mental health issues or a hobby for miscreants, the more vital topic for attention and reflection can come back into focus: the moment of recognition itself.
When one recognises a stone, tree, or animal in the course of one’s daily monotony there is no palpable resonance. There is, conceivably, a sense of minor achievement, similar to getting a question right in a test, if the object in question vexed us momentarily as to its correct identity. There is really nothing more to be gained, in the arena of recognition, from such an encounter. The hurtling vehicle that is our lifelong journey pauses not or even slows down; it carries on with the same velocity and in the same direction as if the object had never existed to us. From the moment we wake until the moment we rest, we drive ourselves along the same canyons, runways, and country paths that we always have; and there is a constant inevitability to these everyday journeys. Our patterns are fairly, no virtually, predictable even though there are also unique. Anyone studying us would, after a fashion, become bored with the repetition of our thoughts, desires, and time absorbing activities. The phrase ‘creature of habit’ hovers over every one of us threatening to solidify, and render us frozen and lifeless. The cure and redeeming elements, that prevent such a chill wind from capturing us, are those brief, all too rare, moments when we allow ourselves to become arrested, derailed, or slowed down by something that we either find interesting or that is powerful enough to cast warmth across our mundane lives; occasionally both these attributes are necessary. Unfortunately stones, trees and animals rarely muster a rise in temperature. That, which does of course, is the moment of recognition.
The intervention of another human into our lives always carries heat. For a lot of people, the consequent movement in mercury is rarely, or never, enough to affect any impact. For others, the heat is too much and it burns, forcing them to take avoidance measures. For most though, the icy chill of one’s journey into a fore-drawn destiny is too powerful and will only ever be slightly susceptible to melting once or twice after the initial openness and innocence of youth has passed. Near frozen lives become governed by rules of thought and strict access control measures that limit the ascension of new ideas, so much so that some travel as if they were the sole inhabitant of the planet at times. So locked into their own thoughts and ways of viewing the world they become guilty of succumbing to that most alluring state of mind and action: solipsism. To actually listen, or allow someone else’s point of view to be considered, appears sometimes as the hardest challenge when in this mode: as if a hairdryer is used to melt a glacier. The seduction of solipsism is quite simple in its basest form, because it translates one’s personal ideas to the perfect form of how ‘things’ should be. There is no need to consider anyone else’s voice when our own is right, is there? Hence, solo we can become, and we build monuments to our selves; carefully securing the foundations, erecting the superstructure, and then finally crafting the surface edifice to ensure its unique and perfect homage is unmistakeable. Such a careful, time consuming project, once complete, does not bare criticism well, after all, a vast amount of energy has gone in to making the crowning glory of our lives: our granite-like selves. Consequently, once built, such a monument is rarely torn down by its maker; instead it is usually made more weather-proof so as to protect it from unwanted gusts and sheets of rain. Despite such strong-arm preventative measures though, a real threat to any creation in this vein can be the warm front that others might bring. One moment of recognition could either start a melt or set up a resonant vibration that shakes the structure so violently as to snap the supporting elements, whose inherent brittle nature is always subject to potential failure in extreme conditions.
The capacity of the moment of recognition then appears potentially able to induce a tremendously powerful set of personal events when unleashed. The exact mechanism of this release as indicated before is not of interest to me. Instead, what is of interest is the realisation that it is present and that it has such power. Much of Western philosophy has occupied itself with the logical problem of intersubjectivity, or how to prove that other people exist. The starting point for this problem being Descartes’ cogito (I think therefore I am), which tantalisingly appeared as a rather good re-starting place for much philosophical thought. The only issue I have with it, is that the acknowledged neatness, simplicity, and overall startling self-evidence of the cogito never allowed for any realistic extrapolation to other people. In a world of only one person it summarises the proof of existence brilliantly. In a world of more than one it proves to be quite possibly the worst starting place to discuss any other existences. Such a Cartesian dead-end, which has been vainly mined for over four hundred years in the hope of yielding further gems of wisdom, should now be firmly sealed up, given its blue plaque, and consigned to history. Descartes struck the only gold to be found there and no more should his inspiration haunt us when we are in pursuit of discovering what other people might mean to us. It is time to accept that the logical proof of others evades us. The time we have should now focus, not on questions of logic, but rather on the power that encounters with others have upon us.
We are undeniably affected by each other, and I for one am no longer interested in those discussions that pontificate the existence of others and demand for the logical possibility that other people may only be in our minds. This has been a fundamental waste of time and energy for generations and it deserves to be surpassed by a more fruitful hope. Be gone, you tormenting bloat fiend that has sapped and tricked our greatest thinkers with your siren song. We see through your chicanery and want to hear tell of the new endeavour that has dared to make itself known from under your colossal weight!
Acerbic I might be, but is that a reason to write me off and continue no further? Maybe my words hurt your thoughts and feelings after years of studying? An apology I can make, but a retraction I cannot. Therefore, I am sorry if you feel I have treated your subject unjustly, but I will not recant the sentiment that drove me to write my words. Like you, I am passionate about my subject and again, like you, I want to seek out wisdom, but dare I say that unlike you I will no longer become embroiled in futile discussions concerning whether or not other people actually exist, because finally, and I stake my claim here, I believe that it is morally wrong to dither anymore on this issue. Our lives are governed by the brutal day-to-day fact that other people are real and separate entities from us. They are not thoughts, electrical impulses, or otherwise from an evil genius or god-like entity. Instead, they are as real, boring or interesting as they appear. Boredom aside though, they are actually there and need to be treated as such, without doubt. Doubt, has long been the unfortunate luxury of a certain branch of Western Philosophy and it now needs to be lead off to pasture so as to allow for the entry of new blood. This fresh life supporting liquid, though, shall not be the logical opposite of doubt, for Nietzsche has taught us well, because ‘certainty’ is no replacement at all, but merely a continuation of the same dialogue. Instead, the new blood shall be ethics; a subject that will release us from the shackles of oppositional thinking and logical dead-ends, and that Emmanuel Levinas called ‘first philosophy’.
So, perhaps with our Levinasian clue delicately placed, we can start to see that the scope of ethics involved with trying to grapple with the problem of how we should treat each other, let alone prognosticate upon the reintroduction of the death penalty for those assigned the badge ‘terrorist’, is too wide for traditional moral theories to ethically carve a way through. They just aren’t equipped to deal with such a complex issue. The questions looming over and running through the issue are many and varied and refuse to conform to a flow chart model of if “yes” then proceed to ‘A’ and if “no” go to ‘B’. There isn’t any linearity to the matter, instead there is an, at times, overwhelming context in the fields of history, justice, law and human rights surrounding our journey towards civilisation. Such a context and complexity, therefore, needs new tools. A word of caution, though: just because you have all the right tools in your tool kit it doesn’t necessarily follow that anything you create will be perfect, useful or even able to function properly. Success is to be found only in how the tools are wielded… and ultimately we each do the wielding in own our individual ways.