Reading so many contributions, these days, that attempt to interpret the life of Nelson Mandela – those which add to the pervasive inclination to see him as quasi superhuman, a saviour, and those which try to resist that inclination, looking more into historical detail – I was reminded of my mention of his turn towards reconciliation in a 2006 article on ‘decisive moments’. In it I contribute to the attempt to provide an alternative to the Kantian understanding of the moral agent as a free, rational being. This Kantian view has created well-known problems, most important of which is the impossibility to see real-life human beings, taken up in practical life with all its commitments, misunderstandings and emotions, as full fledged moral beings. In order to get a clear idea of free moral choice, Kant had asked his readers to abstract from all these aspects of human life, which left his autonomous agent a ghostly figure without any contact with real life.
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, not so much in response to Kant as well as to Sartre, had argued in a 1982 article that free, ‘radical’ choices are impossible. To be really radical, a choice should take no reasons from the situation in which it is made, nor from the values that are already held by the person who makes it. This makes it a question of just throwing oneself to one side rather to another. This might be radical, it does not much resemble what we would call a choice in real life. Taylor has made the problem very clear, that a real choice needs to be grounded in a situation, and in the attempts of real persons to try to make sense of what they stand for and believe in. His article on free will does not, however, (and neither does his major 1989 study on The Sources of the Self) offer a solution to the problem. He states that a person, in order to be able to make moral choices, has to articulate his deepest values – but all the same he admits that the deeper these are, the more unclear, inchoate they appear to us.
Another, and more sensible, option offers Margaret Urban Walker, in her work Moral Understandings, where she investigates the question of integrity with respect to the phenomenon of fault lines in peoples lives – events or powers that steer us in directions that we did not foresee or choose, but that still ask of us to take a stand towards them. Here she uses narrative theory, which explains how we make sense, while interpreting the events of our lives, trying to make a whole of them. Integrity, she claims, is not the same as unflinching commitment to one’s ‘deepest’ values. It is the ability to make sense of changes, even radical ones, even of values. Here we touch on the phenomenon that many people called great – like many ordinary people – went through radical changes before showing their greatness. It even seems to be that their ability to make those changes and not lose their identity is a major aspect of their greatness. Thus it is that Mandela is glorified for his transformation from a militant activist to the inspirational figure of peace and reconciliation he became, as was in another context (for instance) the one called the Buddha for his leaving his home and his riches (including wife and child) for a life of roaming the land while preaching compassion. Or Jeanne d’Arc for giving up her life as a woman of her time in order to be able to go to battle like a man.
Behind these great changes lie complex events, things that influenced the lives of these persons in ways so intricate that they cannot be fully analyzed, even if one had superhuman knowledge of historical detail. Such events cannot be fully analyzed, as they form out of the interactions of the situation in which one lives, the feeling with which one tries to understand and react, a sense of the wider horizons of meaning in which one’s life unfolds, and that mysterious creative emptiness which one calls choosing. The moment that we choose, or, which is the same, that we know that a certain course in life is to be followed, we might not be aware of it. It might happen unnoticed, at a seemingly unimportant moment in our life. And then it may take years, or decades, to find or create the circumstances in which that choice can become real. It is like Youssou N’Dour sings in his well-known song So many Men: ‘I’m hiding so I can find myself, and some freedom’. Hiding in the desert, as some great prophets did before finding their voice, or in a prison cell, or just in a very ordinary life perhaps. We will never know where and when precisely decisive moments occur, although, in their obscurity, they make history.
Works I mentioned are:
– Moral Understandings. A Feminist Study in Ethics, by Margaret Urban Walker, Oxford, 2007 (the second, revised, edition, the first is from 1998)
– ‘Responsibility for Self’ in G. Watson (ed.) Free Will, Oxford, 1982, and Sources of the Self. The Making of the Modern Identity, Cambridge (USA), 1989, both by Charles Taylor
– ‘Beslissende momenten. Uitgangspunten voor verandering’ in Joep Dohmen en Frits de Lange (red.) Moderne levens lopen niet vanzelf, Amsterdam, 2006, by myself
– ‘So many Men’ from the album Nothing’s in Vain (coono du réér), by Youssou N’Dour, 2002.