Decisive Moments

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.

  1. Lee said:

    Hi Angela,

    Fascinating post. Thanks!

    I definitely think of our ultimate decision-making as being fully embedded in the actual circumstances of our lives, both past and present. We make choices based on what we know, believe, and have experienced. In that sense, our choices in life are very much “embodied” choices, and unique for each one of us because each one of us has a unique set of life circumstances. This also creates unique people, who can engage with others and serve others in specific, specialized ways that no one else can do quite as well. Other people, of course, can engage with others and serve others in their own unique ways that we cannot.

    However, there is also a meta-reality that can be abstracted from these unique, embodied particularities of our particular lives. Each of us, based on our particular life circumstances, builds up a conscience and a set of beliefs, whether well- or ill-defined, that orients us on a polarity or spectrum of good vs. evil. Our particular views of what is good and what is evil may differ, but we still have the general “sortation” of reality into things that are good and things that are evil. And the choices we make move us one way or the other on that particular polarity or spectrum.

    In other words, even though what may be defined as good and as evil may be different for me than it is for you, each of us has a concept of good and evil that has specific content, and the choices we make move us either more toward the good or more toward the evil as we conceive of it.

    This raises “situation ethics” and the idea that “everything is relative” to a different level. Yes, we may each define good and evil differently. But all (or nearly all) who have developed to the point where they can understand the idea of good and evil will move toward one or the other by their conscious choices.

    Though it may seem arbitrary, since my “good” may be the same as your “evil,” in fact, my orientation toward good, and yours (presuming that is the direction we are oriented toward on our own scale) does make a difference. The difference is that if our desire is to choose and engage in what is good, we will me more open to the possibility of learning more about what is good, and leaving behind old and faulty conceptions of the good. On the other hand, if our orientation is toward the evil, we will have no interest in learning what is good, because our motivations are all about domination, greed, self-aggrandizement, and so on. We therefore have no interest in learning and correcting our conceptions of what is good. We are only interested in what services ourselves and our own desires.

    In short: those oriented toward good on their own personal scale are more likely to move toward real good, and toward greater learning and enlightenment, whereas those oriented toward evil on their own personal scale are more likely to move toward real evil, and toward the twisting of any real good that they do encounter.

    • Hi Lee, thanks for your elaborate and well-argumented contribution to my post, and also for sharing once more your knowledge of Swedenborg, below. A reaction to one point in the above: although of course a situationist ethics stresses the relativity of things in the literal sense, this does of course not mean that it is relativistic (although it might appear that way to a fundamentalist). As you also point out, openness to learning already prepares for (or betrays an inclination toward) learning in a positive way. This subject, though, deserves more precision than I can give for now. It stays on the philosophical menu!

      Perhaps it has to do with implying the factor of time in thinking how we orient toward the good, and not trying to think the good as something ‘out there somewhere’ passively waiting for us. Perhaps the good also needs articulation and realization by moral agents.

  2. Lee said:

    One other, shorter thought in response to your post:

    Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) entered the philosophical and theological debate of his day about whether God’s providence is only “general,” while we handle our own particular details, or is “particular,” entering into every detail of our lives. He came out strongly on the side of God’s providence being particular, and engaged in every detail. He stated that God is working in every little detail of our lives to move us away from the evil and toward the good, while still leaving the ultimate choice up to us. One of Swedenborg’s more memorable statements on this general theme is, “Every smallest fraction of a moment of a person’s life entails a chain of consequences extending into eternity” (Arcana Coelestia #3854) Those small, particular moments do matter. And the sum total of all of them, and of all the particular choices we make and actions we take in those small moments, form us into the person we are, and the person we will be.

  3. Patrick jennings said:

    Hello Angela,

    Thanks for an interesting post , and an equally interesting blog, which I have been using as a philosophical resource (along with many others).
    I too have been thinking over my feelings about Mandala’s passing and his long and inspiring life.

    The way you couple Mandala with The Buddha caught my eye.

    You say:

    “…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.”

    All very well but here , I think, we have to ask glorified to who? That is to say, within any discourse, for example the one on Mandala’s “transformation from a militant activist to the inspirational figure of peace and reconciliation he became,” which we have heard endlessly spun out in the media these last weeks, we need to ask about the subject position embedded within such a narrative—that ‘militant activism’ is undemocratic, unreasonable, in contrast to the democratic reasonableness of reconciliation and compassion.

    The ‘western Buddhist’ is one such subject position , the liberal democrat another…. the subject position implies an unspoken confluence of values , a sort of naturalization of suppositions that are in fact socially produced ideology structuring the discourse and, by default, serving particular economic and political interests.

    A free decision, in such a context, might need to be founded on an awareness of the myriad subject positions always and already formed within the various discourses which shape our understanding of what might be possible for us personally and collectively.

    We could say that our condition is overdetermined— we are formed as you say by great changes within which 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.

    I would go so far as to say that our unique individuality is just that very confluence of intricacies. It will always seem paradoxical to a certain logic that relational interdependence and identity are compatible in thought.

    And the freedom exercised by this paradoxical entity is further constrained by the already formed ideological subject positions which hail him or her by way of the discourses within which, as a conceptualizing /language using animal, he has his being.

    As you say in your post on metaphysics:

    …..Hermeneutic, because understanding the power of interpretation and taking it into account, may guard us from some ideological delusions. Deconstructive, because becoming aware of how things, or views of things become constructed by historical, political and ethical conditions, may guard us from taking things in the seemingly solid manner in which they pose.

    For me , at this stage anyway, this whole discussion on freedom of choice is bracketed on the one side by a disposition, or lets say an axiomatic stance— that no transcendental entity exists over and against the myriad conditioning factors, a self or pseudo-self that could oversee the situation and make an absolutely free choice—on the other side by a certainty that we can indeed choose and are therefore free to make and/or unmake our individual and collective worlds.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful posts.

    • Thanks, Patrick, for your profound comment. You indicate exactly the philosophical problem with which I am trying to deal: taking the myriads of influences seriously, but then not ignoring the human experience of decision. That is why I named that experience a ‘decisive moment’ – a moment itself being the experience of density in the flow of time, of ‘something happening’ in which I am involved, but of which I am not master – that is why a long hermeneutical process is needed before we understand the decisions we make/have made.

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