I’m forever indebted to the few who keep me entrenched in philosophy. A friend posted a video of the 1971 debate between then-leading (still widely read) French theorist Michele Foucault and American linguist and activist Noam Chomsky. The debate topics included structures of power and legitimacy thereof, the definition of human nature (if such a thing can be arrived at), and such light matters. 😉 Both men made excellent points and as usual I found myself beholden to the ambiguous middle-ground.
Foucault said it’s dangerous to claim that there is a fundamental human nature. Chomsky replied that although there is a danger in positing this, there is also a danger in inaction, in not positing, in not doing anything. Chomsky said we must make decisions, (in Kantian fashion, a moral imperative, if you will) even in the face of staggering uncertainty, because not doing so would be irresponsible. We make decisions in full knowledge that they might just be wrong. He also says that the laws that the state passes, for example in terms of civil disobedience, are not necessarily just. Therefore it follows that, one might do something illegal yet not necessarily unethical or wrong.
Foucault, irrespective of his own opinions on the matter (which I would wager are in line with Chomsky’s in the latter’s assertion that the US government is committing crimes via the Vietnam War), calls into question this ideal of justice. In essence, the question becomes: who defines what is ethical and what is illegal? And to counter Chomsky’s hierarchy of individual morality above state sanctioned legality, Foucault makes both equally problematic. This is because when you refer to an ideal of justice, this is nothing more than a construction; a product of your current circumstances. It is heavily influenced by the contingencies that permeate our era; Historical climate informed by a particularly written history, popular opinion, etc., which again, is not necessarily the “right” opinion. This is poignantly made true when we recall slavery in this country and genocide in others, just to name a few horrors that were once thought to be morally justifiable by the masses.
Ever in practicality however, Chomsky reformulates Foucault’s argument. We do not make decisions in opposition to the law in search for an ideal justice, but for a better justice. The operative word being “better,” not “best” or ultimate.
When asked to respond to the irony (or masked hypocrisy) of working at an institution like MIT which is involved in war research and the manufacture of war weapons, Chomsky compares his situation with that of Karl Marx who worked in the British Museum, not as a symbol of compliance or complacency, but to learn from the very source of imperial and colonial oppression.
Foucault was steadfast in disavowing the notion of an “ideal” justice or human nature. Claiming such an ideal, he argues, is certainly presumptuous if not wholly violent, as we’ve seen throughout history. But I embraced the other side as well, with Chomsky saying that inaction and indecision might very well be as dangerous as action and positing. Chomsky reminded me of Derrida when he said that state sanctioned laws are not to be taken a priori as justice. The laws are only an imperfect reaching after justice, not the thing itself.
In not so many words, we do the best we can. Let’s just hope that, as a Caribbean dictator once said, (irony of ironies!) history absolves us.
Here is the link on YouTube. Chomsky/Foucault 1971 Debate Make sure you select English on the “CC” so you can see the subtitles. (Otherwise, be sure to learn French. Which is certainly not a bad undertaking!)