Can Europe Make It?

Project modernity

The universalism of the Enlightenment had, at best, a paternalistic attitude towards 'the savages', and at worst, sought to eviscerate entire peoples, cultures and histories.

Tanzil Chowdhury
10 April 2015
Jeremy Bentham statue. Flickr/Ben Harper. Some rights reserved.

Jeremy Bentham statue. Flickr/Ben Harper. Some rights reserved.The dust has settled. And what has emerged from the attack on Charlie Hebdo has been a public relations boon for the French satirists. Violence and death sells. But what we can also see emerge from the wreckage is a deeply troubled understanding of moral rights, freedoms and, in some circles, the double standards that straddle these ideas. Mehdi Hasan, perhaps most forcefully, illustrated some of the fictions and hypocrisies of the conveniently-timed champions of free expression; extolling its virtues whilst criminalising political dissent.

If we believe in these rights as sacrosanct, how are we to make sense of the internal contradictions of rights-based rhetoric which is used to deny the freedoms of some but not others? When a Russian punk band of white women was imprisoned for expressing anti-Putin sentiments, even the White House expressed “serious concerns”. But few, if any, know about Seckin Aydogan, a member of the Turkish band Grup Yorum, who was arrested by the government in Turkey months earlier. To dissect and understand such moral paradoxes, one explanation, familiar to many students of the humanities, starts with the seemingly intractable moral theories of the Enlightenment: utilitarianism and deontology.  

Universalism was enlightenment’s imperialism

Attempting to put it succinctly, utilitarianism – the brainchild of those such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill – holds that the determination of what is morally right is governed by what will maximise happiness (of which variations exist). The London Metropolitan Police's fatal public shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005, in a tube carriage, when they mistook de Menezes for a suspected terrorist, is one example of the workings and consequences of the rhetoric of utilitarian ethics. Effectively, its ‘felicific calculus’ is a numbers game.  

The deontologists, who value autonomy and reject the idea that people can and must be used as mere means to an end, argue that utility places 'the good' (maximal happiness) before the right of the individual. The utilitarian algebra, according to the deontologists, results in a moral separateness of individualsFor example, imagine that a friend had lent me money, but rather than pay him back, I proceeded to spend the money on food for my work colleagues. He, who has had the unfortunate luck of calling me his friend, has been used as a mere vessel for the betterment of myself and my slightly heavier work colleagues. Of perennial importance for deontologists is the integrity of the individual and as such these rights are inviolable, unless, of course, these individuals also benefit from the infringement, so that they cease to be mere means.  

Such theories can inform how we talk about and indeed construct our own legal systems and forms of governance, from human rights that proffer a peremptory status for an abstracted individual, to negligence in tort, through to the intimate relationship between law and economics that ventures into forms of utilitarian thought. Within the abstract domain of hypotheticals, they are considered antipodal theories. However, far from being diametrically opposed, they work in synchronicity. At the abstract level differences are flattened. At the applied level, divisions are fostered. Together, they violate the 'other'.                                       

These abstract normative theories are characteristic of 'project Modernity'. Enlightenment universalism, powered by the ‘force of reason’imposes presumptions as to the nature of the subject: perpetually forward thinking, and imbued with rationality and autonomy. Ignore the aberrations caused by sustained projects of war, which today also continue in absentia through neo-liberal logic, and internalised inferiority; history is riddled with too many contingencies that poison humanity and inhibit the onward march of progression. We are all the same, or in this case, “Je suis Charlie”.

The intimate theoretical connections between the establishment of rights and colonial reason are, at the very least, responsible in part. The 2005 collection of essays edited by Bart Schultz and Georgios Varouxakis entitled Utilitarianism and Empire deals with these relationships between race, imperialist endeavours, and the Enlightenment thinkers. The universalism of the Enlightenment had, at best, a paternalistic attitude toward 'the savages', and at worst, sought to eviscerate entire peoples, cultures and histories. Did the western intellectual tradition, in instituting and idealising the idea of a universal human nature, an ‘a priori’ individual free from contingencies, free from historical and cultural context, extinguish those very differences? Universalism was enlightenment’s imperialism.

The process of abstraction in these types of moral thinking, that reduces the lived world and its people to disembodied principles and theoretical artefacts, is a violence unto itself. In committing this violence of essentialism, it mirrors the very same kind of uncompromise that it claims to abhor. Contingencies, subjectivities, historically and socially constructed identities are mere distractions.

Return to empirical reality

The Charlie Hebdo affair illustrated how these seemingly antonymous theories enable those in power to talk about rights and reconcile contradictions by oscillating between these forms of moral rhetoric when they are politically favourable for the majority 'indigene'. The example of Charlie Hebdo observes the affirmation of individual freedom of expression (the deontological right) championed for the 'normals' (Charlie Hebdo). But the tyranny of utilitarianism becomes operative when the subversive 'other' (in our case the comedian Dieudonné who declared, “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly” – a reference to gunman Amedy Coulibaly) attempts to invoke that same right.

Similarly, this oscillation occurs in the 'War on Terror' where alternative Islamic narratives are consumed by utilitarian calculations, their curtailment rationalised on national security grounds (though concurrently buttressing the rights of the far right). In other words, rights of the individual are sustained until it comes to 'undesirable' others. Utilitarianism swoops in to conduct its own rescue operation and the rhetorical synchronicity is effectuated. Thus the state is able to reconcile two seemingly contradictory instances, upholding the integrity of normals and suppressing the other, under the same moral umbrella.

Though the criticisms of utilitarianism are scathing, its residues still linger in governance and policy-making. But can we ignore the human rights revolution? Declarations and treaties, both on the international and municipal level, are more prevalent than ever. And even multinational corporations are embarking on similar ventures in the name of tokenism and PR. But whether in law or rhetoric, human rights themselves lack an absoluteness and sensitivity that leaves them vulnerable to the sting of utilitarianism. Integrity of the individual is paramount, that is of course, until it poses a perceived threat to the status quo, in which case, it can be legally or rhetorically derogated.

But most apparent in this rhetoric and its characteristic 'oscillation', is that it will always embrace the mal-distribution of power in society and it will be those most disenfranchised that will feel the barb of utility. In other words, the postcolonial world will extol the virtues of human rights and deontology, as long as it does not pose a threat to empire and its dominance. If you happen to be a middle-class white man you stand to do very well. Belong to the mass of a disenfranchised and disillusioned underclass, a person of colour, the Dalits of our society, and you will feel the burn of this vicious contradiction.

Though seemingly contrasted within the abstract philosophical milieu, it is this very abstraction which kills difference and therefore kills us. But even in the real world, the life-world of difference, morality still leaves us vulnerable. Governance and rhetoric in the west embraces a political use of human rights when it protects desirables. But utilitarianism’s tyranny reveals itself when confronted with the non-indigene; and so contradiction can be managed within the mantra of rights.

How are we to transcend an abstract world where subjectivity is projected onto us and an empirical world which is stacked against us in the guise of a moral crusade? To once again paraphrase Alberto Toscano's Fanaticism, only with a fidelity to the enlightenment that treats fanaticism as an intimate dimension of rationality, can we then observe its obsession with a universalism that does violence to the other.

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