e-book A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice

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Like the protestation of rights to which it is allied, it will survive only if one is spared the worst.

Those who are not spared, those whom Simone Weil described as having been "struck the kind of blow which leaves a being struggling on the ground like a half crushed worm", depend on the love of saints to make their humanity visible. That is why Weil also said that when compassion for the afflicted is really found "we have a more astounding miracle than walking on water, healing the sick, or even raising the dead".

One day a nun came to the ward. In her middle years, only her vivacity made an impression on me until she talked to the patients.


e-book A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice

She showed that they were, despite their best efforts, condescending, as I too had been. She thereby revealed that even such patients were, as the psychiatrists and I had sincerely and generously professed, the equals of those who wanted to help them; but she also revealed that in our hearts we did not believe this. Later, reflecting on the nun's example, I came to believe that an ethics centred on the concept of human flourishing does not have the conceptual resources to keep fully amongst us, in the way the nun had revealed to be possible, people who are severely and ineradicably afflicted.

Only with bitter irony or unknowing condescension could one say the patients in that ward had any chance of flourishing. Any description of what life could mean to them invited the thought that it would have been better for them if they had never been born.

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Later, such thoughts about such lives were commonly voiced, first in discussions of abortion and then in discussions of euthanasia. It would be no fault in any account of ethics if it failed to find words to make fully intelligible what the nun revealed, for she revealed something mysterious. But there are philosophies that leave or create conceptual space for such mystery, and there are some which close that space.

Most do not even see the need for it. I do not know how important it was that she was a nun. One is inclined, of course, to say that her behaviour was a function of the depth of her religious beliefs. Perhaps it was, but typically beliefs explain behaviour independently of their truth or falsity: a person's false beliefs explain his behaviour as effectively as his true ones.

Raimond Gaita on a Common Humanity (Melbourne Writers Festival 2015)

Seeing her, however, I felt irresistibly that her behaviour was directly shaped by the reality which it revealed. I wondered at her, but not at anything about her except that her behaviour should have, so wondrously, this power of revelation.

She showed up the psychiatrists, but if I were asked how, exactly, then I would not elaborate on defects in their character, their imagination, or in what would ordinarily be called their moral sensibility. Of course her behaviour did not come from nowhere. Virtues of character, imagination and sensibility, given content and form by the disciplines of her vocation, were essential to her becoming the kind of person she was.

But in another person such virtues and the behaviour which expressed them would have been the focus of my admiring attention. In the nun's case, her behaviour was striking not for the virtues it expressed, or even for the good it achieved, but for its power to reveal the full humanity of those whose affliction had made their humanity invisible.

Love is the name we give to such behaviour. If the nun were questioned she might have told a religious or theological or metaphysical story about the people to whom she responded with a love of such purity. But one need not believe it or substitute any other metaphysical story in its place to be certain about the revelatory quality of her behaviour. That certainty is not a blind refusal to acknowledge the possibility of a mistake. It rests on the fact that there is no clear application here for the concept of a mistake as it would normally be understood in connection with claims about the metaphysical or empirical properties of the people in question.

The purity of her compassion ruled out for me speculation about whether it was justified.

Thinking About Love & Truth & Justice

Not, however, because it alerted me to natural or supernatural facts about the patients which justified her demeanour beyond possible doubt. To speak of those patients as "fully our equals" is not, even implicitly, to pick out something about them that could be known or even specified independently of this kind of love. My assent to what her love revealed did not, therefore, depend on my acceptance of an hypothesis about the grounds of that love. That is one of the great differences between goodness and, for example, great courage. One can acknowledge that beliefs which one judges to be false have inspired great heroism.

The heroism is beyond doubt, but it gives no support to the beliefs which inspired it. The nun almost certainly believed that the patients with whom she dealt were all God's children and equally loved by Him. One might therefore be inclined to say her behaviour no more supports that belief than the courage of martyrs supports their beliefs in what they died for. That is half true. The purity of her loving behaviour proves something, but not any particular religious faith or doctrine.

If the revelatory quality of her loving demeanour towards those patients depended upon her belief in a metaphysical fact about them, in something that could, quite independently of her love, become a focus for speculation, then her love would have no greater power to reveal reality than inspiring courage has.

I do not say, flatly, that it would be wrong to say that her love of God and her belief that the patients were all God's children inspired her behaviour. After all, as I have acknowledged, she would probably say something like that herself. It can, however, be misleading because it can suggest that those words gesture towards describing some fact of the matter towards which one could take a speculative stance. What is wrong with adopting such a stance?

This, I think. Whatever religious people might say, as someone who was witness to the nun's love and is claimed in fidelity to it, I have no understanding of what it revealed independently of the quality of her love. If I am asked what I mean when I say that even such people as were patients in that ward are fully our equals, I can only say that the quality of her love proved that they are rightly the objects of our non-condescending treatment, that we should do all in our power to respond in that way.

But if someone were now to ask me what informs my sense that they are rightly the objects of such treatment, I can appeal only to the purity of her love.

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For me, the purity of the love proved the reality of what it revealed. I have to say "for me", because one must speak personally about such matters. Submission of a review does not automatically guarantee your review will be published. Delivery FAQS. Returns Policy. Reviews Terms and Conditions: Writing and submitting a Review: Your review must be in your own words, and no more than 60 words - be concise!

There is nothing reasonable in the fact that another person's absence can make our lives seem empty. The power of human beings to affect one another in ways beyond reason and beyond merit has offended rationalists and moralists since the dawn of thought, but it is partly what yields to us that sense of human individuality which we express when we say that human beings are unique and irreplaceable. Such attachments, and the joy and the grief which they may cause, condition our sense of preciousness of human beings.