The core of generative anthropology is its insistence on providing an anthropological basis, demonstrated or hypothetical, for the Ideas that philosophy and social thought have long sought to derive from the authority of classical sources or more simply from the thinker’s own intuitions of the words. GA’s “new way of thinking” takes a less exalted idea of these intuitions, even when bolstered, as in Heidegger, by the real or fancied etymologies of the Ursprache. Whatever objections one might have to the originary hypothesis, it serves as a plausible, shareable basis for an anthropology.
The fundamental distinction between morality and ethics can be ferreted out by reflecting on the words themselves, but it can be derived concretely from the originary history described by the hypothesis. These terms refer to different stages of human organization. Morality is the model of human behavior realized in the originary event, where the participants exchange the sign in reciprocal symmetry, focused on the central object and culminating in its peaceful division, whereas an ethic is an ensemble of laws and rules, explicit or tacit, that permit the functioning of a social order of whatever dimensions.
On the basis of the hypothesis we can distinguish between two levels of moral intuition. It is not a matter of linking these functions of the “superego” to the father—or mother. Their distinction lies not in the way in which the individual encounters them, but in the originarity of their source. Moral consciousness or conscience is shared by all humans; it derives from the inaugural experience of humanization, the acquisition of speech in the originary scenic context subject to the “will” of the sacred. Moral reciprocity strikes us as “natural” because it does not depend on any specific social arrangement; on the contrary, specific social arrangements tend to supersede the originary symmetry that nonetheless remains fundamental and is emphasized in religious ritual.
This does not mean that we can “deduce” ethical imperatives as modifications of the moral model. But the fact that in the absence of ethical constraints, the default norm of peaceful behavior, say among a group of friends deciding on what film to watch, is dictated by this model suffices to demonstrate its fundamental nature. That less peaceful groupings such as criminal gangs tend to reproduce the serial structure of ape societies demonstrates the fragility of the moral order, but the very existence of language and its related cultural mechanisms of deferral gives proof that this solution cannot function overall.
Reminders of the originary scene of symmetrical exchange in the sense of Durkheim’s solidarité are visible not only in the egalitarian societies that precede the Neolithic establishment of sedentary agriculture but in those cultures, notably those of the West and of Buddhism, that have liberated our originary moral conscience from what Voegelin called the “compact” ethic of social hierarchy.
Understood in this manner, the phenomenon of socialism, born in the 19th century, appears as a modern intensification of the primacy of morality over ethics, anticipated by all kinds of egalitarian movements throughout history, generally with much the same lack of success.
A consistent failure under its own name when it has been able to take power in modern societies—will China prove a durable exception?—socialism’s success in the past appears limited to “other-worldly” or sacred-oriented organizations, such as medieval monasteries, which were (ideally) egalitarian in distribution, although not in authority. Even the Israeli kibbutzim, inaugurated with great enthusiasm by a broadly skilled and educated population, have virtually disappeared in modern Israel’s industrialized economy, mutating either into residential cooperatives or professionally differentiated workplaces.
Yet the persistence of the socialist dream in the face of the most egregious counter-examples is understandable, given the foundational role of symmetrical reciprocity in the emergence of language and the recognition of the sacred.
Wokeism is in this regard a reductio ad absurdum of the socialist dream of reducing all ethics to the moral model that operates by separating the real economy (infrastructure) from the ideational superstructure in which the moral reigns supreme. Society remains largely as it was, but awoken to its “inequities,” which it repairs symbolically with affirmative action and the like, but chiefly by demanding penance from the privileged whites for the “systemic racism” whose persistence is assumed.
How can this notion of “equity” focused on symbolic reparations rather than serious demands for modifying the economy be justified? By the fact that the fundamental currency of human exchange is, after all, language—the exchange of signs without which the originary central object would never have been peacefully distributed. Wokeness postulates that were our language, internal as well as external, perfectly egalitarian, differences in wealth and privilege would presumably be unimportant. In an affluent society enjoying “perpetual peace,” the difference between a college student and a billionaire may be dismissed as trivial.
Wokeism carries out what can be seen from the perspective of Sirius as a fascinating experiment in what might be called performative anthropology—bracketing practical life in order to seek humanity’s must fundamental human, that is, cultural, motivations. The insistence on absurd restrictions on language, personal “pronouns” and the like reflect, like Orwell’s Newspeak, this fundamental intuition. In the last analysis, wokeness can be understood as a perverse way of expressing the same fundamental intuitions as generative anthropology.
But whereas the originary hypothesis reflects a life-or-death “mimetic crisis” in which humans had to find a way to control the connection between their growing intelligence and its contribution to mimetic conflict, wokeness “starts over” by bracketing, not just the basic needs of life, but all considerations of material existence, as if unproblematically guaranteed by a “parental” social order. It is a way of thinking for children in secure families preoccupied exclusively by “moral” problems.
Which is to say that it seeks in its own perverse way the root of our moral intuition by inverting the urgency of the originary event, going from a fundamental state of creaturely peace to a thought experiment of resentment. The overwhelmingly peaceful interactions of whites and POC in American society are reinterpreted in such a way that the whites are made to imagine the feeling of minority resentment, and thereby discover the imperative reciprocity of the moral model, reconstructing a “mimetic crisis” from the imagined reactions of the other to one’s own inauthentic affirmations of reciprocity. The only exchange of any importance is symbolic; any data invoked in support of wokeness’ “antiracist” message is intended to support the essential point of the whites’ semi-conscious deformation of the moral model of reciprocal exchange.
From the standpoint of originary morality, all ethical systems are compromises; natural and social inequalities make symmetrical reciprocity an ideal unrealizable in most worldly interactions, however prominent it remains as an underlying principle. The current mania of judging past ethical arrangements from the standpoint of an ideal present defines as authentic our unreflective reaction to exotic practices—a reaction, ironically enough, strictly tabooed with respect to the practices of non-Western societies.
The death penalty, for example, was universally accepted a couple of generations ago; today, most Westerners—but not authoritarian societies such as China or Iran—view it as “cruel and unusual.” Execution, like all forms of corporal punishment, even spanking, offends the sensibilities of the Western educated class. The idea that someone who may have committed a series of unspeakably cruel murders should not be put to death is certainly not a direct consequence of the moral model. Nor is it a genuine expression of Christian charity. Rather than “judge not, lest ye be judged,” it expresses rather the social justice explanation of criminality as the fault of “society,” other recent consequences of which have been the abolition of cash bail and the non-prosecution of minor offenses.
The extension of this intuitive criterion to more complex institutions leads to facile condemnations of the patriarchy and ahistorical denunciations of slavery as an “abomination,” as though the fate of defeated enemies in ancient wars should have obeyed modern humanitarian principles. Slavery, even at its worst, began as a way of including the conquered in the victors’ economic system rather than simply slaughtering them. Yet more egregiously, value judgments concerning women’s inferior economic position in pre-modern society tend to be formulated independently of the internal economy of the pre-modern household, devoid not just of “labor-saving devices” but of external sources of basic materials like cloth, thread, salt, and milk for one’s children, not to speak of hot and cold running water.
Nonetheless, the idea of moral progress, that “the arc of history bends toward justice,” cannot be denied, and it is the fundamental moral intuition of human reciprocity that defines “justice.” The very point of liberal democracy, until now the most effective social order, is to allow for reasoned debate rather than civil war in negotiating the multiple resentments aroused by society’s failures of reciprocity.
Coda: Jewish firstness
Should not the constitutive insistence that Jews are “not like the other nations” be considered here? Is that not a unique claim? Are there other nations that define themselves in this way from the beginning, rather than just distinguishing themselves from rivals? This assertion is central to scripture, and has remained central throughout Jewish history. If you begin with such a claim, aren’t you declaring eternal mimetic rivalry with everyone else? Others, then, have no choice but to either see you as radically different, or as only pretending to be so (and in that case being radically different nevertheless). The reason for this constitutive difference is relevant, but what if the self-distinction is itself the most important thing? (I can’t recall if Eric has ever discussed this.) Wouldn’t it be impossible to have a non-paradoxical relationship with other peoples in this case? Or an insignificant one? Even saying “I don’t care about the Jews” would raise the question of why you make a point about declaring you don’t care about them in particular. In this case, It would be a question of how Jews figure others just as much as how others figure the Jews. (What came to be known as “Judaism” was developed against certain conceptions of Hellenistic and Roman culture.) And this claim seemed to have been provocative even before other nations had accepted the God of the Hebrew bible—the ancient Greeks and Romans remarked on it, at times rather resentfully, I believe.
I am not qualified to judge the uniqueness of the Jews’ claim of uniqueness, but it seems to me that every society in its patriotic moments considers itself superior to its peers, and that this is all the more true of every religion. This makes all the more salient the fact that only the Jews are hated for it—and this, because however one mocks their claim to be “the chosen people,” in the hierarchy of Western religions, the Jews’ primal status cannot be denied.
The answer to how to do away with antisemitism is that it cannot be eliminated by denying its foundation, any more than the West’s superiority in science and industry, which created the modern world and has now led to the adoption of its own mode of “Jewish guilt,” can be denied.
The solution to resentment is not denying it or simply putting it aside; it is overcoming it through the realization that the superiority of “the Other” benefits in the long run the entire human population. The jihadists may hate the West, but as Girard pointed out, they nevertheless “belong to” Western civilization, not least in their use of its weapons—which, unlike its music or feminine apparel, are not considered haram.
The only way that the world’s societies can learn to live in peace is to accept the firstness of each as a gift to the world as a whole, and seek always to forgive each other for their acts of injustice. But like the ethic of a single society, the ethic of international relations cannot be derived a priori. If history’s arc “bends toward justice,” the bending can return us to originary harmony only to the extent that it at the same time extends over new degrees of freedom that can absorb the energies otherwise expended in resentment. Thus has the human race progressed until now.
Judaism has never denied its asymmetric relationship with the religious world that emerged from it. Christianity, in its effort to transcend it, created the Trinity, in which the Son’s coming is presumed to have given all persons, Jew or not, equal standing in the face of God. Jesus’ moral doctrine is not essentially different from that of the rabbis; as Hillel famously put it, the golden rule “is the whole Torah; the rest is explanation.” Christianity made explicit the universality of the One God by transforming Hillel’s parochially uttered comment into a world-wide declaration: accept the divinity of Jesus, and you are absolved of all difference of originarity.
Before leaving this subject, we should note that both Hillel and Jesus emphasize the universal priority of the moral model. Social institutions cannot operate according to the golden rule; soldiers at war cannot turn the other cheek. We all know this, but understand that the point is to return to this model as the ultimate criterion of human justice, viewing all deviations from it as concessions to the greater good of the communal whole.