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domingo, janeiro 23, 2005

Alicerçando Palavras # 36 - Isabel Carmelo Rosa Renaud



Ethics is the life of living. However brilliant and stimulating this formula might be, we must examine its pertinence so that it does not appear as vacuous bravado. The question is not merely rhetorical – what reasons lead one to entertain expectations; what may, today and tomorrow, rally one’s energies to a project considered solid and valid?
Psychiatrists’ and even psychologists’ consulting rooms are often frequented by young people who, although not depressive, declare, "I don’t feel motivated." The therapist will try to "get round" the lack of motivation by proposing directly or indirectly new sources of interest. In the end, after the invariable repetition, "That does not motivate me," he finds himself out of resources and must conclude that, indeed, the youngster is not motivated. It depends on the youngster alone – in part, probably on the youngster’s circumstances, too–but it does not constitute a disease. In other words, "to feel" or "to be motivated" depends on the human agent oneself, and no one can take the place of the non-motivated person. How can we read this example, which would be anecdotal if its frequency did not make it tragic?


Motivation depends on each human being and constitutes, therefore, an act by the subject. It may not be imposed from the outside. It is as if certain ideals were so appealing in themselves, in abstracto, that they have the power to involve and propel my will and trigger my action. An ideal or value that becomes attractive in an itself or in abstract manner, that is, regardless of how it relates to my will (or any concrete will), remains "abstract," not only in the sense of being "purely theoretical" but also in the sense of being "alien" to myself. Hence, inevitably, this ideal cannot motivate me, and thus I can claim that "I am not motivated." Motivation involves an active dimension of the person who agrees to turn to certain actions or values. In other words, the disease that affects motivation, taking the disease to be in this case a global absence or total loss of motivation, is a malady not of values but of the person in the way one acts. The common expression, "It’s not worth it," expresses almost literally that the possible project is not worth the "pain" its accomplishment requires, as if the expenditure of energy, physical, psychic, or spiritual needed to achieve a certain purpose were estimated to be higher than the expected benefit from that purpose. From a formal point of view, the "good" of the purpose contemplated by the projected action is placed on one side of the scales of ethical evaluation, while the "pains" or efforts are placed on the other side. In the light of this metaphor of the scales, absence of motivation means that the efforts–or trouble–are considered so heavy that they will allow no swaying of the scales to the side of the hypothetical project. Evidently, other reasons besides the degree effort may intervene to complicate the model. In general, the possible projects for action are multiple and the choice between them does not bring into play only the relation "good-paints" or "good-costs" (physical, psychological, financial, or spiritual), but also the intrinsic contents of the projected purposes. This situation diverts us from the case in which, in simple or general terms, a person does not appear motivated by anything. It is readily apparent that the absence of motivation never arises from absence of contents in the value itself, but from the irrelevance of that value to me or to my possibilities of action.
We may not conclude from this affirmation that the value exists per se independently of the action I take – every value, all values are intimately connected with action, although not necessarily with my action. Using Heidegger’s terminology, we might say that the value, as it relates to action in general, constitutes an "existentiary" (an existenzial moment), while the relationship between the value and "my" personal action constitutes the concretion in a unique individual of this "existentiary," and then represents the "existential" (existenziell) of the will.
This brief discussion enables one to understand how Merleau-Ponty’s aphorism, "Je suis la source absolue du sens," applies to the relationship between value and action. It is not a matter of interpreting this affirmation in its original context, but of highlighting its extension into the realm of values. When Merleau-Ponty enunciated, "I am the absolute source of meaning," he had understood that "meaning" intrinsically must cross my consciousness in order to exist as meaning. There is no such thing as a "meaning" that hovers above all consciousness, as if each one had to make an effort to appropriate a self-subsisting idea or theoretical entity.
Meaning exists only through consciousness, so that, strictly speaking, consciousness holds over meaning the power to not accord it existence. Consciousness controls meaning, not because it invents autocratically every possible meaning or interpretation of facts, events, and actions, but because every meaning must pass through consciousness, and be projected by it in order to acquire existential reality.
Values stand in the same relative position to consciousness as meaning. No value lives outside its assumption by active consciousness; from this point of view, I am "the absolute source of value." When I am not motivated, the fault does not derive necessarily from devaluation of the value itself but from the nonassumption or nonintegration of that value by my consciousness. Because we are talking of loss of values, of values that fall away or disappear, it is well to keep in mind that such loss affects the phenomenological experience [vivência] of the meaning of values, that is to say, the intrinsic dependence of values on consciousness.


Ethics is the life of living precisely because life is the first value or the first good that enters consciousness. I mean life in general, not a certain lifestyle [forma de vida], because it is always possible to reject one lifestyle and choose another. No one disputes that several levels of lifestyle exist. What does matter is how the several lifestyles are structured or ordered into a hierarchy. The question is twofold: Is it possible to escape the hierarchical ordering of values; how does this hierarchical ordering of values present itself?
What is meant by lifestyle is a level of action whose motivation is the search for a good that is held to be preferable to many or to all others. Through our action, we have the capacity to achieve only an infinitesimal part of the range of theoretically achievable goals. That is why the motivation for action involves, on the one hand, fixing the attention on a certain goal and, on the other, forsaking other goals that are incompatible with our chosen goal. It is known that the pathology of decision often resides in the straying of attention, which, instead of staying fixed on the goal chosen by the will, lets itself be distracted by the goals forsaken, as if the sadness of having to renounce them invaded the field of attention dedicated to the goal that is effectively sought. To prevent this description from being limited to abstract statements, it should be reinserted it into the framework of concrete experience.
The act of eating is vital; we eat to nourish ourselves. It is, therefore, a vital value which enables our organic body, by means of the processes of internal combustion, to maintain its temperature and, in general, to preserve the functioning of its metabolism. Yet, we may eat together with one other person or many others. Thus, the act of eating is more than vital, because it is tinged by an aspect of meeting others that places it in the domain of shared intersubjectivity. During this encounter I may discuss working matters, analyse or assess with my colleagues projects pertaining to professional life. The value of meeting is interwoven with the vital value of taking in food. I may select a pleasant restaurant or, if I am at home, a beautiful table. The aesthetic value of the ambience or atmosphere is grafted onto the value of meeting to enrich it without robbing it of its character. When, on the other hand, the meeting units friends or relatives who rejoice together, the aesthetic value becomes expressive of a relationship that involves not only the public face we project of our life but also the most intimate part of our personality. It is still a meal that feeds our body, but this process bears no comparison with the acquisition of food through hunting, or with the struggle for physical survival that drives the great animal predators. Moreover, if during this friendly or family meeting the conversation among the "partakers" becomes an interesting discussion that enriches the way we understand life, the meal attains a truly spiritual dimension.
Thus, we may have several levels of understanding the same action (the meal), which are not mutually exclusive, yet are not of equal footing. The levels just mentioned correspond to kinds of life: biological life, social life [vida de relação], aesthetic life, spiritual life. Not all partakers of the meal are necessarily on the same wavelength. Keeping to the example of the meal, one person may be almost indifferent to the aesthetic aspects dedicated to an atmosphere conducive to conviviality. From another perspective, the more comprehensive values confer richer meaning upon the values involved or take away from them the possibility of this meaning. Thus, if I am in a situation of serious conflict with my relatives, the meal, regardless of its culinary quality and the aesthetic harmony of the atmosphere, loses the sense of a positive intersubjective encounter. Still, what has been termed comprehensive values may take on, without replacing, the values involved. For example, if I am dying of thirst in a desert, it will not be the artistic beauty of the proffered cup that gives meaning to the gesture that recomposes me. The interpenetration of the different levels of life is always present and, therefore, so is the reciprocal involvement of the values.
It is good, nevertheless, to distinguish the plane of concrete living from the plane of theory making. In almost spontaneous fashion, or based on a scarcely reflected intuition, every person builds its own hierarchy of values. This shows in the answer to the question, "What matters most to me in this act?" The weight of the circumstances under which action is pondered inevitably affects the spontaneous hierarchical ordering, so that this concrete hierarchical ordering still does not signify an explicit stand on the hierarchy of the levels of life.
Two conclusions stand out from the concept of the hierarchical ordering of values. Before all else, it is not possible to do without it, for it is always present upstream and downstream of our concrete acts. Yet, the concrete and spontaneous character of this presence makes it possible that it will appear in an implicit manner, subconsciously marked by the context of the action. The hierarchical ordering operated by theoretical ethics is quite another thing. This reflects an ideal model, which supposes that each level of life will produce the due response; in the example of the meal, eating satisfies hunger, the intersubjective presence breaks physical solitude, the harmonious or beautiful surroundings will meet our aesthetic taste, while the interest of the conversation will stimulate our spirit. It is at this point that the theoretical question of the hierarchical ordering of values arises. The highest values will be those whose absence most contributes to divest the meaning of the acts performed. In line with Max Scheler, we might say that cultural, ethical, aesthetic, and religious values are those that possess the virtue of bestowing on our acts the most enduring and deepest meaning, as if the presence of these values had the ability to resist destruction of life. The point is not to comment Scheler’s theses in this regard but to confront them with the questions that human beings, at the turn of a new millennium, are asking themselves. As "the life of living," ethics must be dynamic, not static–it must be steeped in the turbulence of change but, like life, well forth from its organic, unifying centre.


In our hierarchical ordering of values, we must establish a connection between the concrete, pre-reflexive character of such values, on the one hand, and their theory, on the other. After all, the private and personal motivation of the acts is what bears the concrete character of hierarchical ordering. "Concrete" and "gratuitous" are not synonyms, however. The mystery of values resides in this subtle articulation. It is true that, in some way, I am the "absolute source" of values, in the sense mentioned above. But I can be a source only when I receive into my consciousness a value that I recognize as "able to motivate me." Now, not all the values that can rouse my motivation do so for the same reasons. Therefore, Max Scheler is right in discerning intrinsic differences among values and the superiority of some over others. What criteria might attest such superiority? Perhaps the most general and appropriate criterion is the capacity of a certain value to open my existence to that of others through a common relation to a content–a value content–that unites us by virtue of its shared "meaning." We say of such values that they are "spiritual" because they are distinguished by their power to unite what has been dispersed: individualised human bodies or isolated minds. Even in the pre-religious meaning of the word, we might say that the spirit of the human being is constitutionally a "communion," inasmuch as it makes unity possible where pure diversity reigns.
But how can this task be accomplished in concrete terms? To answer, we must invoke ethical imagination. The domain of this imagination is coextensive with that of "practical wisdom," which does not entail that it is redirected to the free will of each individual. Ethical imagination underlies ethical creativity. The first part of this analysis suggests, therefore, that we take up again the challenges we confronted once, to filter them through the prism of ethical imagination.
Against the objectification of the human being, and against the multiple forms of the instrumentalisation of the human being, we have the possibility today of inventing attitudes that manifest how ethics is possible, real and necessary. Ethics exists, despite and within the conditioning limits of human beings. Then, motivation no longer appears as a "given," as a fact for action; it is sought, it is wanted: "I want to motivate myself for a certain behaviour" which is attainable to my ethically free action. "I am capable of motivating myself and of being motivated," is the first gesture of ethical liberation. Today, it constitutes a true challenge or true ethical call to the person. Paradoxically, the oft repeated question, "What values might motivate young people today?" is to be answered at once: What motivates is the actual act of being motivated, the will to resist the incapacity to be motivated by anything at all.
Today’s world might not contain more contradictions than the old; it is our awareness of those contradictions that has become wider and deeper. Because imagination has never been purely rational, it is especially endowed with an exploratory function: In the midst of contradictions, it has the ability to trace a course that is neither alibi nor a simple eclectic alternative. Navigating between the security of dominating reason and the insecurity of endemic violence, the ethical imagination will have to invent a motivating course.
In similar fashion, the implacable logic of profit, ignoring people and manipulating public opinion, presides over globalisation and constitutes a risk to the "humanity" of the human being. Yet, at the same time, human rights have never been stressed so strongly–here is a new contradiction that the ethical imagination will have to "manage" on a global level. It is not a matter of fighting globalisation, but of inventing new ways to respect persons, especially concerning their particular traits and areas of fragility.
The relationship, otherwise indispensable in itself, of being and appearance takes on, in our image society the form of an opposition and, not seldom, that of a contradiction. The ethical imagination will not respond to this merely by beating back into the refuge of a hypothetical inner purity; instead, it will discover a course that chooses between a right relation or a perverted relation, between the two inescapable facets of existence: authenticity or ethical duplicity.
The instability that affects the human being whose life unfolds in time may be equally–we might say, eminently–the domain of the ethical imagination. What is at stake is not only the ontological, but also the ethical relationship of the human being with time. The ethical imagination is able to discover the permanence of values behind the mutability of their forms of expression; that is, it is able to project ethical coherence into the person’s experience. When all is said and done, might not the new outlook on life that the millennium expects from ethics be the discovery of a new ethical coherence?

The Catholic University of Portugal