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7 The Intimacy of Strangers The Difficulty of Closeness and the Ethics of Distance E D UA R D O M E N D I E TA One of the central themes of Plato’s work is the question, why be moral? Some of his most memorable and important dialogues are focused on the reasons why it is better to be moral than not, why it is better to be done wrong than to do wrong, why it is more noble to be just, and why to wish suffering and pain on our enemies is unworthy of beautiful souls. Plato links morality not just to reason but to the pursuit of happiness and to the beautiful soul, which is mirrored in the noble and just city Kallipolis. The Republic is probably the one work in which Plato most successfully links the philosophical vocation with the pursuit of morality and the quest for the just city. It is in the Republic that we are exposed to one of the most important allegories of the Western philosophical canon, namely, the allegory of the cave. In this same extended dialogue, Plato exposes us, through the mouth of Glaucon, to the story of the ring of Gyges. According to Glaucon’s telling of the story, after a violent storm, Gyges of Lydia comes upon a ring that allows him to become invisible. Taking advantage of his recently gained invisibility, Gyges arranges to seduce the king’s wife, I want to thank Jennifer Farquhar, Chad Kautzer, Cynthia Willett, and Martin Woessner , who read an early version of this essay and made extensive comments and suggestions. I was worried that this essay could become ammunition in the arsenal of the Bible Belt prophets of moral purity and transparency of heart, but my colleagues have assuaged me that my arguments here are not pliable toward those ends. I remain responsible for its obscurity and density. PAGE 112 112 ................. 16993$ $CH7 09-11-08 09:40:06 PS recruit her help in killing the king, and then take over the kingdom.1 Glaucon asks rhetorically whether the just person and the unjust person would act differently had both access to the same power. Glaucon in fact avers: ‘‘Both would pursue the same course [of crime with impunity].’’ This leads him to conclude: ‘‘This, some would say, is strong evidence that no one is just willingly, but only when compelled. No one believes justice to be a good thing when it is kept private, since whenever either person thinks he can do injustice with impunity, he does it.’’2 It is not difficult to see that the ring of Gyges is an allegory for the power of social opprobrium and censure. In fact, publicness, the visibility of the agora, the Public Square, or what Jürgen Habermas called Öffenlichkeit, acts as a force that keeps us moral.3 In private, hidden and concealed from the eye of our fellow citizens, we are just as weak and incontinent as the most corrupt soul. The ethical relation is a topology. It involves subjects standing before others, being held accountable by others, who can be direct witnesses of our character, within a space that is discrete but not measurable . The ethical relation involves distance, whether it is of closeness or farness. Distance is not necessarily what is farthest, for it can be the most proximate, yet not reachable. The distance that is involved in the ethical relation can be spatial and temporal. Being in the openness or publicness in which we stand before others is a clearing that is also temporal: it is either a now, a was, a has been, or a will be in which the other speaks to us in and across time. The classic philosophical distinction between ethics and morality, or Sittlichkeit and Moralität to use the German terms for each correspondingly , could be formulated in terms of closeness and remoteness; thus one could say that ethics is to closeness as morality is to remoteness. Whereas the former provides us with a set of behavioral codes that we apply in the vicinity of those with whom we dwell in closeness, the latter provides us with maxims or principles that apply to strangers and remote individuals with whom we may not interact directly at all. Ethics is addressed to the concrete other who is my neighbor; morality is addressed to the abstract other who is our addressee in universal language. Avishai Margalit has articulated this difference in...


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