- Precarious Life, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Cohabitation
I hope to address here ethical obligations that are global in character and that emerge both at a distance and within relations of proximity. The two questions that concern me are at first quite different from one another. The first is whether any of us have the capacity or inclination to respond ethically to suffering at a distance and what makes that ethical encounter possible, when it does take place. The second is what it means for our ethical obligations when we are up against another person or group, find ourselves invariably joined to those we never chose, and must respond to solicitations in languages we may not understand or even wish to understand. This happens, for instance, at the border of several contested states but also in various moments of geographical proximity—what we might call “up againstness”—the result of populations living in conditions of unwilled adjacency, the result of forced emigration or the redrawing of the boundaries of a nation-state. Of course, presumptions about farness and nearness are already there in most of the accounts of ethics that we know. There are communitarians who do not mind the local, provisional, and sometimes nationalist character of the communities to which they consider themselves ethically bound and whose specific community norms are treated as ethically binding. They valorize nearness as a condition for encountering and [End Page 134] knowing the other and so tend to figure ethical relations as binding upon those whose face we can see, whose name we can know and pronounce, those we can already recognize, whose form and face are familiar. It is often assumed that proximity imposes certain immediate demands for honoring principles of bodily integrity, nonviolence, and territorial or property rights claims. And yet, it seems to me that something different is happening when one part of the globe rises in moral outrage against actions and events that happen in another part of the globe, a form of moral outrage that does not depend upon a shared language or a common life grounded in physical proximity. In such cases, we are seeing and enacting the very activity of bonds of solidarity that emerge across space and time.
These are times when, in spite of ourselves and quite apart from any intentional act, we are nevertheless solicited by images of distant suffering in ways that compel our concern and move us to act, that is, to voice our objection and register our resistance to such violence through concrete political means. In this way, we might say that we do not merely or only receive information from the media on the basis of which we, as individuals, then decide to do or not to do anything. We do not only consume, and we are not only paralyzed by the surfeit of images. Sometimes, not always, the images that are imposed upon us operate as an ethical solicitation. I want for the moment to call attention to this formulation, since I am trying to underscore that something impinges upon us, without our being able to anticipate or prepare for it in advance, and this means that we are in such moments affronted by something that is beyond our will, not of our making, that comes to us from the outside, as an imposition but also as an ethical demand. I want to suggest that these are ethical obligations that do not require our consent, and neither are they the result of contracts or agreements into which any of us have deliberately entered.
To make this view plain, I want to suggest as a point of departure that images and accounts of war suffering are a particular form of ethical solicitation, one that compels us to negotiate questions of proximity and distance. They implicitly formulate ethical quandaries: Is what is happening so far from me that I can bear no responsibility for it? Is what is happening so close to me that I cannot bear having to take responsibility for it? If I myself did not make this suffering, am I still in some other sense responsible to it? How do we approach these questions? Although...