September 14, 2004

Subjects and Objects

This is not a post about linguistics. It is a post about life.

Many Rabbis make the following point: While man has a subject-object relationship with the world, God is both subject and object – He has a subject-subject relationship with the world.

Judaism specifically requires man to strive to acquire the attributes of God, to the extent that we can. In a way, you can understand Judaism’s tribal point of view as an attempt to do just that for the subject-object problem. For Judaism doesn’t just encourage a tribal point of view at the level of peoples, but at every level: the family, the community, the people, humanity, the universe. In fact even the individual is included in this hierarchy (at the beginning). Remember my definition of a tribe: a group of people who behave altruistically toward one another. By this I don’t mean total altruism, I mean that in some predictable way (which can be predicted by members of the group), the members will refrain from pursuing their own best interest, and pursue the best interest of the group, or of another of its members. I will call this: the altruistic domain.

Though I have arranged the tribal groupings hierarchically, since altruism to the higher tribal units usually preempts altruism to the lower, this is not necessarily true: it depends on the altruistic domain. For example, if your brother is a murderer, you would probably feel obligated to turn him in: your altruism toward humanity has preempted your altruism toward your brother.

One of the beauties of this system is that it’s stable. Its stability is derived from the fact that each individual has total power over the tribal grouping. If you deem a person to have violated a group’s altruistic domain, you simply exclude him: you are no longer committed to the altruistic domain where this person is concerned. Compare this to the notion (commonly held to be the highest ideal) that we should be altruistic to all people all the time. Anyone who violates this altruistic domain can take advantage of anyone who doesn’t, and there’s nothing you can do about it except die. Eventually no altruistic people will remain.

But there is something, to my mind, even more beautiful than this: it corresponds to human nature. We don’t have to cut off any toes to fit into this shoe, and when we wear it, we feel existentially at home. I have frequently heard of cultures described as “guilt cultures” or “shame cultures” depending on the mechanism with which the culture makes people obey it rules: does breaking the rules make you feel guilty or ashamed? This is something else, let’s call it an “identity culture” – I guard my altruistic domain because I am a member of the tribe, and the tribe is me. I identify myself with the tribe, and when something happens to one of its members, good or bad, I feel that it has happened to me. I have expanded my sense of self. At least within a restricted domain, I have overcome the subject-object relationship, and created a subject-subject relationship.

It is this subject-subject relationship that enables us to approach Godliness. I can usually tell pretty quickly whether a person has a subject-object relationship with the world, or a subject-subject relationship, i.e. feels part of this word or separate from it, is one with the universe, or apart. Of course all of us, being human, are somewhere in between. But there seems to be a tipping point.

We humans seem incapable of internalizing a theory we don’t put into practice. Thus, I think, no one can feel at one with the universe without feeling at one with their family, and within the family at one with his or her spouse. When that happens, it is relatively easy to extend the paradigm to ever increasing numbers of people, and beyond.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at September 14, 2004 09:49 AM
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