When we’re trying to decide how to live our lives, our starting point really does matter. During one of my sections this week, we had a conversation about the stance of French intellectuals toward the mid-twentieth-century struggle for independence in Algeria. Algeria had been a French colony for over a hundred years, with the inevitable history of oppression and scorn for the native population. Some intellectuals, such as Camus (who had been born and grew up in Algeria), pleaded with the French to create a more equitable political system and with the Algerians to stop their terrorist attacks—and with both sides to protect civilians. However, other intellectuals, such as Sartre, criticized this stance. This is fair enough—there are a myriad of reasons why Camus’ plan would have been politically impractical, or latently prejudiced, or downright insufficient. However, Sartre’s criticism was that Camus was anti-revolutionary.
Our section leader asked us whether we agreed with Sartre that Camus’ concern for innocent life was merely a relic of an old-fashioned, traditionalist humanism. I was taken aback at the question. Wasn’t it obvious that no desire for the “revolution” or for existential self-assertion should be placed higher than a concern for human life? Isn’t a concern for non-violence whenever possible self-evident?
Apparently not. Thinkers such as Franz Fanon advocated violence, not as the means to an end, but as an end in itself. This is an unnuanced account of his thought, and I have not studied him enough deeply to engage him; but I think that it is important to realize that the deeply-held, seemingly self-evident truths that we cling to are not necessarily as widespread as we might assume. This is not to deny that most humans in most times and places will have ethical systems that are more alike than different—how could it be otherwise, since we all live in the same world, designed by the same God? However, our theoretical starting points will have a significant impact on how we order our moral commitments. If humans are fundamentally in competition and can only be recognized as subjects through violence, then non-violence will not be the highest goal. If humans are fundamentally something like different parts of one body, cooperation is much more compelling. It makes a difference if the main categories of life are proletariat and bourgeoisie, or colonizer and colonized, or Jew and Gentile, or believer and non-believer. Our theoretical understandings of the way life fits together will change the relative importance of our values, which in turn will change our actions. We cannot assume that people with different understandings of the world will be in complete agreement about how to live—and, in order to talk together about how to solve the issues that face us, we must be able to articulate why we do not accept the same theoretical frameworks.