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The Failure in Forgetting

Tuesday, April 1, 2003

Avishai Margalit.
The Ethics of Memory.
Harvard University Press. 224 pages. $24.95

Avishai margalit’s The Ethics of Memory opens with a story about a certain colonel in the Israeli army. As Margalit tells it, the colonel was consumed by public outrage after he admitted — not to killing unarmed Palestinians, torturing would-be terrorists, or leading his men recklessly into battle — but to forgetting the name of a soldier killed under his command. “I was struck,” Margalit says, “by the moral wrath heaped on this officer simply for not remembering something, and it led me to think about the officer’s obligation to remember — and if indeed he has an obligation.”

Do people have a moral responsibility to remember certain things? This is the question that lies at the heart of The Ethics of Memory. It is a question, Margalit suggests, that can and should influence individual lives as well as collective decision-making about what kind of society we want to live in and how that society ought to interact with societies around the globe.

To his credit, Margalit, a Hebrew University philosopher whose interests range from politics to language to religion, has stuck to philosophizing here, avoiding political and historical commentary. In fact, he makes a point early on of distinguishing between the ethics of memory and a psychology, politics, or theology of memory. This is an accomplishment all by itself; too many professors and public intellectuals nowadays roam recklessly into fields and specialties about which they know little.

Still, there’s something unhappily prescient about The Ethics of Memory. Prescient because the flashpoint of History seems to have relocated — for the first time, or so it seems — to the New World. If the Battle of the Marne, Stalingrad, Normandy, Hiroshima, Potsdam, Berlin, and Red Square are where the great unfolding of war and ideology took place in the twentieth century, the destruction of the World Trade Center can be fairly dubbed the first global event of the twenty-first. Suddenly the eye of the hurricane, the volcanic convergence of geopolitical forces and cultural migrations, has touched down in America. Suddenly we seem to have been yanked out of the virtual ether, protected by oceans and icbms, and transplanted into the ugly concreteness of things. Now Americans no longer simply chant, automaton-style, “The best is yet to come.” Now we look back — for the time being, at least — to September 11. All of which means that how we encounter history, and how we reconstruct that history out of our individual and communal memories, will be crucially important in a way that has not always been the case. Not only will this remembering define our past and present; it will also frame our future.


Like most philosophy, The Ethics of Memory involves a series of distinctions: knowing versus believing, mood versus emotion, sincerity versus authenticity, forgiving versus forgetting, and so on. The most fundamental distinction is that between ethics and morality. Margalit notes that he’s not the first philosopher to differentiate between the two, but his understanding offers a fresh perspective. Ethics, as he sees it, refers to relations between people who know each other; he calls these connections “thick relations.” Morality refers to relations between people and strangers, or universal “man”; these connections are labeled “thin relations.” Importantly, both ethics and morality refer to interactions. A person’s behavior is evaluated in the context of relations with others. Even someone who is all alone — say, a shipwreck survivor on a deserted island — can be viewed through an ethical lens by extending “the notion of thick relations to include one’s very thick relation to one’s own self, which involves a concern with leading a good life.”

Underscoring the difference between ethics and morality, Margalit points out that it’s entirely possible to lead a moral life but not an ethical one — by which he doesn’t mean so much an “unethical life” as a solitary existence largely devoid of ethical, or close, relations. “Being moral is a required good; being ethical is, in principle, an optional good,” he writes. More troubling is his suggestion, only vaguely hinted at, that it’s possible to lead an immoral life as well as an ethical one. Consider the Nazi stormtrooper who spends all day killing Jews but makes sure he’s home in time to tuck in his children and read them a bedtime story. No doubt, the stormtrooper is a moral failure, but that failure vis-à-vis mankind does not automatically make him a bad father. True, at a certain point his interactions with the rest of the world become relevant to his interactions with his children, insofar as those interactions with the rest of the world are instructive. Clearly, the stormtrooper is not being a good father (that is, acting ethically) if he teaches his children that it is permissible to kill innocent people (that is, to act immorally). But in the more immediate, or narrowly construed, context of a single day — killing Jews in the morning and afternoon, reading a bedtime story to his children in the evening — the stormtrooper’s immorality does not obviously detract from his ethical behavior.

But there’s something else, beyond application or context, that separates ethics and morality — namely, caring. Caring, says Margalit, “is the attitude at the heart of our thick relations.” In fact, the reason we need morality — the reason we need some code or principle that tells us how to treat people in general — is that we don’t care about people in general: We only care about those we know. What is key to Margalit’s argument is that caring is also intimately connected with memory. To say that one cares about someone is also to say that one remembers that person. It would be impossible, Margalit contends, to say that one cares about and forgets someone at the same time. The Israeli colonel who admitted he couldn’t remember the soldier’s name was indirectly, and unwittingly, admitting that, at that moment, he didn’t care about the soldier. He may have cared about the soldier at an earlier time, but not now. Because the public expects comrades in arms to care about each other, the colonel’s forgetfulness offended people’s ethics.

What all this means is that memory, for the most part, can be understood only in ethical, not moral, terms. To put it more squarely, the caring of thick relations offers a link between ethics and memory, while the lack of caring of thin relations indicates that there can be no analogous connection between morality and memory. This doesn’t mean morality has nothing to say about memory. Margalit argues, for instance, that people have a moral obligation to remember “gross crimes against humanity.” It would be wrong if we stopped thinking about the gas chambers or the gulag. Why? Because we have an obligation to prevent future genocides from taking place and remembering past genocides is a good way to do that. Thus, not remembering is to enable, or to contribute to the enabling of, death and destruction. Still, memory remains largely within the realm of ethics, and most of the problems, considerations, and questions that stem from memory — remembering, forgetting, reconstructing, reliving — take place within the “ethical community.”

Curiously, Margalit is a tad vague when it comes to the ethical community. The ethical community, he explains, is a group of people who share thick relations with each other. It is the framework within which we measure the ethical quality of our remembering — or forgetting, as the case may be. But there’s a lot of gray area here. What constitutes “thickness” in a relation? What does it mean “to know” someone? How many levels or hues of thickness can an ethical community make room for before that community loses its cohesiveness? And what about the ethical community’s geographic or temporal borders? In the 1990s, Serbs in the Balkans and Hutus in Rwanda made it clear that they identified more closely with their ancestors than they did with their neighbors, which explains why many found it easier to murder and wage war in the name of distant causes or tribal unity than to make peace with living, breathing human beings. What “ethical community” — if that’s the right term for it — were these people inhabiting? Christians and Jews, Immanuel Kant and David Hume, all disagree about what comprises and who inhabits the ethical community. Margalit, for his part, posits that ethical communities range from single individuals to entire nations; while we may not know precisely where ethical communities end, we do know that they do not extend to the whole of humanity. At a certain ill-defined elevation, ethical jurisdiction melds into moral jurisdiction. This is all very helpful, illuminating, and insightful. But, in the end, some of these unanswered questions may leave the reader just a bit unsatisfied.


That said, there’s no doubt The Ethics of Memory marks an important contribution. By homing in on the question of whether people have a moral responsibility to remember certain things, Margalit has not only fleshed out a whole cache of considerations about the ethics of memory; he has also raised “sub-inquiries” about the philosophical nature, meaning, and implications of emotion, trauma, humiliation, poetry, history, faith, forgiveness, and privacy. His chapter on the moral witness, in particular, very thoughtfully frames the question, “Who should be charged with remembering for everyone else?” Closely related to this is, “What kind of person should this ‘rememberer’ — or moral witness — be?” And must the moral witness be moral? “A paradigmatic case of a moral witness should be someone whose morality is not in question,” Margalit writes. “But a moral witness may still be one who compromises his morality for the sake of surviving, especially if the aim is to survive as a witness.” In other words, they can’t all be Primo Levi. Sometimes Josephus Flavius, who betrayed his own people to the Romans but lived to tell the tale, will have to do.

There’s just one serious hurdle here. Margalit clearly intends to speak to a broader lay audience: He has assiduously avoided technical language and, more to the point, he has raised a number of questions that most, if not all, thoughtful people at one point or another are prone to ask: What is the “good life”? What is truth? Why am I here? — questions that more formal analytic philosophers are often (and unjustly) accused of ignoring. The only problem — a problem he acknowledges — is that it’s unclear whether thoughtful people living in a democracy pay all that much attention to remembering. Certainly, democratic life is relatively free of the ancient mythologies that pervade traditionalist-authoritarian society. “A democratic regime, so it seems to me, anchors its legitimacy not in the remote past but in the current election,” he writes. “It would seem, therefore, that liberal democracies are exempt from an orientation to the past and rest their power on their vision of the future. Dwelling on the past in a democracy is as irrational as crying over spilt milk.”

It may be the case that we ought to be paying attention to the past — it may be that the specter of History haunts lower Manhattan — but that doesn’t mean readers are predisposed to thinking about it. Why should they be? The centerpiece of democracy is the individual. Significantly, the individual’s individuality is reflected in his separateness — from the collective, from other individuals, and, naturally, from the past. Undoubtedly, one of the great accomplishments of democracy has been to divorce people, with varying degrees of success, from the shackles of a history over which they retain little, if any, power — that is, to transform them from members of historical-cultural groups into free agents with inalienable rights. “Enlightened” readers, intuiting the inherent backwardness of squeezing those free agents into an historical box, might understandably shy away — unconsciously, unwittingly — from even thinking in terms of memory. Margalit, to be fair, seems aware of this much: He tries to make the case, briefly, that “backward-looking emotions and attitudes” can and should play an important role in democratic life. But simply stating it isn’t adequate. A little more explanation would have made this very intelligent, very engaging book a little more accessible.