Mining the work of a national resource

It is a principle of Raimond Gaita’s thought that one cannot separate moral truths from the manner of their articulation, and that the manner of their articulation will depend on who is doing the articulating. In other words, what we say about morality is deeply connected to the way we say it, which is connected, in turn, to who we are. For Gaita, moral truths are to be tested, not on the page, but in the world; values have to be ‘embodied’. It is for this reason that Romulus, My Father is so central to his work as a whole. That memoir of his childhood in Victoria, with all its attendant griefs and wonders, is significant not just for the morality of its ‘characters’ – the ‘summer-coloured humanism’ of Romulus and his best friend Hora – but for the author’s relationship to that morality, a relationship that is at once intellectual and emotional, and no less ‘real’ for being a combination of the two. Put simply, Gaita is a moral philosopher whose work depends on openness to others.

This approach has inspired enormous affection amongst Gaita’s intellectual peers, and this affection pervades A Sense for Humanity, a collection of essays and literary pieces dedicated to Gaita’s ‘ethical thought’. Not that the book is a mere festschrift, or ‘garland’; though the tone is warm, the thought is deep, and while many of its contributors know Gaita personally – some call him Raimond, a few call him Rai – all are determined to do him the honour of engaging thoughtfully with his philosophical corpus. Indeed, we may view this as the emanation of another aspect of Gaita’s approach: his insistence that we think with him, in the manner of an intelligent friend. Gaita’s work is not a top-down affair; it is a call to enter into dialogue, to compare experiential notes.

The book is divided into three sections. The first focuses on Gaita’s two autobiographical volumes, Romulus, My Father and After Romulus, and includes contributions from J. M. Coetzee, Alex Miller and Barry Hill; the second attempts to relate Gaita’s work to the fields of politics, law and society (here, Robert Manne contributes an essay on Gaita’s early political influences and their relation to his later orientation); and the third takes a philosophical approach to the ethical questions raised by Gaita’s work, and ends with an interesting conversation between Gaita himself and Anne Manne. The aim of the book, its editors suggest, is to survey Gaita’s thought in a way that reflects his multidisciplinary appeal. In this, they have succeeded spectacularly.

Certainly Christopher Cordner’s ‘Moral Philosophy in the Midst of Things’ attests to Gaita’s genre-breaking powers. This excellent essay suggests that Gaita’s work can often act as an arbitrator in Plato’s ‘quarrel between philosophy and poetry’. His approach, argues Cordner, is closely related to what Immanuel Kant called ‘reflective judgment’: rather than coming up with an idea and then using examples to illustrate it (this is known as ‘determinant judgment’), he begins with an ‘example’ and reflects upon it. Illustrating the point with a wonderful passage from Gaita’s 2002 book The Philosopher’s Dog – a description of, and meditation on, his father’s meticulous kindness to bees, as well as his obsessive dislike of flies – Cordner follows Gaita’s example, adding a few speculations of his own on this ostensible inconsistency. (You’ll have to take my word for it that his attempt to link fly-spray to drone warfare is not as morally frivolous as it sounds.)

For mine, the most interesting essays in the book are those that try to use Gaita’s work to elucidate issues in ‘the real world’, which is to say the world outside the academy. In ‘International Law’s Common Humanity, or Are Pirates Necessary?’ Gerry Simpson employs Gaita’s A Common Humanity to highlight some of the problems involved in the notion of ‘humanity’ as it is used in international legal contexts, while in ‘“Even the Most Foul Criminals Are Owed Unconditional Respect”’ Steven Tudor presses Gaita’s Good and Evil into service in order to explore the notion that all human beings should be accorded unconditional respect. Of the two, Tudor’s essay stays closer to the nub of Gaita’s distinctive approach to philosophy, positing a distinction between ‘social respect’, which is related to feelings of esteem and admiration, and ‘moral respect’, which is ‘more like a sort of awe or wonder at the simple fact of [another] person’. For both Tudor and Gaita, it is this second kind of respect that adds depth to the adjective ‘unconditional’, though Tudor is surely right to point out that ‘moral respect’, thus formulated, is of limited use within legal contexts. He suggests that one way to resolve this problem would be to view legal procedural rules as ‘a concrete distillation of the attitudinal ideal that I [as a legal practitioner] cannot realise’.

Such speculations are interesting, not least because I’ve always felt that there is something unworldly about Gaita’s work – an unworldliness that stems, paradoxically, from its rootedness in real life. Though valuable in many ways, his focus on experience can also be a limitation, especially where the issue in question is one of social policy or fundamental human rights. (Geoffrey Brahm Levey makes this point in ‘On Raimond Gaita’s “Assimilationist Multiculturalism”’.) But this book has convinced me of the pressing need to go on mining Gaita’s work in our search for answers about ourselves. To put it another way: it’s convinced me that ‘Rai’ is less a national treasure than a national resource.

Craig Taylor and Melinda Graefe (eds), A Sense for Humanity: The Ethical Thought of Raimond Gaita. Monash University Publishing; $34.95; 203pp

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First published in The Weekend Australian.