Tag Archives: ethics


This paper has just been published in Philosophical Practice, the journal of the American Philosophical Practice Association. You can find it here  and there …


Helen Douglas, Philosophy in Practice, Cape Town

Abstract: This is a second ‘field report’ of a Levinassian philosophical counseling practice. The first part elaborates the practice by means of a ‘threefold logic’ of ground, path and fruition. While the ground and path remain a Levinasian ‘good practice’ of relationship and dialogue, the fruition of the work is now seen as ‘emancipation’, understood broadly as ‘the fact or process of being set free from restrictions’, rather than ‘therapy’, understood narrowly as ‘treatment to relieve a disorder’ (Oxford Dictionary). The turn to emancipation is explored by way of Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Philosophy as a practice of emancipation is the work of equals.

QA 45. Much obliged?

For months I’ve been like a hound dog barking at a rabbit hole. Then I think I fell in because things got kind of strange. Here’s how it went…Step 1 (QA 44). The development of philosophical practice as ethical and emancipatory leads me to think about human dignity as integral, inherent and immeasurable. And a source of great confusion. What is that about?

Step 2. I find that “dignity” is defined in terms of “worth” and “value”. Unlike dignity, these words have both material and moral meanings, which are different (e.g. a man of worth might not be worth much at the bank). Also strange: my dictionary lists both meanings as primary.

Step 3. I start to notice how many words share that crossover quality. We speak of credit, debt, appreciate, account, responsibility, balance, equity, interest, share in both economic and ethical terms. I know that “the Good” is not the same as “the goods”, but this indicates a very close relationship. What could it be? Continue reading

QA 43. The meaning of transgression

But the poet’s task, Kafka says, is to lead the isolated human being into the infinite life, the contingent into the lawful. ~ Anne Carson

The contingent: what sommer happens to be and could just as well be otherwise. South Africans drive on the left side, Canadians on the right. Some people wear black for mourning, and some wear white. Statutory and customary laws are mostly contingent. We submit to these rules because they’re sensible and orderly for our particular contingent of humanity. It’s what one does here.


This kind of code has everything to do with being “one of us” and nothing to do with “me”. Under its light, we are interchangeable Tweedledees and Tweedledums. Some philosophers rail against this mundane morality, but it’s mostly innocuous and useful. As long as I don’t feel unduly constrained, as long as the rules are reasonable and reasonably fair and reasonably clear, I’m willing to go along. Even if I cut some corners of the letter of the law, I accept the spirit of its social contract. If I get caught, I’ll take the consequences. If not, lucky me! Continue reading

QA 14. (May 09) The first priority

What should be the single priority for the new South African government? In his Sunday Times column (3 May 2009), Mac Maharaj invited readers to answer this question, following Peter Bruce’s observation that a government that tries to fix everything achieves nothing. “Let us… find some common purpose, which is the first step to success.”

But because any choice refers to a prior and more fundamental commitment – to the criteria by which we choose – it seems to me that clarity of purpose is at least as necessary as common purpose. What we believe the government’s priority should be depends on how we understand its purpose, and this in turn will shape the way it functions and is evaluated.

So here’s my response: Continue reading