An Interview with Raja Halawani by Badr Mostafa
- We are pleased to welcome you to the Mana platform that aims to spread culture and knowledge in the Arab world. Within the limits of my knowledge, this is the first interview (dialogue) that is taking place with you in Arabic. Why haven’t you written in Arabic yet even though you are Lebanese in the first place? Is it a position on (a stand against) Arab culture? Does it constitute a barrier to some of your thoughts?
It is definitely not a position or stand of any type against Arab culture, of which I have always been proud. The answer is much more boring, I’m afraid. It is basically for three reasons. First, even when I was living in Beirut, my academic training was mostly in English (at the American University of Beirut). So almost all the writing I did was in English. With time, I lost the ability to write fluently and grammatically correctly in formal Arabic. I still speak the Lebanese dialect fluently, and I read and understand Arabic without any problems, but writing in formal Arabic means that I will make a lot of grammatical errors, so it would be very time consuming for me to do so.
The second reason is that my philosophical training is in the Western analytic tradition, so writing about that in Arabic requires me to have studied that tradition in Arabic as well, so that I will have an easy time going back and forth between the same concepts in English and Arabic without having to worry about the accurate translation.
The third reason is that I have lived more than half of my life in the United States, and as a scholar working there I am expected to write to an English audience, to my peers who work using English as their language, and to students who use English.
So this is why all my writings are in English.
- The world has been heading for a long time towards delicate specialization. However, you write on very diverse topics, the philosophy of ethics, love, gender, sex, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the rights of the Palestinians, in addition to your specific specialization which is the philosophy of art. What is the relationship?
There is no relationship between these topics, really, other than that I approach all of them through the lens of philosophy and that they all interest me. Philosophy has been the love of my life since I was young, and there are many fields in it that I find fascinating, such as political philosophy, moral philosophy, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of sex. I should add that writing on diverse topics does not mean less specialization. As a matter of fact, whenever I write something on one of the above topics, I have to go through, like any researcher, a long period of reading and taking notes (I call it “scholarly gestation”) so that I can write with knowledge.
- You are classified as the most interested in the topic of love and sex. Besides, the translation of your book, Philosophy of Love, Sex and Marriage, has appeared in Arabic. Do you see that these are the topics that make up our presence in the world and linked to larger circles; ethics, politics, and art for example?
I am less sure about marriage, which I see largely as an economic and legal arrangement, but sex and love are very crucial aspects of our existence (though not the only ones, of course). Take love first: if you focus only on romantic love, consider how much literature, cinema, poetry, and sheer human effort is devoted to it. It takes up a large share of our interests, so philosophizing about it is crucial. If you include in the orbit of love other kinds of love, such as parent-child love, the love between siblings, and the love between friends, it is easy to see that without love we are pretty much nothing. Life would lose almost all its meaning.
Sex is also important: consider how much time and effort people (especially the youth) spend on looking attractive to others. Sex dominates many people’s psyches because of evolutionary explanations: we are the products of evolutionary mechanisms whose main goal is reproduction. So nature has made the sexual drive very powerful and pleasurable. Sex is the means by which we perpetuate ourselves and by which we form bonds of romantic love and maintain it. Repressed sexual drives, if Freudians are right, can also have serious repercussions for individuals. So yes, sex is very important.
Because sex and love are important to human beings, philosophizing about them and looking at them through the moral and political lenses also become inevitable and necessary. Nothing as basic to humanity as love and sex can or should escape moral and political scrutiny. Basic things will always have two questions asked about them: how are they to be approached and dealt with in a decent way (the moral question)? How are they to be considered from the point of view of social fairness (the political question)?
This is not to deny that other things are also basic: without art life would be boring, even passionless, maybe even painful. Without fair and just political institutions, people would lead bad lives. And without a sense of moral decency, we would be living in Hobbes’s state of nature. So sex and love are important but they are not the only important things (obviously).
- There is a remarkable moral presence in your writing. Why?
I consider moral norms to be the most basic and comprehensive norms that govern our relationships with each other and that guide us to think about how to be and act in the world: towards each other, other animals, and the world in general. Moral norms are the basic fabric of human existence, and they should take precedence over other factors (with some exceptions, of course, for those rare individuals who should be able to work unencumbered by other human beings, though even in their case they have to be careful not to treat others badly). This is not to say that everyone does actually act morally (it seems that most people don’t), but it is to say that morality is of absolute importance. Without it, everything we desire and aim to achieve would be smeared with the stain of human vice. All of our technology and scientific advances would look tarnished if we conduct ourselves badly as a species.
Most philosophers tend to agree with this view. Although they are pluralists about value, and thus accept various types of value (moral, aesthetic, economic, and practical values, to give some examples), many tend to agree that moral values are generally more important than other values and that they trump or take precedence over others in cases of conflict between values.
- In your writings, I have observed many forms of love and marriage that differ culturally from one society to another. Do you believe in cultural (specificity) privacy in dealing with such matters? What is appropriate for Western society, for example, is not suitable for Arab society? Or do you believe in the globalization (universalization) of such issues?
Love and sexual desire are certainly universal phenomena. Sexual desire is something we have in virtue of our biology, and love (including romantic and other varieties) is found in all societies, ancient and modern. But how they are expressed obviously differs from one society to another, and such differences are expected, healthy, and good to have. But we have to be careful also to not identify all differences as being on the same moral level. If there’s a society, for example, that disregards women’s sexual pleasures, that would be something to be criticized and rejected, because of the basic equality of men and women. So the answer to the question depends on two things. First, it depends on whether we are speaking about sex and love at their very basics, which makes them universal and cross cultural, or on their expression, which exhibits cultural variation. Second, it depends on whether we are merely describing the differences between the various cultures or on whether we are also morally evaluating them. If we are evaluating them, then some cultures, past or present, will not escape critical scrutiny, especially in regards to the discrimination against women and against sexual minorities.
- The conclusion of your book, Love, Sex and Marriage, was shocking to the reader. You take a clear stand against life closer to pessimism. You want to liberate yourself from sharing the responsibility of its continuation. Do you consider childbearing an immoral act?!
Yes, it is a very pessimistic conclusion! There has been a lot written on childbearing and procreation, and about whether they are immoral. I have not done much independent thinking about this issue on my own, and I mostly subscribe to what philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer and David Benatar (a contemporary philosopher who lives and teaches in South Africa). I am not sure whether procreating is immoral. However, to bring someone into the world is to put them at great risk of suffering and harm, whereas if you didn’t bring them into the world, you would not be depriving them of anything (it is not as if babies exist in some other world and they are knocking at our procreative doors waiting to be conceived). Although the quality of people’s lives differs quite a bit from one person to another, all people suffer from living, and all have to face death, whose prospect most people find terrifying. And some people suffer much, much more than others: poverty, ill health, tragic incidents in life, and so on. So every time we bring a child into the world, we are creating an entity that will most likely suffer. Why then bring it into the world when by not doing so we are not depriving it of anything?
Moreover, the current state of the world is pretty bad: climate change is upon us, the population of the world is increasing rapidly, and there are many children who need decent homes. It seems to me to be quite selfish of people to be procreating when they can instead adopt a child and help them lead a better life in a world that is already over-populated and that will soon suffer from serious problems of lack of food and water (unless we have some miraculous technology that can solve these issues).
So in sum, if we set aside the way the world currently is, to bring a child into it is to always subject them to grave risks, so avoiding that is a morally better option. And if we remember the way the world currently is, it is wrong to bring a child into the world when we can instead adopt.
I know that this sounds like a shocking conclusion to many ears, but it is the truth. And the sooner we accept it and listen to reason instead of to our biology, the better it would be for everyone.
- You are a proponent (an advocate) of the ethics of virtue. Is this position consistent with them?
Being an advocate of virtue ethics can mean different things, and I am an advocate of this ethics in the sense of paying philosophical attention to what the virtues are and what it means to have them. In regards to having them, it means having a character that is stable and reliable, and that is infused with wisdom, the ability to make the right decisions about how to act, the ability to feel the right emotions depending on the situation, and the ability to understand the world and to value it in the right ways. The other question is what virtues there are. And here, quite a few philosophers have debated this question, with many arguing that, for example, under conditions of injustice and oppression the classic or traditional virtues (such as courage, temperance, justice, and honesty) are not enough and need to be supplemented by others (though I myself am not convinced by such views).
In my own work, I have written mostly on the virtue of temperance, the virtue that moderates our desires for food, drink, sex, and the bodily appetites in general. But the issue in regards to having children is this: Are there any virtues that tell us one way or the other whether to have or not to have children? I don’t think that there are such virtues. Justice, for example, does not require that we have children, nor does courage or other virtues. (I am sure, however, that any of the virtues can be tweaked to yield the conclusion that we should have children; for example, someone can argue that to face life in all its ups and downs, courage requires us to have children and take on that responsibility. A friend once also told me that having children makes you wiser.)
On the other hand, I think that there are virtues that indicate that we should not have children: the virtue of compassion to the suffering of those who will be born is one such virtue. The virtue of justice (and compassion) to all those children who are without families tell us that if we have the ability to raise a child, we should choose to adopt instead of to procreate. The virtue of wisdom might also indicate that in a world riven with suffering, the better course of action is not to bring new people into it.
I am sure that people will push against this and come up with virtues that support procreation. But my point is much humbler than this, which is basically that being against procreation and being an advocate of virtue ethics are compatible with each other—they can both be true; there is no contradiction between them.
- How do you see the world now? Where is it heading?
I don’t usually like to make statements about the future, so I am not sure where the world is heading to. I do know that we have made moral progress on some levels: beliefs in human rights are today widespread and we do not believe, as people used to, in the natural dominance of some people over others (as in slavery, for example). We also believe in the basic equality of all human beings.
But this progress is mostly intellectual and legal, and I am unsure to what extent human beings have morally progressed as individuals and as groups—as social and individual beings—at the psychological level. At the individual level, the same human vices that operated in the past are still with us: greed, envy, jealousy, rage, selfishness, stupidity, self-righteousness, arrogance, excessive confidence, unbridled ambition, self-indulgence, ignorance, lack of independent thinking, and so on.
At the group level, there still exist many societies and countries that are closed-minded, that prohibit discussion of certain topics because they find them “offensive” or “an insult to religion,” as if God would want us to put limits to our minds. In the west, we are witnessing the worst forms of identity politics that are eating us alive from the inside. Both in the east and in the west, groups hide behind their cultures to prevent criticism, as if cultures are infallible and constitute good moral guides.
Most importantly, human beings, socially and individually, are today as irrational as they have always been, and this is something that I find utterly depressing. It does not give me much hope that the world will be heading in any better direction any time soon. So is there moral progress at the intellectual and legal levels? Yes. Is there progress at the practical and psychological levels? Not so much, and for sure not nearly enough.
- Now, moving to your major specialty, Philosophy of art, is my concern. There are widespread claims about the death of art, meaning the absence of boundaries between the artistic and the non-artistic. What do you say to your students on this issue? How do you see the concept of beauty in the light of the neo-liberal values?
The issue of blurring the boundaries between art and non-art is a very different question from that of beauty, and each can be raised and addressed independently of the other. In regards to the former, my guess is that we will never be successful in erasing these boundaries. As long as we think that there are objects or events in this world that are art, we will always approach them in a certain way, with a certain attitude, with a certain distance (it used to be called “aesthetic distance”), no matter how closely the artwork mimics a real event. For example, if you go to a performance work which consists of a meal, with a number of people sitting around a table and sharing a meal together, your attitude to the event, the way you comport yourself, the way you feel, and so on, will be affected by the knowledge that you are part of a performance work. The only way to erase the boundaries is to stop thinking of art as a thing separate from other things, to genuinely bring yourself to believe that all art objects are just regular objects, a belief that I do not see being held by anyone any time soon.
In my philosophy of art classes, we discuss the concept of beauty and the aesthetic. There is a general suspicion today of these concepts that derive from beliefs in post-modernism, in relativism, from the subjectivity of values, and in the rejection of Western norms of beauty. But of course even if it is difficult for us to define beauty, this does not mean that it does not exist, and even if different cultures find different things beautiful, it does not mean that not all cultures find some things to be beautiful or cling to the importance of beauty. In my class, I ask my students to read essays on the connections between art and the aesthetic, essays that explore the connections between them, and some that emphasize the importance of beauty and aesthetics to art. After all, if art, as the philosopher Richard Shusterman once argued, became completely separated from the aesthetic, what would its point be? Do we need artists to be pontificating about the political state of the world? We have political commentators and scientists and journalists and philosophers for that. If artists are to comment on the world, let them do it aesthetically, through the beautiful.
I fear that the public has lost touch with much contemporary art, and it has lost touch precisely because much contemporary art has abandoned the aesthetic. But human beings will always be preoccupied with beauty and drawn to it. Indeed, there is evidence that we are preoccupied with beauty as a matter of biology. There is evidence that non-human animals enjoy natural beauty as well. (My cat, Aleef Armando, to give a silly but instructive example, loves to sit and smell flowers when I bring them home. He jumps on the dining table, which he never does unless it has flowers, so that he can sit next to them and smell them!) So if art abandons beauty, it does so at its own detriment.
- Is there a relationship between the aesthetic and the moral?
This is a hotly debated issue in philosophy of art. I think that there is a relationship, but we also have to be careful in how we understand it: Is it causal, conceptual, or constitutive? We also have to be clear on the parties that are involved in this relationship: Is it within a work of art? Is it between a work of art and audience members? Between the artist and how he or she makes the artwork? Finally, we have to ask whether such a relationship has limits.
To clarify, I doubt that there are any meaningful relationships between art and people, if this is understood to mean that art can make people morally better or worse. This is because how individual people interact with artworks depends on their individual personalities and characters and on how they interpret the artwork. And even if artworks can causally affect people in some way, it is not clear that there is a direct proportional relationship between good (aesthetic) art and moral improvement. For all we know, the worse an artwork is, the more positive moral effects it has. For instance, imagine a contemporary artwork that intends to make a politically healthy statement, but that it is so mired in personal and artistic references that it requires a genius in art history and criticism to properly interpret it. Its content will likely be lost on most people. Now imagine a novel that is written in the simplest of ways (not as a style, but because of lack of talent) but whose story is attractive to a lot of people. They will read it and might improve because of that. So the causal relationships between art and its moral effects on people are somewhat unclear.
I do think, along with some other philosophers, that there are relationships between the aesthetic and the moral within artworks. Some genres of art just won’t be what they are if they do not have particular moral characteristics. If the hero of a drama is not morally good yet fallible, then the drama won’t be an (ancient) Greek tragedy. More importantly, when works of art advance their own moral point of view regarding a subject, this can affect their overall aesthetic evaluation, as some philosophers have argued. For example, if a work of art advances or endorses the view that some groups of people deserve to be treated as less than human (because, for example, of their ethnicity), then that work of art might be aesthetically worse because of its moral view. If this theory—in the philosophical literature it is called “ethicism” (Bery Gaut) or “moderate moralism” (Noël Carroll)—is true, then works of art can be aesthetically better or worse because of their moral vision or endorsement. The problem is that the claim seems to face counter-examples: we can imagine works of art that are aesthetically superb despite the fact that they support an immoral view, and such that the immoral view does not even make a dent in their aesthetic value (it does not affect it). So it is unclear how to come up with a sound argument for this claim.
Even if the theory is true, it will be limited. Some works of art do not deal with moral issues, and the beauty of nature is non-moral (though some of its ugliness might actually be moral: animals eating each other is a terrifying spectacle, and it is terrifying at least partly because of the harm that the prey suffers). Moreover, many works of art raise moral questions as opposed to answering them, in which case ethicism is inapplicable. Still, there’s an argument to be made that in general good works of art that raise moral questions are more aesthetically valuable than good works of art that do not, if only because moral questions are very close to the human condition and to issues regarding human nature, and works of art that deal with those issues (which is the majority of art) will therefore be heavier, more important, and thus perhaps more valuable.
Relatedly, the philosopher Carolyn Korsmeyer argued very nicely in an essay that what distinguishes the beautiful from the pretty is precisely the subject matter: beauty deals with heavy themes, whereas the pretty does not: wallpaper or a painting of a flower are pretty, but not a brilliantly executed painting of death (e.g., some of Goya’s “black paintings” or pinturas negras in Spanish), which will be beautiful. In art, the beautiful mixes with heavy issues. Korsmeyer gives the thought-provoking example of Cacoyannis’s choice as the director of The Trojan Women (1971) to cast Irene Papas as Helen of Troy, claiming that no beauty of the kind we find on magazine covers, even if stunning, can handle the weight of someone like Helen of Troy. Her beauty must be fierce, strong, and defiant.
- What about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in light of recent global developments?
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been caught up in other Arab affairs, especially seen in the Palestinians’ need for Arab support to their cause, a support that stayed mostly at the level of slogans. Even people today who support Bashar al-Assad’s regime thinking that he is pro-Palestinian forget that his father was once on the brink of a deal with Israel, a deal that fell through because they could not agree on the water issue in Lake Tiberius. Except for a brief support after 1948 and for the period of Abd en-Nasser’s presidency in Egypt, Arab support for the Palestinians was almost non-existent, and those Arab states who made peace treaties with Israel did them without much thought for the Palestinians. And now things are even worse. Most of the Arab world is occupied with its own internal affairs, and there is no such thing as a unified Arab front. At least in the past we could speak of such a front, but now we do not even have this illusion or hope. The Trump presidency has also rolled back important things (the embassy location, declaration about settlements) that no new American president will change because it is very hard for an American president to act in ways that are seen to be anti-Israeli. So the Palestinians are in their darkest hour yet. They will be lucky if they have a fractured state. My hunch is that Israel wants to reduce their status to one similar to that of Native Americans in the United States: fragmented, without much political power, and economically dependent on Israel and other countries. The fact that the Arab situation is in chaos will enable Israel to do this.
- You also wrote about animal rights as you are a prominent anti-war activist and advocate for peace. Do you have any visionary conceptions of the world?
I am of course an anti-war person, but I also do not consider myself a pacifist, if this means that violence is never justified. There are many situations in which resort to war is justified, such as cases in which a massive injustice is occurring and it needs to be stopped. So like most people, I abhor wars and see them for what they are, as devastating and terrible, so they should be a last resort. But they are unfortunately sometimes necessary.
I do not really have any visionary conceptions of the world. The most we can attain, given human nature, is a state in which countries treat each other fairly and civilly, and in which they cooperate on major global issues, such as food and water allocation, disease control, and reduction of military budgets to avoid massively destructive wars. I also see that more and more people, mostly in the Western world for now, are beginning to view our relationship to non-human animals differently, with more compassion, with the realization that they are not for us to use like we use a hammer and a nail. So I hope that as part of the global cooperation, countries agree to reduce their consumption of animal products, to ban the use of animals as entertainment, and to ban animal products that are obtained just to satisfy our greed (e.g., ivory) or our superstition (e.g., that tigers’ penises have aphrodisiac powers).
- What are the issues in process you are working on now?
I just finished writing two essays, one on the Palestinian right of return, and one on the virtue of temperance and eating meat. I am currently involved (at different stages) in writing various essays: one on the distinction between sexual orientation and sexual preferences, one on the question whether people should try and be pansexual (develop an orientation for everyone, or at least for whichever sex/gender there is in existence), one on the connections between the virtue of temperance and Kantian objectification, one on romantic love as a moral emotion, and one on the connections between sexual desire and sexual pleasure. I will soon start a book on the virtue of temperance, as would be understood by a contemporary Aristotelian, though I will likely have a chapter that outlines a few other philosophers’ view of it. Of course, I continue posting on my blog, if readers are interested in reading it (http://rajasmusingsconfusings.blogspot.com/).
- In conclusion, we’re looking forward to read your next article on Mana platform, what will be its topic (theme)?
The next article is titled “The Palliative Value of Art.” It is about the importance of one instrumental value of art, which is its palliative abilities. For future articles, I am thinking of writing something on non-human animals and our relationship to them. Or I can write something on suicide and dignity. You choose!