[From Michael Burgess, edited by Seth.] A traditional means of founding political or moral philosophies in the west has been the construction of a point from which we can be seen and judged. This is an internalization and politicization of the Christian God who surveys and intervenes in his creation: we are always under the gaze of God and must therefore be Good.
For Hume this gaze was “the ideal moral observer” – a secularization of Our Father. For Bentham it was the merely potential gaze of an all-seeing (if not all powerful) human authority; his panoptical prison is the example par excellence of morality as the belief of another who watches. The logic here is simple: we are Good under this gaze because we act under its assumed morality – we do not have any morality ourselves.
This phenomenon of vicarious belief or acting because another believes is a predominant mode of commitment today. We do not really believe the planet is in crisis (wars, ecology, etc.) but we’re reassured that somewhere the scientists really believe it, or the journalists do, or the activists, etc. Indeed it seems the media and public reaction against government surveillance is a game of pass the parcel: the media is outraged because the lives of ordinary people are being invaded; the ordinary person is outraged because the media is. The problem is then when you look down, you find there is no parcel: few people really care.
The ideological trajectory we are thus on: exporting our beliefs to others who can believe them for us, culminating predictably in the breakdown of political motivation and trust. When God really existed his gaze could unite and motivate us (indeed motivate us to genocide, terror and war: such is the power of an All Powerful Gaze). When, however, these authorities breakdown – when we no longer care what they might see or fear how they might react the foundation of our principled action collapses.
In paganism the gaze of the gods was almost irrelevant. The gods did not believe in any moral system: they themselves conformed to it. In the most pagan Abrahamic religion, Judaism, there is a similar principle. In the Nitzavim, a portion of the Torah, two Jews argue over a point of God’s law. To settle the argument one asks God himself to intervene. When He comes down the other Jew sends him away on the grounds that it isn’t His job to interpret His law. God laughs with joy, saying, “My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me!” Even though God is the origin of The Law he must submit to it.
The idea of a transcendent principle, a Form to which the world must conform appears to be alien to contemporary individualist ideology. Nevertheless individualism itself is a shared collective commitment and unites many communities through the doctrine of ‘enlightened selfishness’. In light of this we might turn the teleology of contemporary ideology on its head under a Gaze. We deny the moral high-ground to the negation of traditional morality and to contemporary liberalism which keeps others at-a-distance. We are united by the acknowledgement that others have moral systems, even if they are different.
Under the Gaze in this position we are forced to ask the question: who are we to say what others should believe? That is, is our mind pure enough, convinced enough in the Good to gaze upon others as God? Invariably the answer is no. Our gaze isn’t sufficient to purify others. We must therefore set aside the Gaze as the origin of moral belief and recognize the teleology which actually operates within each person and over which they have little control.
In traditional moral philosophy – the philosophy that underlies the current surveillance state – the assumption of a Gaze is required to ensure adherence to the moral principles of the system. Avoidance of that Gaze – Privacy – is considered a a subversive and illegal if not terroristic act. Individualism as an ideology seems to stand opposed to the Gaze by offering a model where individuals are accountable only to their own (self-generated) teleology. It substitutes a transcendent form of the Gaze (e.g. God) for an immanent one (in each individual) which doesn’t suffice to guarantee adherence to even the minimal, individualist imperative.
We must therefore set aside the Gaze as the origin of moral belief and recognise the teleology which actually operates within each person and over which they have little control. We really are all committed to many things and conform our lives to these principles, and we can raise these principles above the gods themselves and whomever gazes upon us and once again make everything conform to a Form of the Good.
We can invert the accusation pragmatic liberalism makes today: privacy, the lack of a gaze, is not the opportunity for evil. Evil is in the ceaseless watching itself, and the assumption of its own necessity.