On Wednesday, before a crowd of hundreds of Yalies and other community members, renowned gender theorist and philosopher Judith Butler GRD ’84 discussed altruism and the role it plays in contemporary politics.
Butler is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who is best known for her book “Gender Trouble,” which is widely credited with creating the idea that gender is a social construct. She has also been vocal about her philosophy of nonviolence, and her Wednesday talk — titled “Why Preserve the Life of the Other?” — was the first of a series of lectures on “Interpreting Nonviolence.” Her lecture considered several philosophical, psychological and ethical dilemmas, mainly focusing on why people would choose to help others.
“I propose to pose a simple question, related to moral psychology,” Butler said. “What leads any of us to seek to preserve the life of the other?”
Butler posed several other questions as well: Whose lives count as worthy of preservation? Whose life counts as a life? What structures or institutions are in place to safeguard the life of a population? After an explanation of various philosophical arguments about the answers to these questions, she then discussed how those philosophies can apply to contemporary issues such as the economy and current politics, including the “thrill to racism” that politicians like Donald Trump have created. She said people separate themselves from the victims, making it easier “not to give a damn” about issues like climate change and violence in foreign countries.
Butler described the idea of “radical equality of grievability,” which argues that all lives should be equally grieved, especially in the eyes of governmental institutions that take responsibility for health care, immigration policy and human rights. She acknowledged that grieving can become impersonal when the loss is at a distance — geographically or figuratively — but she said a loss of life is still a loss.
People could change the political world, she said, by adopting an “egalitarian view on the grievability of life” and treating people as equals. By protecting the vulnerable with the paternalistic power that institutions already have, she said, society would prevent loss of life.
“If a group is called vulnerable, then it has a claim to protection,” Butler said. “The question is, who is the group that takes responsibility for the claim?”
She then offered several philosophical theories for why people might be kind to each other. According to Kantian philosophy, she said, people do not attack each other because of an act of unconscious substitution, by which people imagine that others have the same violent thoughts they do. The knowledge that there could be a counterattack prevents people from inflicting violence on others, she said.
“It is my own aggression that comes towards me in the form of another’s action,” Butler said. “It is my own action, but I assign it to another’s name. What I do can be done to me.”
She then described the words and ideas of Melanie Klein, an innovative theorist of the “object relations theory.” This theory argues that people help others to vicariously role-play their own unfulfilled wishes and goals. Essentially, she said, guilt and self-interest are what create the social bonds that prevent people from harming one another.
Attendees had mixed opinions about the different theories Butler used to justify her view that altruism is really a form of selfishness. Andrey Tolstoy GRD ’17 said that though Butler addressed important contemporary problems, she was too quick to accept psychoanalytic theory as the explanation for these issues.
“Butler’s argument hinged on redefining selfishness as a form of altruism. Maybe that was the point, but to someone who still sees altruism as altruism and doesn’t believe psychoanalysis is universal, it seems intellectually dishonest,” Tolstoy said.
However, others who attended the lecture or hosted it expressed greater satisfaction. Alice Kaplan ’81, interim director of the Whitney Humanities Center, said she was “thrilled, but not at all surprised by the big turnout.”
Political science professor Karuna Mantena said the reason that Butler’s work has such “great following” is because of her “impulse to apply her philosophical concerns to political issues,” which has led to innovations in all of the fields of the humanities.
German professor Henry Sussman said he found Butler’s use of psychoanalytic theory to be an innovative approach to the subject matter of her lecture.
“It’s a very courageous appeal to Melanie Klein and to object relations psychology in general, for a new approach to aggression and above all preempting the destruction that we may yet commit,” Sussman said.
The “Interpreting Nonviolence” series continues with lectures on Thursday and Friday at the Whitney Humanities Center.