Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Rights and the Gift in Sartre's Notebooks for an Ethics

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Rights and the Gift in Sartre's Notebooks for an Ethics

Article excerpt

The concept of (legal) right has been the source of some particularly knotty problems for legal theorists following Marx.(l) If Marx's assessment, that rights are peculiar to capitalist society, is correct, one might be led to wonder: what form would social mediation take in a post-capitalist society? Current debate in legal theory reflects a high degree of uncertainty with regard to this question. On the one hand, many in the Critical Legal Studies movement (the "crits") advocate the abandonment of rights discourse as essentially oppressive, while on the other hand many critical race theorists defend that discourse on the pragmatic grounds that it still serves a liberatory function, whatever its theoretical deficiencies.(2) The disagreement between these theorists may simply reflect an assessment of timing; rights have been particularly useful for the oppressed in the U.S., especially in the last few decades, while the crits are, for the most part, white academics in positions of privilege, and hence do not, perhaps, experience rights talk as a positive form of discourse. At any rate, without some account of the form(s) of social mediation which might replace rights, I think we should be nervous about rejecting them as tools for social change. In this connection Sartre's discussion and criticism of rights in the posthumously published Notebooksfor an Ethics deserves attention. Sartre develops a notion of social mediation through generosity and the gift, which, I argue, has some interesting programmatic implications for the search for an alternative to rights. In this essay, then, after a brief look at Marx's comments on rights in "On the Jewish Question" as background, I examine and interpret Sartre's extension of Marx's position and synthesize Sartre's somewhat fragmented (and fragmentary) remarks in the Notebooks, with an eye toward developing some of those programmatic implications.

Marx's "On the Jewish Question"

In his well-known essay "On the Jewish Question," Marx criticizes Bruno Bauer's nearsighted view of emancipation.(3) Bauer sought a solution to the "Jewish problem"--really the problem of oppression--in political emancipation, rather than human emancipation. Political emancipation, or the elimination of legal discrimination (here on the basis of religion) represents a "great progress . . . a real, practical emancipation," but is not the "final form" of emancipation; rather it is the final form "within the framework of the prevailing social order."(4) Mere political emancipation leaves intact a contradiction between the political state and civil society, or as we would say today, the "public" and "private spheres." This split is further reflected in a separation of the self into two aspects. First is the person conceived as a "legal subject," the autonomous, abstracted and universal contractual self, which enters into relations with other similarly abstracted, universal contractual selves.(5) These relations are relations of contract, in which disagreements over substantive issues are mediated through rights discourse, at the level of ideology. Second, is what we might call the concrete, "situated" person, the individual taken within the web of real relations with others, with concrete needs and desires which are only partially and imperfectly translatable into rights discourse. Marx aims at the closure of these two selves the collapse of the legal subject into the real, situated self, since without overcoming the split. real "human" emancipation cannot be achieved. Hence human emancipation takes place:

when the real, individual man has absorbed into himself the abstract citizen; when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationships, he has become a species-being; and when he has recognized and organized his own powers (forces propres) as social powers so that he no longer separates this power from himself as political power.(6)

Note, then, that according to Marx there are two "moments" or types of emancipation, political and human, each of which can be understood as operating through certain mechanisms. …

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