117. Derrida’s Aporia of Responsibility: A False Dilemma

Jacques Derrida, in his book The Gift of Death (Chicago: 1995) presents what he calls the “aporia of responsibility”. An aporia is an impasse, a state of paralysis where we are lost for how to move through some place, set of ideas, etc. The aporia Derrida presents seems to paralyze us with regard to responsibility. On the one hand, if we are responsible then we must make an informed decision based on knowledge. After all, we can’t be responsible if we don’t know what we are doing. But, on the other hand, if our decision is fully determined by this knowledge then we seem to be thoughtless or mechanical in our decision and thus not responsible after all. Thus, to put it in a common deconstructionist formula, the condition for the possibility of acting responsibly, knowledge, is also the condition for the impossibility of acting responsibly. Derrida writes:

“Saying that a responsible decision must be taken on the basis of knowledge seems to define the condition of possibility of responsibility (one cannot make a responsible decision without science or conscience, without knowing what one is doing, for what reasons, in view of what and under what conditions), at the same time that it defines the condition of impossibility of this same responsibility (if decision making is relegated to a knowledge that it is content to follow or to develop, then it is no more a responsible decision, it is the technical deployment of a cognitive apparatus, the simple mechanistic deployment of a theorem).” (24).

This interesting deconstructive analysis, like many of his other analyses on other topics, is helpful in setting up a problem for productive inquiry. But I think we can move through the aporia since both horns of the dilemma are false. Let’s take the second horn first.

Derrida claims that knowledge, the “basis” of responsible decision, will mechanically determine one’s actions thereby making them thoughtless. This suggests that knowledge will make responsible action impossible. But the key word is “basis”: a basis can necessitate that which rests upon it or it can influence it. The decisions for which we are responsible may only be influenced by our knowledge. Such decisions are typically the outcome of judgments which entail considering alternatives, weighing probabilities, seeing from the point of view of others, incorporating intuitions, and focusing on particular circumstances: not exactly a “deployment of a theorem” or a “technical deployment of a cognitive apparatus”. If this is the case then Derrida’s aporia is a false dilemma: we can also have decisions based on judgments which are influenced by, rather than necessitated by, knowledge.

What about the first horn of the dilemma, namely, that “one cannot make a responsible decision…without knowing what one is doing, for what reasons, in view of what and under what conditions”? This suggests that knowledge, rather than making responsible action impossible, makes it possible. Well, clearly someone can be held responsible for an action if their actions flow from their beliefs in conjunction with their voluntary action. I can believe someone is my enemy and then choose, based on a mere opinion without evidence, to go harm them without provocation. This is an action for which I can presumably be held accountable. But this action wouldn’t be based on knowledge since mere belief is not knowledge. Thus I can know what I am doing as Derrida says – I can be aware of my actions, in full possession of my faculties, and so on – without having knowledge in terms of, say, justified true belief or warranted true belief. Derrida’s equivocation on the term ‘knowledge’ makes his claim misleading. So here, too, we have grounds for claiming the aporia is a false dilemma that overlooks another option, namely, responsible action based on belief not knowledge.

So since we can have, on the one hand, responsible action that that is not determined by knowledge and, on the other hand, responsible action that doesn’t require knowledge we can see that there is a way through Derrida’s so-called aporia of responsibility.

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