Human Rights and Attention for the Other

Eleanor Roosevelt

On 10 December 1948, at the third session of the United Nations General Assembly held in Paris, Resolution No. 219077A adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Declaration, we publish an article by lawyer Fabrizio d'Agostini, founding member of FOB.

By Fabrizio d'Agostini

The "attention" [1] foundation of human experience

The world fears an uncontrolled nuclear  proliferation
- I, on the other hand, fear hatred
(Anna Politkovskaja)

These are torn times. In a certain way made inevitable by the mistakes we have accumulated in recent history or, perhaps, accumulated forever. It is common to hear (forgetting the Kosovo war) that in Europe seventy-seven years went by without wars, then in February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine in what it called a “special operation”. Not in Europe, but very close, in Asia Minor, just across the Mediterranean Sea, Israel was the target of an incredibly vicious attack by Hamas on seven October 2023.

It is a matter of survival for all of us to reflect on the meaning of what has happened and is happening.

It is the "evil" of war, extermination, cruelty and, in particular, an even more terrible and deeper "evil", the evil of hatred, the senseless (meaningless) evil of Buca and Kibbutz Be'eri. By now, that unbearable and senseless evil is paraded before our eyes by the mass media and social media.

There was a time when one used to read about that evil, now that evil is seen and it mercilessly invades our entire days, enters our homes and demands - perhaps screams - its reality. Every other news, event, report is like a light and transparent veil, unable to hide that presence.

Reflection on events and thus on "evil" as a problem of "religious thought" (since time immemorial "evil" as well as "good" belong to religious thought) seems to coincide with the general problem "of man" and reflection becomes an urgent, really urgent occasion that cannot be missed: one cannot think that in late modernity, in an electronic, nuclear, digital society and now complicated by the A.I., there is still plenty of time or we still can wait. On the contrary, perhaps man's inadequacy is now definitive, final, and the “end” of history is taking place (Anders, The obsolence of man).

I believe that it is the "attention" to the other, to the things of the world that is the gateway allowing us to "erase" evil and that such attention is eminently "philosophical". It is a matter of placing one's attention on the individual person and on the multiple or infinite realities that make up what we call the World. It is a knowledge that unites intelligence and sensitivity and is a true discovery, because attention contains the “awakening” of the being and it is profoundly different to look at others, at the things and at the world as awakened rather than in the sleep or somnolence of the absence of attention. Sleep and drowsiness are one of the most important contents of evil because in the end they are oblivion, they are ignorance. Evil in fact comes from "not knowing", "not noticing", "being distracted".

Examples could be many, both positive and negative. As stated by an extraordinary Jewish woman who lived through the first half of the 20th century

"Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. It is given to very few spirits to discover that things and beings exist." (Simone Weil, etter of 13 April 1942 to Joe Bousquet in Correspondence)

The discovery through attention of the very existence of things and beings is profoundly different from intellectual knowledge.

The Hamas militiamen knew they were attacking and killing Israelis, but they did not know who the babies, women, children, and young people they cruelly killed really were. They hated Israelis, they were killing Israelis, not real human beings. They did not have time to pay attention and know the narratives of each being they were killing, torturing, offending. That specificity was absorbed into the word 'Israelis'. They were not horrendously killing human beings, each with their own narrative, they were killing Israelis. They were killing a word. A word, not beings.

Even the “rumored” 200 (now it seems many more) children killed by the Israeli response with the bombing of Gaza do not really exist, except for their parents. They are just a number, 200. There is no attention for Israel on any of the 200 narratives that flows out of that 200 dead people like a river.

For us too, the number remains a number and we fail to pay attention to the beings it refers to. And thus on the things to which they relate.

Attention - paying attention - is the one and only possibility to awaken and discover the existent.

The Nazis who sent Jews into the showers were sleepwalkers and paradoxically, the Jews who entered the showers were also sleepwalkers. Sleepwalking can be a ferocious nightmare.

It is now a question of trying to explain why "attention" forms the main or one of the main barriers to evil, why it concerns and is an urgent need of each individual, and why it is a moral experience .

The link between “inattention” and “sleepwalking” and “evil” is, so to speak, institutional and transcendental. Just as Kant discovered that the only possible knowledge was human knowledge with all the limitations imposed by human nature itself, so it is equally revolutionary and decisive to recognize in "attention" the only mechanism of "awakening" and the place of the transition from the unknowability for man of the ultimate reality of things, to the knowledge of the true existence of things and beings. From ontology to morality. Here the contradiction of evil emerges: “I do the evil I do not want to do and I do not do the good I want to do” (St. Paul, Letter to the Romans). The content is that by nature the human being aims for good (“I do not do the good I want to do”), but lives like a sleepwalker and without paying attention to men and things (and therefore “I do the evil I do not want to do”) and the sin that dwells in me is precisely the absence of attention, sleepwalking, ignorance about things and other beings.  This is the sin that prevents goodness. "This is, in my eyes, the only legitimate foundation of all morality; bad deeds are those that veil the reality of things, of beings, or those that we absolutely would never commit if we truly knew that things and beings exist. Reciprocally, the full knowledge that things and beings are real implies perfection. But even infinitely far from perfection we can, as long as we are oriented towards it, have a presentiment of this cognition; which is a very rare thing. There is no other authentic greatness." (Simone Weil, idem).

"Things and beings do really exist” and, like a superhuman bounce, the ontological impossibility, became with the "attention" a moral possibility, a being-in-the-world, and became again an ontological knowledge. Beings and things are those that really exist. Unveiled.

While awakening through attention is specific to each individual, when rebuilding the power of attention, one must bear in mind that the outcome of attention is "recognition". [2] "Attention" and "recognition" constitute a formidable hendiadys.

They are in fact the “engine of the spirit” and their application gives rise to two paths. Both philosophical. An intellectual one, so to speak, which finds its main exponent in Hegel, given that the whole 'history' of the spirit for Hegel is nothing other than the history of a progressive "recognition", up to the self-awareness of the absolute spirit as historical rationality (Hegel believed that Prussia was the conclusion of this process). The richness of Hegel's thought makes it problematic to see its limits. But the other itinerary of the hendiadys "attention" and "recognition" is moral, it belongs exclusively to individuals as such, and the "other" is the individual: the embodied spiritual being before you, and it is this "other" that clamors, consciously or unconsciously, for your "recognition". It is this recognition of the individual as an embodied spiritual being that is the essence or an important quality of the religious, and it is in this sought-after recognition that free spirits meet and recognize each other in diversity.

They are not opposing paths, in the end they tend to unite as a 'sein' that becomes a 'da sein', to be and being.

It is for this reason that the "attention", the "recognition" is the antidote to "evil". The hendiadys imposes the reality of beings and things of the world as truly existing and recognized. It is a different level of relationship that prevents evil and it is the incessant sound of a siren that signals the awakening of the being and the time of peace. Evil is ignorance, it is sleep, it is oblivion, it is nightmare.

It is not something abstract, just as any philosophy that speaks to the hearts of men is not abstract.

It is - as we mentioned - a "general" problem of man as an embodied being, and the solution in the "attention" and "recognition" of the "other" - as an overcoming of hatred and evil in its fullest form - is a matter of individuals. Any category or naming or nationality, however inevitable or necessary, contains separation and remoteness (sleep, oblivion) and displaces "attention" from the individual or the thing. The problem then goes back to being that of “Israelis” or “Ukrainians”. What is however possible, as a human community as a whole, no matter how supremely difficult, concerns a direction, a way of posing the problem of evil and war. In essence a philosophy, an existential and moral attitude, because "even infinitely far from perfection we can, as long as we are oriented towards it, have a presentiment of this cognition; which is a very rare thing. There is no other authentic greatness" (Simone Weil, cit.).

In the terrible affair of Hamas and Israel in which evil seems to be insurmountable, an extraordinary light has nevertheless shone. An elderly Israeli woman who had been kidnapped by Hamas militiamen and taken to the Gaza Strip, was freed with her husband and handed over to the Red Cross on the border with Egypt. Well, before she left the disguised Hamas militiaman who had brought her there, she turned around and shaking his hand she twice said shalom, i.e. the peace be with you. It was attention and recognition. It was peace.


 [1] ⬆︎ Literally 'tending towards'. Application or concentration of the mind and senses on the presence or expectation of a fact: to do, to lend a.; to attract, to call forth, to distract, to divert a.; to arouse, to arouse someone's a., to call forth their interest or curiosity; to put a. into a thing, to devote oneself to it with care.
plural Premures, courtesies.  "surrounded him with a thousand a."

 [2] ⬆︎ Recognition: ascertainment of identity. Adherence to a fact as corresponding to evidence or truth, and thus with the implicit idea of sanction, approval, acceptance or even admission: r. of a right; r. of a government, public body; r. of natural children; r. of one's mistakes.

Photo Eleanor Roosevelt taken from Wikimedia