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The Ethics of Memory
Harvard University Press, 2002
240 pp., $24.95
Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy
Free Press, 2004
400 pp., $16.00
by Miroslav Volf
Kissing the Lizard
A soldier was killed by friendly fire and, during a public interview about the incident, the commander of the soldier's small unit could not remember his name. According to newspaper reports, people were incensed. The name of this fallen soldier should have been "scorched in iron letters" on his commander's heart, they thought. But was the commander's failure a moral one or just a case of embarrassing but innocent forgetfulness? Avishai Margalit's book Ethics of Memory, he tells us, was occasioned by this incident. Thus provoked, Margalit, professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, set out to investigate the obligation to remember. Do we have a duty to remember people's names, their stories, or major events in their lives? If we do, what kind of duty is that? In recent decades, many books have been written on memory. Most of them simply assume that such a duty exists. Margalit's is one of the very few explicit treatments of this thorny question.
Margalit offers a two-part proposal. It builds on his distinction between ethics and morality. Ethics, he proposes, regulates "thick" relations, that is, "our relation to the near and dear." Morality regulates "thin" relations, "our relations to the strange and remote." According to Margalit, in the "Christian project," all relations are thick (every person is a neighbor); in the "Jewish project," a version of which he advocates, the distinction is kept between neighbor and stranger and therefore between ethics and morality. I'll leave aside here whether in the "Christian project" all relations are "thick" in Margalit's sense or whether the "Christian project" can accommodate various degrees of "thickness" and "thinness," making room for the moral significance of special relations (such as relations to family members, coreligionists, members of the same nation, etc.). When Margalit applies the distinction between ethics and morality to the duty to remember, he concludes that "while there is an ethics of memory, ...