De Gaulle was right about the plan, but not the person. In fact, Weil’s reflections on the nature of obligation offer a bracing dose of sanity in our perplexing and polarizing times. During the final months of her life — she died in the summer of 1943 — Weil wrote of several of her most subversive and seminal texts. (That they were essentially position papers for the Free French makes them all the more extraordinary.) This is particularly true for “Human Personality” and “Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations,” both of which are devoted to distinctions Weil insists upon personal rights and impersonal duties.
When we talk about justice today, we almost always find ourselves talking about rights we believe are entrenched in nature and have been enshrined in our founding documents. This language reflects a liberal conception of human action and interaction, casting us as rational agents who reach agreements with one another through calculation and negotiation. Moreover, as the philosopher Charles Taylor has argued, while each of us “has a conception of the good or worthwhile life,” none of us accepts “a socially endorsed conception of the good.” In essence, the ideal of right has ceded to the ideal of rights.
The problem, for Weil, with the liberal conception of rights — and the laws that codify them — is that it is rooted in the personal, not the impersonal. Our society, she insists, is one where personal rights are tied at the hip to private property. Taking his cue from Weil, political theorist Edward Andrew suggests that a rights-based society “is the consensual society where everything is vendible at constitutional conventions or the marketplace.” This reveals what Weil, like Thomas Hobbes, believes to be the sole universal truth concerning human affairs: certain groups will always wield greater clout than other groups. “Rights talk” deals with the relative and alienable, not absolute and inalienable. For Weil, the old joke about our legal system — “How much justice can you afford?” — takes on a tragic immediacy.
Moreover, the emphasis on “inalienable human rights”— a phrase, Weil declares, history has shown to be meaningless — blinds us to the only true good, one rooted in what Weil calls the “impersonal.” This term, paradoxically, describes what is most essential to our flesh and blood lives: the needs shared by all human beings and the obligations (and not rights) to one another that they entail. These needs, listed in her “Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations,” include nourishment and clothing, medical care and housing, as well as protection against violence. (Though opposed to capital punishment, Weil made an exception for rape.)
With her knack for striking illustrations, Weil confronts us with the limits of rights claims. “If someone tries to browbeat a farmer to sell his eggs at a moderate price, the farmer can say: ‘I have the right to keep my eggs if I don’t get a good enough price.’ But if a young girl is being forced into a brothel she will not talk about her rights. In such a situation, the word would sound ludicrously inadequate.”
This is why, when we ask why we have less than others, we are getting personal, but when we ask why we are being hurt, we are getting impersonal. And for Weil, the impersonal is good in every sense of the word. In the case of her illustration, Weil finds the notion of rights ludicrous because the girl is not being cheated of a profit. Instead, she is being cheated of her very humanity. There is no true compensation for such acts. And yet, by confusing personal rights with impersonal (or universally shared) needs, we burden ourselves with a language that deflects us from what is truly at stake. As Weil declares: “There is something sacred in every human being, but it is not their person. It is this human being; no more and no less.”
While Weil was responding to the crisis of Western democracies confronting the challenge of fascism, her essays can also help us think about our own crisis of political governance and legitimacy. Take the current debate over the Trump administration’s proposal to cut funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, or food stamps. Rather than receiving cash installments on their electronic benefit-transfer cards, those enrolled in the program will instead receive boxes of tinned and canned food.
Fortunately, the proposal seems fated for the shredding machine, but it still serves as a useful example. Those using rights language would reply that the government hasn’t the right to cut their money payments because they have the right to do their own shopping. But we can also frame the criticism in obligation language: “It is unjust to replace financial assistance with box meals, which will punish both our physical and emotional well-being.” While the first response would ignite what Weil calls the “spirit of contention,” the latter response might “touch and awaken at its source the spirit of attention.”
In other words, such a reply asks us to forget about ourselves and instead attend to other lives. Moral situations require, as one of Weil’s great fans, Iris Murdoch, wrote, an “unsentimental, detached, unselfish and objective perspective.” Such attentiveness allows a moral and political clarity that “rights language” simply cannot. Paying attention, for Weil, is the most fundamental of our obligations. It forces us to recognize that what she calls “le malheur,” or suffering, lies in store for all of us. “I may lose at any moment,” she wrote, “through the play of circumstances over which I have no control, anything whatsoever I possess, including things that are so intimately mine that I consider them as myself.”
This includes my sense of autonomy, reflected in so banal an act as buying groceries, but also in much more dramatic acts. The contemporary philosopher Andrea Nye suggests that Weil also throws a bracing light on the debate over abortion. In effect, the related notions of obligation and attention offer a third way between those who claim the fetus’s right to life and those who insist upon a woman’s right to choose. Rejecting these rights-based claims, Nye writes, a “Weilian feminist might listen to the women themselves as they attempt to make sense of their lives in order to come to a binding sense of what must be done to restore social balance and create a society in which obligations do not conflict.” Such an approach might invite a woman seeking an abortion to fully attend to a situation which does not implicate her alone.
I do not mean to present all this as a panacea to our current political predicament, one that Weil would surely dismiss, as she did France’s on the eve of World War II, as an “incredible barrage of lies, of demagogy, of boasting admixed with panic,” one of “disarray, in sum a totally intolerable atmosphere.” Yet, even if her insights into what she called the “social drama” do not always lead to clarity, they do oblige us to consider how politics would change if we made room for obligation.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor at the Honors College, University of Houston, and author of “Boswell’s Enlightenment.”