Monday, March 21, 2011

The Good Samaritan: Love the One You're With

Let me first disclaim that I have reservations about the song I use in the title. If you cannot be with the one you love, settling for the one you are with seems to do her (him) a disservice. On the other hand, if you are with someone, I should hope that they are the one that you love. Anyway, moving on.

You might note that this post is about neither Kant nor philosophy inspired by music videos. Since no one commented to affirm my choice for the next two posts, I felt fairly free to change them. I will get to those two posts, eventually, of course. Instead I wanted to take a moment to write a post related to one by my sister on Love, specifically the part about the story of the Good Samaritan, because posting my thoughts as a response to someone else's feels more personal, or relational, than simply broadcasting my own ramblings.

Her post seemed very relevant to what was on my mind, as my walk home was occupied with thoughts about the insufficiency of liberal "rights based" ethics, and universal ethics in general. To explain, what I mean by a universal ethic is a system of deciding what is good to do wherein all moral agents, which you can usually just think of as people but some try to sneak animals into the mix, are given the same consideration. The liberal tradition is certainly universal, as anyone familiar with the little phrase, "[w]e hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal," will recognize. While we may all be, in some sense, created equal, and we may want society to endow us with uniform rights, any personal system of determining good actions which treats everyone as equals turns out to be fairly monstrous.

One quick example, suppose you want to buy your parents a gift for their birthday, because you are a better human being than I am. While you COULD spend your money on a gift, you could also spend it to feed a starving child in Africa, and if we are going to consider all people equally, it seems than preventing someone from starving is more important than purchasing a birthday gift. Thus, in a universal ethic, birthday gifts have to wait until all hunger, curable disease, and similar conditions are taken care of, unless your birthday gift happens to actually be Malaria medicine. Similarly, how could you justify conceiving a brand new baby when there are so many perfectly serviceable babies already languishing in orphanages waiting for adoption? While the world might seem like it would be better if we all subscribed to a universal ethic, I think we would actually end up with a world that was less humane, where the value of genuine care and human relationship was so deformed as to be a caricature of its intended appearance.

This is the problem addressed by relational ethics, sometimes called ethics of caring. Under systems of this form, one is allowed, even encouraged, to give special consideration to the people one encounters most immediately. The Jewish law expert's desire not to love absolutely everyone is a perfectly human response, which by no means makes it the one God would like us to have, but it does make it the one we have with which to work. Notice, however, that Jesus didn't say that the Samaritan was just cruising the desert roads looking for someone to assist. Since the Samaritan left the beaten man with an innkeeper, it seems reasonable to assume he was traveling in pursuit of his own business. However, when confronted with the immediacy of the beaten man, the Samaritan responded with an ethic of care, and cared for the man's injuries.

I am not arguing that we externalize suffering, by buying our fiancée an engagement ring with a blood diamond for example. Simply because we have a higher ethical duty to our loved ones does not excuse sociopathy towards strangers that we encounter, and when we make a choice that effects someone, we encounter them, if in a highly attenuated manner. The immediacy of our personal relationships will grant them higher ethical salience, but this does not entirely negate our ethical duty to the rest of the world.

Furthermore, when we directly encounter suffering, as in the case of the Samaritan and the robbed traveler, then our relationship is quite immediate, rather than attenuated. So I am not arguing against the validity of the parable of the Good Samaritan, just attempting to frame it within a context of immediate caring, rather than universal duty.

One argument against the humanity of current urban living conditions is that the abundance of stimuli overwhelms our ability to process it all. This leads to a dulling of the immediacy of encountered events, as we filter them through more relevance criterion to deal with the sheer weight of information. A dulling of immediacy quite naturally dulls the prospect of encountering a stranger as a fellow human being, which forms the basis of an ethic of caring. Simply put, if one steps over the beaten traveler on the sidewalk, without even noticing that they are there, one never has the opportunity to meet them and relate to them as a caring human being.

In conclusion, someone is born every day, but you really ought to make special effort to remember your parents' birthdays.


elfarmy17 said...

...the eloquency of your posts makes me feel lazy. I just type stuff and hit post. :)

(But on the note of the post: like like like like like-- can't write anything more thorough now, as I have to go.)

Max said...

I have heard a similar "immediacy" argument against universal ethics from people arguing against the importance of Foreign Aid. Especially in this Great Recession, it may seem that the government ought to focus its efforts at home, first, before it offers aid internationally.

The argument is made on the grounds of a nation's responsibility for its taxpaying citizens, as opposed to them being more immediately present than those in other countries, but I think there is a similarity here.

My thought was always that we could do and do do both. There are deferred benefits to foreign aid (improved stability in otherwise unstable regions, strong future alliances, etc.), and immediate benefits to supporting one's own people, most prescient being the ability to get our country out of a recession.

Kenny said...

@Elfarmy: It's a stylistic thing I'm sure. I actually hate revising, so I don't usually proofread my posts; but I do take fairly long to write them because I want to be careful with my word choice and structure the first time through. Well, maybe not so much today's post, because I want to go to sleep. Anyway, informal posts are certainly not bad in a blog, and I'm glad you appreciated the post.

@Max: I am inclined to think that anything done on the federal government level will be too impersonal to gain solid direction from an ethic of care. This is certainly among the reasons I consider myself an anarchist, when we build associations based on authority rather than care I think bad things happen. In other words, I really don't feel any more immediately connected to most people in Florida than I do to most in Malawi.

Personally, I am rather in favor of domestic projects rather than international ones. As mentioned in my post on the Middle East, our international projects often seem to be domestic ones in disguise. Of course, part of a caring life is taking into consideration the people who make your life possible, specifically lifestyle. I think if we do this then we may have more positive effects on the world at large than our government's aid dollars. But that's just me.