On the Importance of Caring

Often it is said that the reason behind many of our social ills is that people do not care, and consequently a better society would be one in which people care more. This thought may seem obviously true, but on closer examination it is unclear whether a society would be better if its people cared more. Zealotry and violence tend to go along with caring, and while apathy fosters its own evils, a citizenry that cares more does not necessarily lead to the constitution of a better society. Nonetheless, the notion that people should care more also suggests a call for people to be caring, in distinction from an invocation for them to care more in a general sense, and this call for people to be caring seems to be a valid ideal. Yet, this ideal too has its limitations as it does not do justice to forms of life that we ought to value, and yet are incompatible with the ideal of the caring person.

If we examine the notion of what it means to care more. We can see that this notion is a negation of apathy. The caring person, as opposed to the apathetic person, is concerned and interested in the state of affairs of their society, and the broader world. These states of affairs truly matter to them, and when they go well the caring person is ecstatic, and when they go poorly they are likewise miserable, melancholic or depressed. Yet, the fact that someone cares does not determine their political orientation. The reactionary conservative certainly cares as much as the revolutionary socialist. This means that those who care will often be at odds with one another. For this reason thinkers like Hobbes have been particularly concerned with those who cared. Those with strong attachments to causes are more willing than the apathetic, to use extra-legal means, including violence, to pursue those ends, and this puts social order at the risk of breakdown. A society of people who are very concerned with direction of society and the world is in danger of being one that is rife with zealotry, violence and at worst, civil war. A body of apathetic citizens on the other hand tend to be very easy going and peaceable. The apathetic person who only cares about his narrow private interest may not be admirable, but he poses no more threat to the social order than an indignant zealot. So, while there does seem to be something to the notion that society is improved if people care more it is not simply the case that a society is better off if people care more, and worse off if they are more apathetic, because even though peace, stability and social order are not fundamental values, they surely are of great importance and thus we should always be weary of threats to them. It should be noted that this is not to say that a society is better if people are apathetic.

It seems to me that the notion that we should care more also involves a call for us to be caring, over and above a call for us to care more. Imploring people to be caring is distinct from imploring them to care more. A person who cares more about something merely has a strong attachment to that thing and an interest in it going in a certain direction. For example, the person who directs much of his energy to ensuring that the party he supports wins the election is an example of a person who cares strongly about something. On the other hand, the person who is caring is someone who works to provide love and ease the suffering of concrete others in the world. In this way, the notion of being caring is loaded with the particular values of empathy and compassion. Christ is a particularly significant example of a caring person, as he lived his life giving love to all he met. On the other hand the political ideologue may or may not be a caring person, as even though the political ideologue cares about the direction of events, they may not have any genuine concern for concrete others. The call for us to care more seems to involve an invocation for us to be caring as typically the images that are alluded to when people implore us to care more include images of those who provide love and ease the suffering of others. For example, when people say we should care more they appeal as much to volunteers working with the homeless as to activists devoting their lives to democratic accountability.

The call for us to be caring is not a problematic ideal, in fact, at first glance, it seems self-evident that it is better if people are more altruistic and more compassionate towards their fellows, and devote far more time to easing their suffering. But even this ideal has limitations because while it is true that we would prefer a society of Mother Theresas as opposed to a society of Donald Trumps, it is not clear that we would want to live in a society entirely populated by Mother Theresas if there were no Austens, Dostoevskys, Socrates, Rembrandts, or Coltranes. While we certainly esteem the life of Mother Theresa for her devotion to living through giving and caring for others, we also esteem the lives of philosophers, authors, artists and musicians. The vocations of the philosopher, musician, author, and artist are all incompatible with devoting oneself to being caring as the meaning of the lives of artists, musicians, authors and philosophers involves being devoted to their craft, and this leaves little time to devote one’s energies to healing the sick or feeding the poor. Furthermore, it is the artist’s, author’s, philosopher’s and musician’s utter devotion to mastering an elevated art that makes their life admirable. They are not content to merely float through life and merely be adequate; they instead try to excel in an art that seems central to human life. So, it seems that the issue with the call for us to be caring is that it upholds a single model of human excellence and posits that society would be improved if we all just adopted it, when in fact there are numerous incompatible forms of life that ought to command our esteem. Consequently, the call to be more caring fails to recognize and do justice to other forms of life that enrich our society and our world. As was mentioned earlier while a society of Mother Theresas might seem nice, it would not necessarily offer us adequate opportunities for fulfillment if there were no Austens, Dostoevskys, Socrates, Rembrandts or Coltranes.

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One thought on “On the Importance of Caring

  1. Pingback: On the Importance Of Caring: A Clarification | jmeqvist

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