On the Importance Of Caring: A Clarification

In an entry that I posted a couple of days ago I argued that it is not clear whether a society is better if its members care more about its affairs. I just wanted to clarify that this argument in no way suggests that I am indifferent between a citizenry that is concerned about its affairs and a citizenry that is apathetic. A responsible citizenry is the citizenry we should hope for. This sort of citizenry will be one that deeply cares and is concerned with the affairs of the community, but merely caring about its affairs is not enough to ensure the practise of responsible citizenship.

For example, the zealot deeply cares about his cause, but his care for his cause is not restrained by considerations of the equal standing of those who oppose him. Consequently, the zealot is more likely than most to use violence to ensure the success of his cause. In this sense, caring about the affairs of one`s society is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for the practise of responsible citizenship, because the zealot who deeply cares seems to threaten the preservation, well-being and stability of the community, and thus is clearly not a model for the practise of responsible citizenship.

This raises the question of what is required for responsible citizenship over and above caring about the affairs of one`s community. One factor that is required for responsible citizenship over and above caring is recognition of the equal status of others within the community. Like the zealot the responsible citizen is deeply concerned with the affairs and direction of the community. But, unlike the zealot, the responsible citizen recognizes the equal status of others and thus will not simply try to impose his vision of the good on the community by any means necessary as the zealot would, and will instead be willing to work with others to ensure that the public good is served. Therefore, a responsible citizenry will certainly care about the direction of its affairs, but a responsible citizenry is much more than a citizenry that cares. Thus, while I see care as a necessary and positive quality of a responsible citizenry, unlike apathy which seems to have no intrinsically positive qualities, a citizenry that cares needs other qualities in order to serve its community`s good, rather than its disintegration.


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.

The Problems of a Just Society: The Importance of Goods Beyond Justice

The question I want to examine is whether there are societal problems that need to be overcome that nonetheless could not be referred to as injustices? For the sake of simplicity I will say that a just society is one in which all persons are treated with equal respect. While this is a very abstract definition of justice it should suffice for the purposes of this entry. My answer to this question is that there are societal problems that cannot be made sense of as injustices, and that while justice is an exceedingly important societal value, we need to be attentive to societal goods that cannot be construed as an elements of a just society.

Given the definition of justice that I established above it would seem that there are certainly problems that can arise in a just society that nonetheless cannot be construed as injustices. For example, the absence of a rich culture of the arts, the absence of a rich culture of athletic competition, and the presence of a broadly, ill-informed, and apathetic citizenry are all societal problems in that they are problems that relate to the common life of a society. But nonetheless none of these problems can be adequately construed as an injustice. No person is treated with disrespect by not having access to a rich culture of the arts, even if this is an opportunity that would be beneficial to human flourishing.

Someone might say that even if the absence of access to a rich culture of the arts is not an injustice, a society still needs to provide each individual with enough opportunities so they can truly be an autonomous author of their own life. This is true, but having enough opportunities need not necessarily mean having the particular opportunity to access a rich, artistic culture, so all that this point suggests is that justice requires individuals to have a certain set of life opportunities available to them, but on the face of it, it does not specify which ones are to be available. Furthermore, any one particular opportunity does not seem to be required for justice. For example, if a society does not engage in the arts and one is born into that society, does the absence of access to the arts constitute an injustice? I would say no, as one still has many other opportunities and can still live autonomously. So, it seems that there are societal problems that can arise in a just society, that cannot be construed as injustices.

I also specified that these societal problems are something that must be overcome. My argument for this is that while justice is extremely important, many of the goods that are not secured by justice, are not simply an optional extra, but are rather a part of society that we have some sort of obligation to establish. For example, let us imagine a just society that experiences the three societal problems that I pointed out above. The failure of a society to overcome these problems would leave the society impoverished in a civilizational sense, and while our obligation to realize these goods beyond justice is likely less pressing than our duty to overcome injustice, it still seems that we do have an obligation of some kind to establish these goods within society. We have such an obligation as the life of a society that experienced all three of these societal problems while just, would also be mundane, and banal, and the goods of a rich, artistic culture, athletics, and an informed and engaged citizenry enrich the lives of all.

Now the question might come up of why the aforementioned is important. One reason why this set of issues is important is that there is a tendency among politically informed, and engaged people within postindustrial societies to focus their attention on eradicating injustice and ending oppression, and while these are exceedingly important goals, sometimes the politically informed and engaged become quite silent about the decay of the culture of the arts, athletics and the tendency of apathy among the citizenry. The problem with this silence is that certain imperative of postindustrial societies are working against these goods beyond justice, while justice itself is much more unaffected by these imperatives. I am largely thinking of the imperatives of technological progress, capitalist accumulation and commodification. These imperatives tends to distract people from public life through the development of entertaining technologies, and the way in which these entertaining technologies encourage a flight to the private sphere. Furthermore, these imperatives tend to commodify the arts and athletics, and thus discourage a rich culture of the arts and athletics, as people worry less about the inherent excellences of the arts and athletics and more about their marketability. The result of this is that the culture of the arts and athletics that is produced is one of marketability, rather than one that is committed to the particular excellences that the arts and athletics realize. Consequently, politically informed and engaged people in postindustrial societies need to begin thinking and speaking about these issues to a greater degree, not at the expense of issues of justice, but in addition to, as some of the most dominant imperatives of postindustrial societies threaten these goods that are left unsecured by the presence of justice.

Some Thoughts on Political Engagement and Boredom

When I talk to people who are not particularly politically informed, or engaged, they often tell me that one of the reasons why they are not engaged or informed regarding politics is because politics is boring. Let us call this the “attitude of the consumer.” This attitude is problematic because it encourages government and societal corruption in a liberal democratic society. Likewise, this attitude is troubling because any person who possesses this attitude is saying that they can only be informed or engaged about things they find entertaining or exciting, and the preceding shows frivolity.

The attitude of the consumer encourages government corruption, because as people find politics more and more boring, they are apt to be more disengaged and less vigilant about ensuring that their representatives try to pursue the common interest. Once citizens are less engaged and vigilant, politicians will tend to use their position to pursue private interests at the expense of the common interest, as they know they can get away with it. Of course I recognize that some politicians will remain committed to the common interest even when the public is less vigilant, but these politicians are a relatively small minority. Furthermore, there is the other danger that as people become less and less engaged with politics they will allow a “clever man,” in the words of Tocqueville, to take away their right to participate in politics, if this ruler will allow them to freely pursue their private interests and ensure that economic growth is secured.

Contrastingly, the attitude of the consumer reinforces societal corruption, because as people become more disengaged with politics the media tries to make politics more entertaining to generate more revenue. To make politics more exciting the media will try to present politics as a war by other means. In such a war opponents must defeat each other without any regard for the fact they are both citizens of a common state. The point of politics in the media’s presentation of it then becomes to win, rather than to ensure that rule serves the common interest. Such a presentation of politics may be more exciting than a presentation that highlights differences in policy and possibilities of compromise, but by creating a presentation of politics as a war by other means, the media encourages people to see citizens who disagree with them as mere enemies to be destroyed, rather than as people who need to be reasoned with in order to come to mutually agreeable solutions. In other words the desire to be entertained encourages the media to present politics in a way that will encourage high degrees of partisanship among the electorate, which is a form of societal corruption as any society that is committed to the freedom and equality of its citizens must have citizens who are willing to work with their fellow citizens, rather than seeing them as mere enemies.

Apart from the dangers that the attitude of the consumer poses for liberal democracy, it also encourages a particular set of vices. Any person whose primary reason for not being engaged or informed about politics shows frivolity in that they are suggesting that if someone finds something boring, than that practise is not worth doing for that person. Frivolity is problematic in this context as many things that we find boring at first, can eventually turn into a source of fulfillment. When I first heard Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” I was bored while listening to most of it. Now I find it deeply fulfilling to listen to. Consequently, adopting the attitude of the consumer makes us more narrow-minded by preventing us from engaging with possible sources of value in our lives. Secondly, frivolity in this context is troubling as someone who only pursues activities that they find engaging or entertaining to some degree has to be self-absorbed. There are many things that we may not find engaging or exciting, but nonetheless we have to pay attention to them because they have significant consequences for our lives and the lives of others. Politics may be boring, but one has to be quite self-absorbed to not be informed about it for this reason, as no matter how boring politics may be, politics has a deep impact on one’s lives and the lives of others.

The attitude of the consumer is deeply troubling, and if this attitude continues to be further engrained it will endanger liberal democracy, and encourage the vices of frivolity, narrow-mindedness and self-absorption. There is no easy solution to overcoming the attitude of the consumer, but we must recognize this challenge so that we are conscious of the path that our civilization is going down and can confront the problem that we are facing.