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.

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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.

On Attachment: Cognitive? Or Noncognitive?

The things that humans care about range from abstract concepts to concrete persons and things, but why do we care about the particular things that we care about? Is caring a response to the value of something, or is something else responsible for our caring about particular things? For the sake of simplicity I will refer to the question of what we care about, as the question of attachment, as caring signifies that one has some attachment to that thing. I will outline two different ways of thinking about the question of what grounds our attachments. Furthermore, it seems to me that both approaches are flawed, but there is a way of thinking about this issue that better understands the issue of what grounds our attachments.

The first approach to the question of attachment sees attachment as a brute fact. On this interpretation what we care about is just a matter of chance and does not represent anything about the value of the object of our attachments. For example, according to this approach the fact that I have come to be friends with Lilith, and value romantic literature is not an indication of the value of Lilith as a friend, or the value of romantic literature. Rather it is simply a fact about me at this point in my time that I am attached to these things. Of course there are causal reasons for why I have come to have these attachments, but these causal factors do not imply anything about the nature of the object of attachment. In this sense attachment is not a signification of the value of particular objects.

What gives this approach a certain intuitive plausibility is that often we find that we are attached to persons or things, but cannot explain why in terms of any particular attribute of the thing. I may deeply care for my friend Lillith while not being able to explain my attachment to myself in terms of the value of Lillith as a friend. Lillith may be kind, considerate, and funny, but so are many people I know so why I am attached to Lillith and not those others? Likewise my commitment to becoming a musician may not be explicable in terms of the value of the activities typical of a musician, rather it may seem that this attachment is just a part of me like the colour of my hair, rather than a response to the value of these activities.

The second approach posits that attachment is a response to value in the world. We become attached to persons, things and ideas when we see recognize that they are valuable. Contrarily to approach one, approach two sees my attachment to romantic literature as a response to the beauty and literary excellence displayed in this genre. What give this approach its plausibility is that when we reflect we will often try to revise our attachments, in light of consideration about the value of persons, objects and ideas. We say to ourselves I should not care so much about what strangers think because it is really of very little importance, which implies that our attachments are, in some sense, responses to what is valuable in the world. So this approach has the virtue of fitting with certain experiences we have involving reflection on value and attachment.

The problem with approach one is that it has to say that our experience of revising our attachments does not really represent making our attachments correspond better with the valuable elements of the world, but rather merely signifies that certain causal factors have led to a change in one’s attachments. This is problematic because it means saying that an important element of ethical consciousness, reflection and revision of attachments, is not what it seems to be, and this seems quite hard to swallow, and implausible. This is of course not a knock-out punch for approach one, but it does make it seem that this approach is not able to capture certain elements of our intuitions.

Approach two also has a significant flaw. The trouble is that we sometimes find ourselves attached to people or things that do not seem to have value. A person who is trying to quit smoking, might still have a strong attachment to smoking even if he or she sees the activity as without value. Similarly, we may find ourselves in a friendship or romantic relationship with someone who we see as deeply contemptible, but yet nonetheless we may find ourselves deeply drawn and attached to them. So, it seems that even our experience of attachment attests to the fact that we can find ourselves attached to things or persons that do not seem to be valuable, consequently attachment cannot simply be seen as a response to value in the world. Thus, approach two seems to have a significant flaw.

The simplest way to overcome the flaws in both approaches is to recognize that attachment may not be a single thing, with a single underlying rationale. There may be attachments that we have that are just brute facts that do not signify a response to value in the world, while there may be attachments that we have that are responses to value in the world. The most obvious candidate for attachments that are brute facts are attachments that seem, to the person who has them, to be unchangeable facts about ourselves, rather than response to value in the world. In this case the person who has these attachments cannot explain why they have these attachments; they just happen to have these attachments. For example, the person who needs their house to be immaculate is attached to the idea of an immaculately clean house, but this person may not be able to explain why it is valuable to have an immaculately clean house, nor may they have some background understanding of value that requires them to keep their home immaculately clean. In such a case the person’s attachment does not seem to be a rational response to fact, it just seems to be a brute fact about that person, at that time in their lives. On the other hand, there seem to be attachments that we have that signify a response to a particular value in the world. An activist’s commitment to a particular cause is not seen by them as merely a brute fact about themselves, but rather as a response to a call to pursue some valuable cause that will improve the lives of others. In such a case the agent can either explain why their attachment is a response to value, or they have a background conception of the good which, while inarticulate, makes it plausible to see their activity as a response to value in the world. Thus, the commitment seems to be a response to value in the world. Consequently, there seem to be at least two forms of attachment. One is a noncognitive form of attachment in which our attachment is inexplicable in terms of the value of particular things, persons or activities, and the other is a cognitive form of attachment in which the attachment is best understood as a response to value in the world. We do not have to choose whether we want to be noncognitivist or cognitivists about attachments, because there are numerous varieties of attachments and some of them are cognitive while others are noncognitive. This may lead to a more complex picture than either approach elucidated above spells out, but while simplicity may be desirable in principle, in any explanation, complexity is sometimes necessary to do justice to the diversity of phenomena under consideration, and in this case the complexity seems to be necessary.

Some Thoughts on Political Idealism and Prudence

There is a tendency for activists and ideologues to try to apply their political ideal to every society, no matter what conditions that society finds itself in. I will claim that it is problematic to apply a political ideal to a society through political action without confirming that this change is sustainable for the society given its culture, customs and the dispositions of its citizens. That this seems to be the case can be accounted for both by an examination of history, as well as through a theoretical examination. From a historical perspective one tends to see that when a political ideal is applied without recourse to the actual conditions of a society the consequences tend to be poor. In the case of the French Revolution the Jacobins tried to apply a political ideal based on popular sovereignty onto a society of peasants who had little experience with political activity and being viewed as a singular collective body that ruled itself. The people recognized that they were in some sense sovereign, but what that sovereignty meant in institutional terms was not clear. The results of the French Revolution (The Terror and the Rise of Napoleon) were terrible in part because revolutionaries had tried to apply a political ideal that was quite unrelated to the experiences, culture, and dispositions of the French state at the time. Thus, this example seems to suggest that there is something problematic about applying a political ideal to a society without ensuring that this society has the resources (culture, virtues and customs) to support this change.  Furthermore, examples of this sort are manifest throughout history.

On a more theoretical level one can see how problematic it is to apply a political ideal to a society without recourse to thinking about the actual conditions of the society by referencing the assumptions underlying this activity. In order for it to be a prudent course of action to apply a political ideal to a society without referencing that society’s ability to make that ideal sustainable all societies would need to be able to support all forms of politics, and all societies would need to be obligated to practise the same form of politics. Or political activity would need to have the capacity to make any political ideal sustainable society within any form of society. The first option seems implausible as differing sets of civic dispositions are necessary to support differing forms of constitutions. A commercial, liberal democracy requires civility, industriousness, and compassion while a martial aristocracy like Sparta required courage and harshness. Trying to make Spartans out of Canadians would certainly be ill-conceived. We might try to encourage Canadians to be more courageous by learning about the courage of the Spartans, but to try to apply the Spartan ideal to Canada would be dangerous and imprudent. The second option seems implausible because it exemplifies a perverse form of hubris. Man is not completely under the sway of fate or providence, but to suggest that any ideal can be applied and sustained in any society seems to put too much faith in the human ability to control nature and society.  

None of this suggests that ideals are bad. We are moved by them, and they give us something by which we can critique the present. But it displays a great lack of mindfulness to apply them without asking if a society can support that ideal and make it sustainable. This lack of mindfulness may be accompanied by a pure heart, but this pure heart does not make the lack of mindfulness any more excusable or legitimate. We certainly should devote our energy to improving society, but this should always be done in a way that tries to ask what future is sustainable for this political community at this particular point in history.