Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Loving our neighbor as ourselves

Suppose that, as some theories of motivation hold, that all our actions are done in pursuit of our flourishing. But the Scriptures tell us that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Therefore, all our actions should also be done in pursuit of our neighbor’s flourishing. This seems an unreasonably high standard.

There are three ways out:

  1. Deny that all our actions are done in pursuit of our flourishing.

  2. Deny the love ethic of the Old and New Testaments.

  3. Argue that the standard is not unreasonably high.

For me, (2) is not an option. I do think (1) is a serious option for independent reasons.

But I also think (3) is a very promising approach. Reasons to think that the requirement that we be pursuing our neighbor’s flourishing in all our actions is excessive are apt also to be reasons to think that Paul’s requirement that we “pray constantly” (1 Thes. 5:17) is excessive as well. But if all our actions are done in pursuit of our neighbor’s flourishing, and if we see our neighbor as in the image of God, then all our actions might be a kind of prayer, thereby fulfilling Paul’s difficult injunction. And, conversely, if we are praying always, aren’t we going to be always pursuing our neighbor’s flourishing?

We get something something similarly onerous to the requirement to pursue our neighbor’s flourishing in Kantian ethics: the requirement always to treat rational beings as ends.

One family of difficult cases, both for the flourishing requirement and the Kantian one, lies in everyday businesslike interactions. To use an example of Parfit, you’re buying coffee. It seems that all that is relevant about the barista is that they are supplying coffee. How can you not treat them as a mere means? How can you be pursuing their flourishing? Well, a useful reflection is that we flourish in large part by promoting the wellbeing of others. The barista’s professional activity is a part of their flourishing as a social animal. In courteously buying coffee, one is doing one’s part in an interaction that constitutes a part of that flourishing. Of course, it would be very odd, and likely to lead to pride (“Look at how great I am: I am enabling his flourishing”), if one were to be explicitly thinking about this each time one buys coffee. But courteously making opportunities for others to exercise their professional skills can be a habitual background intention in one’s actions. Similarly, when I when I bite into a delicious sandwich, my intention to get some enjoyment is not something that I need to think about, but it structures the activity (e.g., it explains why I don’t at the same time pinch myself hard).

A different kind of difficult case is given by activity which adversely impacts the flourishing of others. Morality sometimes requires such actions. Less well qualified applicants need to be turned down and trolleys need to be redirected towards more sparsely occupied tracks. Here I think three things can be done to abide by the flourishing requirement. The first is that one not intend a bad effect on flourishing. One doesn’t turn down the less well qualified applicants in order to negatively impact their flourishing. The second is that while declining the applicants or redirecting the trolley, one should be taking their flourishing into account, by thinking about any creative ways to decrease the negative impact on flourishing. Even if no creative ways are found (but isn’t prayer always an option?), the action is chosen as part of a pursuit of the flourishing of those who are harmed by it—but not of course as part of the pursuit of only their flourishing. The third is that there is a kind of harm to one if one is benefited immorally. To a morally sensitive person, it feels bad to get a job that another applicant is was better qualified for, and it would surely feel awful to have five people die because the trolley operator refused to redirect the trolley away from them for one’s sake. These feelings reflect reality. No human is an island, and when our flourishing is at the expense of those who deserve flourishing more, that is bad for us—even if we don’t know about it. It may not be on balance bad for us, but still it is a bad thing. And so the person who turns down the less qualified candidate or redirects the trolley prevents this bad thing from happening, and this is a positive impact on flourishing.

1 comment:

Helen Watt said...

Yes, there are those very possible albeit less-known ways to benefit your neighbour (refraining from passing over better-qualified job candidates etc). But do you really need to think of these and intend them? even in cases where you are actually intending some kind of harm and that seems morally permissible.

You're a medical researcher who deliberately gives volunteers the common cold (perhaps without any personal interaction - you just mechanically prepare the bugs in the back room). Of course, you must not intend or even see as likely any serious harms to those innocent volunteers - but do you need to intend to benefit them in any way (socially, morally etc) as you engineer a mild health harm? Any more than you need to intend to benefit yourself in doing your research - you may forget yourself rather as you pursue your scientific/humanitarian goals (a natural instinct towards discovery is not the same as conscious recognition that knowledge will do you good).

Wouldn't it be easier to interpret the injunction to love your neighbour as yourself less literally - for one thing, this doesn't apply while you're asleep, nor in going to bed need you always be intending to benefit either your neighbour or yourself (you may have had that thought in buying or making the bed of course...)

If you're obliged to love everyone in the world, isn't that conditional on your thinking of them at all - is it wrong to fail to think of them, pray for them or benefit them in any way? Even if you DO happen to think of the entire world population, do you always or ever have to accompany that thought with appreciation, beneficence etc?

On the other hand, if you thought of the entire world population on a regular basis without any appreciation or beneficence, then that does sound bad.