Thursday, June 19, 2008

Love's unitive aspect

Thinking about the unitive aspect of love makes clear one difference between an ethics of love and a consequentialist ethics of maximizing everyone's good. For while love calls on us to do good to others, it does not merely call for us to bring it about that good things happen to others, but to act lovingly towards them. This is compatible with acting in ways that produce sub-optimal results for others. Suppose an eccentric billionaire writes up a legal contract where he binds himself to give a certain destitute stranger a million dollars if I spit in the stranger's face and then spend two minutes verbally abusing and denying the worth of this stranger before telling him what this is all about. It could turn out that all things considered, it would be better for the stranger to suffer this and to get a million dollars than to get neither, and the stranger may resent my opting not to do this. (The judgment that it is better to abuse this stranger depends on details about the stranger's psychology; to know that this is so, one would have to know that the stranger would not become a worse person due to this abuse and would not commit suicide during the two minutes; let us assume this.) But even so, it would be an unloving action to disparage the intrinsic worth of another person, an action that is directly contrary to union with our neighbor and is contrary to the duty to love one's neighbor. In such a case, love does not allow one to act in the way that will in fact maximize the stranger's good.


Nacisse said...

but it's not unloving to take a child to the dentist even though it is causing the child psychological pain thinking about the trip to the dentist. The good of good teeth trumps the pain you're causing the child by making them go to the dentist. the maximizing of the child's good (healthy teeth) turns what would otherwise be an awful action (like taking a child to a torturer) into a loving one.

the billionaire would seem to be acting unlovingly, but if it is the only way you have of helping a destitute person then i think it is loving - something like the case of the child and the dentist.

Alexander R Pruss said...

When you take the child to the dentist, you are doing an action that in and of itself is morally neutral or good, and that as an unintended side-effect causes a bad. When one verbally denies someone's worth, one is intentionally doing something intrinsically unloving, rather than something morally neutral or good.

Enigman said...

But would telling the Billionaire what you think of him not be OK? Yet those words would be abusive. And spit is just spit, much as dust is dead skin and such. Spitting is usually an attack, but in this case it would not be, just as taking a child to a man who is going to do stuff to her teeth is usually a good thing, but can be bad (as with nacisse's torturer).

And more clearly there is such moral flexibility with words themselves; so I too think that the billionaire may have arranged a situation in which it would be loving, not least because it maximises the stranger's good. It's not clear to me that he has not. Personally, I hope I'd tell the billionaire what I thought of him, but that's a different aspect...

Alexander R Pruss said...

Abusive words can be acceptable when true and helpful. In such a case, they are not unloving, but an attempt to get someone to see the truth about himself, which is of course a loving thing to do.

But denying the worth of the billionaire would be unloving and dishonest.

Enigman said...

The words would be helpful, just not true. But what about when you tell your children about Santa or the Tooth fairy?

Alexander R Pruss said...


It is wrong to lie to children. Moreover, it is especially wrong for parents to lie to their children, because to do so is (a) to betray the trust in parental epistemic authority that is essential to the filial love with which children bestow their parents, and (b) to violate the educative nature of parental love.

I should also note that lying to one's children about the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus is still unjustified even if one thinks (incorrectly) that it is permissible to lie when a greater good than truth, like life, is at stake. For clearly there is no such great good at stake here. (And let's avoid sophistical stories about how terms like "Santa Claus" in fact correctly refer to the parents, or how St. Nicholas is a real person in heaven who does in fact give gifts to kids by means of inspiring parents, through his example, to give these gifts; if this is what the parents mean, they can say so explicitly--the typical child fully understands the difference.)

It is particularly wrong for parents to lie to their children about supernatural matters, since belief about supernatural matters depends in a particularly strong way on testimony (of God, the writers of Scripture, the Church, and parents), and by undercutting the epistemic value of testimony about supernatural matters, one is endangering one's children's faith.

OK, end of screed.

But in any case I wasn't particularly focusing in my post on the wrongness of lying in general. Rather, I was focusing on the wrongness of a particular kind of lie, a lie that expressly denies the human dignity of the person being lied to.

Enigman said...

But is a lie that expressly denies the human dignity of the stranger being lied to worse than lying about supernatural matters to one's children?

For what it's worth, I'd guess not; and that many people's intuitions are that telling them white lies is sometimes acceptable... and that (or thoughts to the effect that) given the sophisticated complexities of religious truth in a pluralistic society, such times might include such matters.

Denying human dignity can include being patronising as well as being sarcastic. In fact, to ascribe a sense of humour to someone, and so to expect them to be able to handle rough language, is a way of acknowledging their humanity, in a way that the rough language might not literally do. I see your thought-experiment as similar. I would want the million dollars, and would not feel that I had been treated with human dignity if I was kept from it by someone who did not think that I could handle rough language... something like that?