Friday, January 20, 2012

Fathers and mothers are convenient administrators?

Earlier this month I wrote a post about an academic liberal, Kok-Chor Tan. He believes that the resources of wealthier countries should be considered by right to belong to poorer countries. Why? Because in his view the overriding good in society is individual autonomy and autonomy is undermined by social and economic inequality. Therefore, liberals ought to be committed to a policy of global redistribution of wealth - not out of humanitarian concern for others, but as a matter of justice and right.

I've read a bit further along the Kok-Chor Tan book and his next step is to consider possible objections. The objection he spends most time discussing is the idea that we have special obligations to our conationals rather than only a universal obligation to humanity in general. He looks at the arguments of a British academic, David Miller, in support of the idea of special obligations.

Miller's position is that we have particular duties at the local and national levels, as well as more general ones to humanity. He puts forward two arguments against limiting duties to humans in general. The first is that we would be adopting an artificially abstracted posture as a moral actor if we ignore special duties. In support of this argument he quotes Alasdair MacIntyre, who believes that limiting duties to humans in general:

requires of me to assume an abstract and artificial - perhaps even an impossible - stance, that of a rational being as such, responding to the requirements of morality, not qua parent or farmer or quarterback, but qua rational agent who has abstracted him or herself from all social particularity, who has become not merely Adam Smith's impartial spectator, but a correspondingly impartial actor, and one who in his impartiality is doomed to rootlessness, to be a citizen of nowhere.

I don't think I would have put it exactly like that, but even so there is force to this argument. Most moral traditions have allowed for both special and general obligations. It is difficult not to, as we stand in particular relations to others, as husband and wives, parents and children, townsmen and compatriots. Each of these relationships engenders particular loves and loyalties and duties - they become aspects of the good which we have a duty to uphold. We would be discarding important aspects of our created being, abstracting ourselves down to the level of a disembodied Cartesian ego/reason, if we were to be wholly impartial toward others.

Occasionally you come across examples of Christians who have dissolved particular forms of being and particular relationships in favour of an approach to morality based on disembodied reason. One example is that of Sarah Grimke, an early American feminist of the 1830s and a Quaker. She wrote:

permit me to offer for your consideration, some views relative to the social intercourse of the sexes. Nearly the whole of this intercourse is, in my apprehension, derogatory to man and woman, as moral and intellectual beings. We approach each other, and mingle with each other, under the constant pressure of a feeling that we are of different sexes; and, instead of regarding each other only in the light of immortal creatures, the mind is fettered by the idea which is early and industriously infused into it, that we must never forget the distinction between male and female. Hence our intercourse, instead of being elevated and refined, is generally calculated to excite and keep alive the lowest propensities of our nature. Nothing, I believe, has tended more to destroy the true dignity of woman, than the fact that she is approached by man in the character of a female.

... Until our intercourse is purified by the forgetfulness of sex, - until we rise above the present low and sordid views which entwine themselves around our social and domestic interchange of sentiments and feelings, we never can derive that benefit from each other's society which it is the design of our Creator that we should. Man has inflicted an unspeakable injury upon woman, by holding up to her view her animal nature, and placing in the back ground her moral and intellectual being.
And in describing her ideal woman she wrote:

She views herself, and teaches her children to regard themselves as moral beings; and in all their intercourse with their fellow men, to lose the animal nature of man and woman, in the recognition of that immortal mind wherewith Jehovah has blessed and enriched them.

According to Sarah Grimke we become "moral and intellectual beings" by abstracting ourselves from our embodied and particular natures as men and women. This is an approach to Christianity which, unfortunately, is not uncommon (e.g. the idea that the only identity a Christian has is with the church) and needs to be effectively criticised.

The second criticism made by Miller of the "general duties alone" principle is that we have a strong moral intuition that we do have particular duties. In other words, it's very difficult to live consistently by the idea that we should be impartially general in our sense of moral duty.

That's also a good argument. After all, if it's morally impermissible to have a special duty to our conationals, then you also have to accept that we have no special duty to our own children. I should be equally concerned to act for the moral welfare of a man I don't know in Zaire as to my own child in my own house is the moral principle I am being asked to follow. For instance, if I go out to work and earn money, why should I distribute it primarily to my own family? If my moral duties are only general ones, then perhaps I am obligated to distribute the money elsewhere.

How can the "general duties alone" people resolve the problem? Some might simply assert an unprincipled exception. Jeffrey Friedman, for instance, believes in the "general duties alone" mantra when it comes to nations:

A truly liberal society would encompass all human beings. It would extend any welfare benefits to all humankind, not just to those born within arbitrary borders; and far from prohibiting the importing of "foreign" workers or goods they have produced, or the exporting of jobs to them across national boundaries, it would encourage the free flow of labor, the goods, and capital ...

But he just can't stand the same principle being applied to other special duties. He therefore resorts to this plea:

We would be miserable if we could not treat our friends, spouses, and siblings with special consideration; but is this necessarily true of our conationals?

And what about Kok-Chor Tan? His response is more principled, but not more persuasive. He likes the argument of Robert Goodin that:

Special responsibilities are...assigned merely as an administrative device for discharging our general duties more efficiently.

In other words, we don't really have a special responsibility to our own children. It just happens to be more administratively efficient for me to be responsible for my own children rather than for someone else's. If it weren't for this administrative advantage, then I would have no moral responsibilities toward my own children in particular.

Not only do I think this is false, if people really thought it were true it would have negative consequences. It would demoralise the sense of moral responsibility that people felt toward those closest to them and it would mean, too, that we could be more easily displaced in our responsibilities (e.g. if the state decided it was more efficient to have an "expert" raise a one-year-old child than the child's mother, then why not take the child from the control of the mother?)


  1. Mark the more I see of liberalism in its ideological form the more terrifying it becomes.

    Good lord can you give some good news?

  2. JesseJ,

    Yes, it's probably time for a more upbeat post.

  3. I don't see how the principle of impartial moral regard is supposed to work in practice, since my moral regard is neither infinite nor infinitely divisible. If two children fall on the playground, I cannot comfort both of them--at least not right away. If there are ten lonely old ladies, I cannot pay each one 1/10th of a visit--and I doubt they would be satisfied if I did, even if my visit was completed by 9 others. I have to spend my finite moral regard in indivisible chunks, and tradition tells me who has first call on the chunks of moral regard I have.

    I think the moral claims of the nation are, however, declining as the "nation" becomes a miscellaneous collection of people inhabiting the same territory. Not everyone in a real nation is a true cousin, but they look and act like cousins and that make it easier to treat them like cousins.

  4. This is an approach to Christianity which, unfortunately, is not uncommon (e.g. the idea that the only identity a Christian has is with the church) and needs to be effectively criticised.

    We also have the other way around. There's a modern heresy where religion and the Church do not matter but only Jesus Christ -> Love Jesus but Hate Religion?