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June 16, 2010

Comments

Joyless Moralist

So, sort of a utilitarianism that places a high value on love? Or something like that. Don't think it ultimately amounts to much, especially because your "division of labor" is still inadequate. Describing it that way makes it sound as though the primary goal is to accomplish a particular end (basically, to "get everyone loved"). But part of the point is that we're made to be both givers and receivers of love. We are, most fundamentally, lovers. Embedding ourselves within networks of people and cultivating relationships with them is just what we do as human beings. It's wrong to see that as an instrumental means to some further end.

Meanwhile, I can't imagine a remotely adequate understanding of love that doesn't involve taking an active interest in the beloved's welfare. Sure, it's nice to join together in doing acts of mercy for others. Sure, it's good to give the guests bigger pieces of pie (thus teaching your children the value of hospitality) and to be specially watchful to be sure they do their share of chores (teaching them the value of work, as well as exercising an authority you don't have over just anyone.) But if you gave your kids' college fund away to a random other person you met on a plane (because after all, you wouldn't want to appear biased in your distribution of resources!) or cancelled their medical insurance so as to adopt some kids through Save the Children, your own kids would probably feel you had done them wrong. And they would be right.

Nathan Smith

I don't think I managed to express what I was going to say. But let me try a couple more to express my claim. (By the way, on the practical issues-- guests and pie, chores, and I think the college fund-- we seem to agree. Maybe there are other practical issues we would disagree one, but in part we are trying to articulate the same point of view.)

1. The division of labor is the *only* reason that one should prioritize the needs of those one loves over those of strangers.

2. To the extent that division-of-labor considerations are not in play, one should deprioritize one's own needs, and also those that one's love. *Hospitality is one application of this principle.*

3. One should pay one's debts before giving to charity, even if the creditor is less needy than the recipients of charity would be. Personal obligations, e.g., to one's parents, may also override one's general duty to serve mankind. *But such are obligations are quite separate from the duties of love.* One parents may be in the wrong (from the higher perspective of charity) to demand that you serve them at the expense of serving strangers, even if they are (from the lower perspective of mere worldly reciprocity) entitled to demand it.

4. To 'love one's neighbor as oneself' can never mean that one ought to prioritize the needs of one's loved one over the needs of strangers in a way that would be wrong to prioritize one's own needs over those of strangers. One should desire, above all, not that one's loved one be comfortable, but that one's loved one does what is right. (One should desire the same for oneself.)

5. If one is charged with conduct that violates the principle of universal egalitarian altruism, the answer should never be, "Sure I'm violating it, but I care about my loved ones more than strangers." It may be "No, I think my conduct is consistent with universal altruism." It may be (because life is a story, not a math problem) "I don't have a clue whether it is or not, but this seems like the right thing to do."

I don't think JM's insistence that "we are, most fundamentally, lovers" is in any way at odds with what I'm saying. I'm not sure whether I agree with it or not... I'd prefer to say, "we are, at our best, lovers," but maybe that's saying the same thing. But anyway, it begs the question: should one (a) try to love everyone, or (b) concentrate on loving a few people? JM is saying (b), I'm saying that there's no choice to be made, one can do (a) and (b), but we agree on the value of love, she can't use that as a trump card.

By the way, all these thoughts are my effort to understand "Love thy neighbor as thyself" and the story of the Good Samaritan that follows it-- a story which is oddly reminiscent, by the way, of JM's example of a guy giving away his kids' college fund to a guy he met on a plane.

nato

"We are, most fundamentally, lovers. Embedding ourselves within networks of people and cultivating relationships with them is just what we do as human beings."

As a side note, (?) I have "We love" tattooed on my arm in ANSI hex. It expresses a number of things, but most fundamentally it is a definitional statement. "We" is the set of those who love, or: love is the necessary and sufficient condition to count as one of 'we moral agents'.

Of course, if one wishes to take this seriously as a philosophical position rather than an evocative adage, one must try to figure out what we mean by 'love', and many definitions of that seem to work out to something like 'whatever it is we're doing when we're at our finest.' Which obviously leads off in a bunch of other directions. I don't take it seriously in that sense, but I do think it's *the* critical approach to understanding what it means to be human. If we pinch off our capacity for love, we're also pinching off our humanity. In expanding our capacities, we also grow our humanity.

As such a capacity can have depth as well as breadth, it seems that Nathan's (a) above prioritizes breadth while (b) prioritizes depth. I agree we should try to grow both ways, but I question whether it even makes sense to imagine breadth beyond a certain point if it comes at the expense of depth. As constructed and with the limited time we have, I don't think the human brain is capable of loving those we haven't met or have only briefly encountered except as imagined extensions of people we do actually know. Past a certain point (several hundreds of people, say) it would seem to average into an aesthetic attraction to a way of life or a stylistic commonality or something like that. I love my city because I anticipate meeting people in it that I'll love, but to say I love someone I've hardly met seems to do too much damage to the meaning of the word for even its famously nebulous standards.

Nathan Smith

Some questions:

1. The word 'love,' in natural language, applies not only to human beings but to many other entities. One may love a forest, or a sunset, or a symphony; an animal, or an idea; or God. Should the meaning of the word be limited to human beings for ethical purposes, or not?

2. Considering that one never fully knows a person, our ideas about them are always based on details: this utterance or gesture, that afternoon, this letter. Might not second-hand descriptions be an important part of our information, perhaps in some cases more informative than the first-hand information of meeting someone? Is it not arbitrary to say that face-to-face meeting is where the line must be drawn, and that I can love my college roommates, say, but not the apostle Peter, or the man who saved my father's life in Korea by the loss of his own (that's a hypothetical, not a true story), or C.S. Lewis, whose books I have listened to probably more than the conversation of all but a few with whom I am acquainted personally? And why can't I love all my fellow men, at least a little bit, based on nothing more than our common humanity?

3. C.S. Lewis says in *Mere Christianity,* as advice to those who find it hard to love their neighbors: "Never mind whether you love your neighbor; act as if you did." In this case "love your neighbor" states, so to speak, a policy rather than an emotion? Does this "do too much damage to the meaning of the word," or is there something in it?

Nathan Smith

There's a story I once heard that embodies this idea of friendship well. An old crusader was captured at the fall of Jerusalem. As the shattered remnants of the Kingdom of Jerusalem tried to regroup as they awaited reinforcements from Richard the Lion-Hearted, the old man's son took command of an became the commander of an outlying castle on the sea, the chief remaining bastion of the crusader cause. The Muslims who besieged the castle brought the old father in front of the walls and urged the knight to surrender the castle lest they kill his father. "My father has lived long enough!" shouted the knight contemptuously. The Muslims thought he was a monster, as the father beamed with pride at his son's firmness.

This is my idea of friendship. The son didn't prioritize his father's life. The father didn't want him to. The son knew his father didn't want him to, and the father knew the son knew the father didn't want him to, etc. Not shared selfishness, but shared service, was the bond between them.

Joyless Moralist

I've long said that the parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most abused and misinterpreted in our day. One of the most common errors is to read it as a kind of plug for utilitarianism, or at least some variety of utilitarianism.

I think it's important to note that the parable is offered in answer to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" It's *identifying* the neighbor that's the crux of the question, not deciding how to love him. Now, some people do notice this, but then, on the basis of the story, assume that the answer to to the question is, "everyone." Everyone is my neighbor, in which case I do seem to be stuck with some sort of utilitarianism because apparently everyone's needs have to matter to me as much as my own (or my family's or friends').

But notice, too, how the parable ends. Jesus doesn't ask the people, "Which of these three loved his neighbor as himself?" He asks: Which *was a neighbor to the man*? In other words, the priest and Levite were not neighbors; they artificially excluded themselves from the neighbor relationship by passing by on the other side of the street. The Samaritan, by showing mercy to the wounded man, became his neighbor.

What this shows is that we are not *automatically* neighbors with people; it is through concrete acts of caring that we *become* neighbors. Now, it's true that the Samaritan, based on his background, might not have seemed like the most likely person to become a neighbor. So there does seem to be a lesson here about not artificially limiting our sphere of neighbors to those who are natural members of our social set, or who seem like "our sort of people." Still, it seems significant to me that the Samaritan was not a completely anonymous person on the other side of the world. He did have an important connection to the wounded man, namely that he *encountered him lying in the road.* It seems to me that there's a lesson here about being attentive to those whom God places in our path (literally or figuratively), putting us in a position to help them.

Properly understood, the parable of the Good Samaritan is an *antidote* to the classic utilitarian problem of finding ourselves completely paralyzed by the multiplicity of options for doing good. There are so many people in the world with so many different needs; if we're really expected to prioritize all needs equal to (or above?) our own (and our loved ones'), it will become impossible to give our lives any narrative or structure. And we are the sort of beings who need internal narratives, plans and goals, without which we are unable to make any sense of our own existence. The Good Samaritan helps us to understand that God has placed particular people in our lives, intending for us to love them. We need to stay alert and attentive, because sometimes he might throw us a curveball and drop a needy person in our path when we're not expecting it. Sometimes we need to be a little proactive, too; for example, if I realize that I have a special talent for working with people with a particular disability, I might reasonably surmise that God wants me to devote my energies to that. Still, the demands placed on us aren't infinite, and we don't need to feel personally beholden to every needy person in the world. If we can love our neighbors – that is, those particular people who have fallen within our sphere of influence – that's enough.

Maybe I just don't understand what all you're trying to collapse into the term "division of labor." If you're merely trying to say that we shouldn't justify our increased attention to loved ones with the claim that strangers are *intrinsically less morally valuable*, then I agree. But normally when we use a term like that to justify our actions, we're saying something like, "It's not that I actually place a higher priority on the task I'm doing as opposed to some other. It's just that the main point is the get the job done, and that will happen most effectively if I do X, Joe does Y, Sally does Z, etc. And it's *because* I trust Sally and Joe to do Y and Z that I can happily focus on doing X."

That's not, at least in my view, what's going on when we prioritize our own (or our family's, or our friends') needs above strangers'. Although we should, on some level, desire the well-being of all God's creatures, and human beings especially, I think it's fine to admit frankly that, say, my son's well-being is much more important to me personally than, say, Kobe Bryant's. And that's in part because it's not just a question of getting a job done. He needs to be loved, concretely and by someone in particular. At the same time, it's in my nature to love, not as an abstract general policy, but in a concrete and lived way. We might reasonably feel better about this if we attribute something of a "division of labor" attitude to God. So, if I glimpse a cold and hungry-looking person out a train window as I whiz by, it would be salutary to think, "Well, I may not be able to be a neighbor to that person right now, but hopefully God will send somebody to do it." Still, at the end of the day, you're not going to be able to sway me from my path simply by making the (highly plausible) argument that there are people in the world who aren't being adequately loved or cared for. I'm sure there are orphans in Africa who are more sorely in need of nutritious food, or clean clothes, or stimulating toys, than my son is. Heck, I'm sure there are kids like that in the Twin Cities. I can't excuse myself from worrying about them with the argument that their parents will take care of them because, well, they're orphans. My excuse for focusing on him is that I love him, and that it's *proper* for me to love him, and that the kind of love I should (and do) have for him naturally involves an intense concern for his well-being that I don't have for other kids. And we wouldn't want this kind of love to be abolished just because there will always be orphans in the world.

I have to say, frankly, that I don't fully understand your view. You say that you agree with my examples (about the college fund and the medical insurance) but then you still want to maintain that we should prioritize strangers' needs above our own (and our family's.) Perhaps this just gets back to my confusion about what you take the "division of labor" exception to entail, but it seems to me that love clearly involves an intense concern for the beloved's welfare, beyond what you would have with respect to a stranger. Now, I grant that love particularly flourishes when it unites in the service of something higher. But this doesn't, it seems to me, amount to a justification of (2) in your list. Your story about the father-and-son crusaders gives us an example of two people who love each other but who are united in their commitment to a *particular* higher good. Each knows that the other cares more about the good in question than about their individual lives, and that is why both can rejoice in the son's refusal to be cowed by the Muslims' attempts at coercion. This does not imply, however, that the son would let his father die for anything or anybody. Given a choice between his father's life and that of one of the Muslims, which would the son choose? I would certainly hope, in that instance, that he would prioritize his father; otherwise I too would think him a moral monster.

Nathan Smith

I like this debate, it feels more like an exploration than trench warfare. JM says she doesn't fully understand my view, and in a way that suggests that she *does* understand my view, because part of my view is precisely that we don't understand very much. Helping other people is harder than it seems. Simple voluntary redistribution of wealth, the most obvious way of helping others, is often self-defeating. It may simply encourage idleness, or, worse, give an incentive for people to fawn upon and flatter the rich. It has its place, and there should probably be more of it than there is, but it has its limits, too. If you see a hungry person from the window of a moving train, there's obviously nothing you can do, but even if you see them at the train station, your handouts may not do any good. Even aside from the danger of confidence tricksters, or of creating professional beggars, you may have motives of your own that you don't realize. One literary scene which I think is very striking in this effect is in the early part of *Anna Karenina,* when Anna and Vronsky happen upon each other on a train, and as they're exiting they here that someone has been hit by the train and killed. Vronsky, to impress Anna, inquires after the victim and provides a large sum of money to help the family. And thus begins an affair of which the novel records the heart-breaking consequences. This is one of the reasons why, again, a division of labor is appropriate in the execution of mankind's moral duty of taking care of one another's needs.

JM's exegesis of the Good Samaritan story is partly insightful and partly unconvincing. I like it that she draws attention to the fact that Jesus asks "which was a neighbor to the man?" I agree that this suggests we're not automatically neighbors to everyone. I wasn't aware that the multiplicity of options for doing good was a "classic utilitarian problem." Superficially, the response to this problem, from a utilitarian perspective, doesn't seem too difficult. If one possible course of action does more good than another, pick that one. If they all do the same amount of good, pick randomly, it doesn't matter. Or use some other principle to choose, if you feel like it. If you don't know, make your best guess. Still, yes, it's true, the question "which was a neighbor to the man?" does help to solve the problem. It suggests one should practice a certain opportunism, a certain alertness, a certain willingness to let chance and coincidence govern the path of one's life. I like that. This approach is somewhat distinct from the utilitarian calculus that a welfare economist might engage in. Having worked at the World Bank and seen some of the limitations of that approach, I appreciate that.

Still, it does seem to be the point of the Good Samaritan story to cast the net of charity very wide indeed. It is quite obvious, for example, that the fact that the good Samaritan was of a different nationality than the man wounded on the road, and of a hostile nationality, is essential to the story. And encountering someone on the road is about the most remote connection with another person that Jesus could have evoked based on the experience of his hearers. The answer to "who is my neighbor?" is not "everyone," true, but it is something like, "everyone you encounter who needs help, and you should seize every opportunity to expand the set of one's neighbors." In modern life, the number of people whom we have connections of a closeness no greater than "meeting them on the road" is so vast that if we tried to be a neighbor to all of them we would have nothing left for ourselves, and that is just the point Jesus is making. So JM's complaint that:

"the parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most abused and misinterpreted in our day. One of the most common errors is to read it as a kind of plug for utilitarianism, or at least some variety of utilitarianism."

is singularly unconvincing. A utilitarian reading of the Good Samaritan story is not particularly abusive or much of a misinterpretation. It is quite compelling. What JM argues against this would seem more apt if it were answering the question "yes, one should conduct oneself as a universal altruist, but how?" than when it is meant to support the claim "the moral of the Good Samaritan story is not utilitarian because..."

I think the degree to which ordinary people, and ordinary traditions and ways of life, are selfless and dedicated to serving others, is often underestimated, including by ordinary people themselves. An "idealist" who turns his back impatiently on traditional duties and family responsibilities to serve mankind is likely to be chasing illusions and probably would have done more good at home. On the other hand, the misadventures he has trying to "serve mankind" may make him appreciate the opportunities he has to serve his family and community in a way that he could not otherwise have done. And again we run into the words of Jesus: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). Though probably every good Christian reads these words with a certain resistance to their *prima facie* sense, it must be admitted that they are not exactly favorable to a doctrine of the primary of "special obligations."

To sum up, while I think a universalist utilitarian altruism is not a very useful guide to conduct in most everyday situations, provided that one respects the rights of others (e.g., one doesn't use the greater good to justify murder like a Bolshevik), it rarely does any harm and is likely to be thoroughly good for one's character to try to live by this principle, as well as being quite consistent with multiple passages in the Gospels. If you set about this with even a moderate degree of sincerity and intelligence, it will quickly teach you humility, because the first thing one will discover is that you are more useless to others than you thought. Later, if you keep trying, you'll find ways that you are of some (small) use after all. If, through much practice and experience, you ever do become of great value to others-- and I am not speaking from personal experience here, but I think I can extrapolate and draw lessons from the lives of other, better people-- humility will have become a habit, and the serendipity and grace that will always have such a large role in one's opportunities to be of real service to others will protect you from their being an occasion of pride. I think a great servant of mankind, confronted with the ethics of utilitarian philosophy, would find them glib, shallow, and unhelpful. But not wrong, exactly.

Joyless Moralist

There's something of a spectrum of utilitarian views, and I sometimes say that you really get a choice between vacuous and wrong (or various combinations thereof.) The simpler, more straightforward versions (espoused by people like Bentham or JJC Smart) maintain that we should go through life consciously trying to be impartial pleasure maximizers (understanding pleasure in a hedonistic sense.) That's substantive, in the sense of making claims that not every ethical theory would take for granted, and that aren't obviously right... because, of course, they're very wrong. Meanwhile, at the other end, you have people wanting to espouse more complicated pleasures or maximize something else (virtue? love?), and wanting to move the maximization aspect more into the background so that we're not thinking about it all the time. That's more plausible... mainly because it's not saying anything very interesting. I mean, of course everyone will agree that it's better if there's more good in the world (broadly conceived) than if there's less.

So, it's kind of a lose-lose. I'm inclined to think your "universal altruism" is similar to this, but it's hard to tell since I'm not sure what exactly it entails. If you basically just mean that we should wish everyone well in a general sense, and welcome the opportunity to do someone a good turn, then sure, but that's not a terribly controversial view. If you mean something more substantive (like your claim that the needs of strangers should take priority over our own and our family's) then I probably disagree.

"Still, it does seem to be the point of the Good Samaritan story to cast the net of charity very wide indeed."

Well, yes and no. On the one hand, I agree that it's significant that the Samaritan is of a hostile nationality, and the lesson there seems to be that we're not allowed to eliminate anyone from "potential neighbor" status; regardless of someone's ethnicity, beliefs, age, nationality, whatever, we might potentially be called to serve them. Also noteworthy is the *degree* to which the Samaritan puts himself out for the wounded man. He could have just tossed a few coins or at most offered a ride to whatever town or inn was closest along the Samaritan's way. Instead he treats the man almost like a near relation. That seems to imply that we can't necessarily hold to self-selected limits, as in, "I'll help strangers up to this cash amount, but no further."

On the other hand, there's another sense in which the Good Samaritan story shows a case in which the obligation to help would seem glaringly obvious. The encounter, after all, is of a particularly dramatic kind; the Samaritan literally finds the other man dying by the roadside as he travels along. The help is desperately needed, and the Samaritan is in a fairly unique position to provide it. In contemporary ethics that kind of situation would be posited as a case in which even a minimally decent person would feel obliged to do *something.* And this is reflected in the term "Good Samaritan law", which refers to a kind of law requiring people to help in cases of serious emergency when they have some fairly unique opportunity to make a difference. I don't mean to suggest that the Good Samaritan story is only applicable to these kinds of situations, but I just don't think it's clear, from the parable, how proactive we're supposed to be about finding strangers to serve.

It's true, of course, that excessive generosity to strangers isn't a very common problem in the world. Still, I think there can be a danger in allowing people to adopt this utilitarian-type mindset. For one thing, there are at least a few people who neglect their personal responsibilities because they think their work (either volunteer or paid) is more important and generally more useful to the world. There can also be a phenomenon (most common among Evangelicals, I find) of feeling that it's okay to mooch off friends and family well into adulthood (including making them de facto responsible for feeding *your* kids) if you meanwhile are occupying yourself in a sufficiently "do-gooderish" way (with missionary work, for example).

My annoyance over this mindset probably provides some clues to what I take to be the real danger of feeling that we "ought" to be some sort of utilitarian even though most of us, on a day to day level, don't act on anything like utilitarian precepts. Particularly as people move into their 30's, 40's and beyond, they reach a point where they really *ought* to be embedding themselves within families and communities and making many or most of their contributions to the world in that context. Put another way, as people reach maturity, they need to develop a properly deep and nuanced understanding of commitment. A failure to take commitment seriously is a severe defect in an adult, which often leads to all kinds of chaos and grief. I might even go so far as to say that the ability to understand and make real commitments is the primary marker of human maturity.

Well, I think utilitarian-type ethical views (not necessarily endorsed in a conscious, philosophically-informed sort of way, but still lingering under the surface of many people's moral consciousness) can often be a barrier to attaining that sort of moral seriousness. A lot of people, I think, are prey to a sort of inarticulate guilt once they settle into family life, because they have a lingering sense that they ought to be doing something broader and more "global" and not just devoting all their time to piano recitals and soccer practices. That can destabilize even harmonious family relations. But, even more importantly, people who feel restless or dissatisfied with their family lives often use utilitarian-type justifications as an excuse to slack off on their family obligations. All of this makes it harder and harder to instill an appropriate sense of the seriousness of commitment... the lack of which is certainly a great cause of suffering in the world today.

Nathan Smith

Hmm. I keep getting struck by how JM's arguments seem to be at odds with the Gospels. Thus, she expresses annoyance at some Evangelicals for mooching off friends and family well into adulthood. But that's how Jesus lived. Luke 8:3 tells of "Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others who provided for Him from their substance." And He told His apostles to live the same way: "And as you go, preach, saying 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.'... Provide neither gold nor silver nor copper in your moneybelts, nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staffs; for a worker is worthy of his food.'" In other words, mooch off of the people you're teaching. The way of life JM is annoyed with is the way of life Jesus lived and recommended as ideal.

JM writes that "the lack of [an appropriate sense of the seriousness of commitment] is certainly a great cause of suffering in the world today." But first, note what Jesus had to say about oaths: "Do not swear at all... but let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No' be 'No.' For whatever is more than this comes from the evil one." (Matthew 5:34-37) And also: "Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?... Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?'... But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble." (Matthew 5:26-34) All of this seems hard to reconcile with emphasizing the overriding importance of commitment-- except, of course, commitment to Christ.

But of course Christ did come down strongly against divorce (albeit explicitly excepting the case of adultery, a point the Roman Catholics seem to have somehow missed). Christ clearly did endorse marriage as a commitment. It's quite true that a lack of appropriate commitment in marriage, or an insistence on taking sexual liberties outside the commitments of marriage, is a great cause of suffering in the world today. But JM is quite wrong in conflating this with the godly-carefree lifestyles of some Evangelicals. Evangelical Christians are quite clear in forbidding sex outside marriage and insisting that marriage be taken seriously and strongly opposing divorce. There's a big difference in feeling little need to accept commitments and violating the terms of commitments once they are undertaken. That the latter is a great cause of suffering in the world I'll readily agree, but I'm not at all convinced that the former is; if anything, I'd be inclined to say the opposite.

JM writes that "a lot of people, I think, are prey to a sort of inarticulate guilt once they settle into family life, because they have a lingering sense that they ought to be doing something broader and more 'global' and not just devoting all their time to piano recitals and soccer practices." This remark reminds me of the Mary and Martha story. A modern version of Martha's complaint to Jesus about her sister would be "Lord, do You not care that my sister [while listening to You] has left me to drive the kids to piano recitals and soccer practices alone?" There are things more important than piano recitals and soccer practices. I'm less sure that there are things less important than piano recitals and soccer practices. To say that one might do better to volunteer in the soup kitchen, or spend more time reading the Gospels, than trying to be Supermom, is not to say, of course, that a mother should let her children go hungry; it's hard to think of any circumstances in which that would be right.

As for "that can destabilize harmonious family relations," not only did Jesus destabilize the harmonious family relations of Martha and Mary, but He taught: "I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man's enemies will be those of his own household." (Matthew 10:35-36) Clearly, He wasn't worried about destabilizing harmonious family relations if that's what it took to call people to a higher life, to a life of service to God and their fellow man.

Joyless Moralist

This is why the Church has from the early years drawn distinctions between the liminal lifestyle (which involves freeing oneself for God by renouncing marriage and family) and the more common commitment to marriage and children. Some of Jesus' teachings (including most of the ones you cite) are understood to apply to these consecrated few; the married are called to fulfill their obligations to spouse and family, which, as you seem to appreciate, can make it impossible to live some of those "counsels of perfection."

Just because a person is married doesn't mean he shouldn't try to make a little space in which he can be "free for God", like say a special prayer time at a time when his other obligations normally leave him free. Protestants, though, have abolished this distinction altogether, and end up trying to rerecapture the liminal in ways that I frequently consider to be unhealthy and irresponsible.

Nathan Smith

The distinction to which JM refers, although there is a certain amount of wisdom in it, is much too cut-and-dried. It is worth remembering that St. Peter was a married man. I wonder: from JM's point of view, wasn't his decision to suddenly put down his nets and follow a certain itinerant Preacher he knew not where, "unhealthy and irresponsible?"

And it won't really do to dismiss the entire Sermon on the Mount as counsels of perfection for a consecrated few, as opposed to-- which is sensible-- emphasizing that the effort to follow the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount has often led people to forsake plans of marriage and that there is a strong *prima facie* case that the most perfect realization of the Gospel ideal is possible only in an unmarried state. In Matthew, there are some hints in the text that Jesus might have led His disciples away from the multitudes in order to teach this sermon, but this is far from a proof that he meant to institute a permanent distinction between those who were called to follow the Sermon on the Mount and those who weren't. If the distinction were really meant to be that sharp, Matthew should have done much more to set it apart. Also, "think not for the morrow" is all mixed up with "judge not that ye be not judged" and the Lord's Prayer and other things that we do take to be meant for all Christians. Also, Jesus says the same things in other parts of His ministry that He says in the Sermon on the Mount-- in Matthew 10, for example. And in Luke the same sayings are all mixed up differently. The relation between the Gospel counsels of perfection and the difficult compromises the world imposes on us is more subtle and interesting.

But anyway, I would be interested to know: what *harms* does JM thinks come from the "unhealthy and irresponsible" lifestyles she attributes to some Evangelical young people? It seems to me that they tend to preserve the virtues of bourgeois life-- politeness, honesty, industry-- while avoiding its worse manifestations, its vapid materialism and rat-race ambition, and tend to be happy themselves and a source of happiness to others.

Joyless Moralist

St Peter married BEFORE he was called away. We don't really know what happened to his wife, but I think we should give him the benefit of the doubt and presume that she consented for him to leave, and that he ensured that she was otherwise cared for. Cases like that raise some interesting issues, but are not unique to St Peter. There were quite a few cases, in the ancient and medieval period, of people leaving married life, with their spouses' permission, to pursue religious life of some kind. For obvious reasons, this generally wasn't permitted if there were dependent children in the picture.

But these Evangelical types get married even while living off the generosity of family or friends, with the intention of starting a family and effectively making their benefactors responsible for the support of their offspring as well. They may or may not be less materialistic than the rest of us (I haven't always found this to be the case) but they effectively make a long-term plan of passing on to relations or friends responsibilities that should be theirs. And then, instead of feeling ashamed, they feel that they are being specially good Christians for living off other people's paychecks instead of drawing their own.

As far as harms go, I'm not saying it's the world's greatest tragedy, but I don't think it's healthy and I'm quite sure that not everyone feels as happy about it as you evidently do. A representative sampling of another type of feeling could be seen in a library coworker of mine some years back, whose younger sister "found Jesus and now wants me to pay for her to go on 'mission trips' all the time." The interesting part was that the woman made frequent contributions, I guess in the interests of keeping the peace, but obviously felt serious annoyance about it, particularly because her sister seemed to feel that she was doing something really good and virtuous while her big sister (my coworker) was just a plebeian member of the materialistic bourgeois who should feel honored to have the chance to sponsor a missionary. But, as my coworker pointed out, she thought it sounded pretty fun to go galavanting around the world on someone else's dime, and additionally, she herself had some causes that she cared about and would enjoy working for full time, except that she had qualms about guilt-tripping others into paying her bills. She didn't seem to be religious in any significant way, so I was slightly surprised to find that I thought my co-worker was in the right here and her sister in the wrong. Family and friends have an interest in your well-being, and it's okay to draw on that in crisis periods, but you shouldn't abuse it to essentially extort their support for your own pet causes. Even if they really are good causes.

Now, it can be possible for a charitable organization to employ married people or parents in a more usual way, involving negotiated salaries for services rendered. I have no problem with that. There may also be cases in which a family or community really is mutually invested in a cause in such a way that they want to sponsor a particular member of that group to devote his life to it. I don't rule out that possibility, but I think great sensitivity needs to be exercised in gauging whether there really is that kind of mutual enthusiasm... and I don't think such sensitivity is often employed by those who feel themselves to be burning with mission.

But the kind of thing the apostles do (traveling around preaching or serving people, and expecting them to offer material support) is properly limited to those who have given up both the joys and the responsibilities of family life (particularly with its naturally attendant duty to raise children and provide a secure home for them.) That isn't to say that the counsels of perfection might not inspire the rest of us in lesser ways. I don't think we should black them out with a cheerful "not relevant to me" attitude. But I also think we need to acknowledge forthrightly that, for those who have made other commitments, living those counsels to their fullest is neither possible nor appropriate. And, having recognized that, we should embrace both the blessings and the duties allotted to us.

Nathan Smith

Well, you answered my question, thanks. I can see the theoretical dangers in trying to live an apostolic-style missionary life without embracing the apostolic lifestyle of poverty, I just hadn't seen any examples. Still, I wouldn't take your coworker's word for it about how she "seemed to feel," and your coworker's giving may have done her good even if it was done a bit resentfully.

I wouldn't assume anything about St. Peter. Jesus emphatically replied elsewhere to a man who wanted to bury his father before becoming a disciple, "Let the dead bury their dead." That Peter's wife *did* consent, and that the Lord foresaw that she would, seems likely, but that Peter *asked* her consent is not suggested by the Gospel text.

I would say, not that "for those who have made other commitments, living [the Gospel] counsels to their fullest is neither possible nor appropriate," but that one can't formulate general rules about how to do it. If one enjoys one's work, one might do it without thinking for the morrow, for the sheer pleasure of the satisfied customer or the well-plowed field; in that case, one might do it without "thinking for the morrow." And the conflict between "special obligations" of parents towards their children and universal charity arises in proportion to wealth and privilege. A rich man's child is never the neediest possible beneficiary of his largess, and the marginal dollar spent on him is always at odds with the Good Samaritan principle of being a neighbor to every sufferer one comes across. A poor man's child, on the other hand, may be the neediest possible beneficiary of what poor help he is able to give him. I think a lot of people may find, in their individual lives, if they search and pray and are ready to make sacrifice and not unduly enslaved to special claims that are not based on true need and are in tension with universal charity, that a way is opened to them which makes living in accordance with the Gospels more practical than it appears, even outside the monastery or the Franciscan habit.

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