Sunday, May 06, 2012

What's the most galling example of "forced" altruism?


I saw the film “Love Free or Die” about Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson in Baltimore today, and I’ll review it very soon (tomorrow).

But one thought struck me apart from the movie, particularly adding on to posts May 4 and April 12.
In history, most people have indeed lived in tribal or faith-related societies (sometimes nationalistic or communistic) based on the idea that a common good lies above the individual and must be respected, partly because societies, groups and families must compete to survive and a sometimes hostile world, beyond the control of any one person.  Most people have faced the pull of “altruism” (as in Edward O. Wilson’s recent book about eusociality) from the group requiring personal sacrifice, beyond the idea of simply taking responsibility for the choices one makes.

Sometimes these “sacrifices” involve taking risks to “protect” others (by no means limited to just one’s own children), and sometimes they involve accepting the will of the group or family in determining the course of one’s life rather than following one’s own personal talents and gifts.  And sometimes they involve willingness to show emotional openness and accept the company, sometime intimate company, of others that one would not normally have chosen just on one’s own. The latter has sometimes been particularly disturbing to me.  It’s upsetting in part because I was not in the past always “equal” to others in matters involving formation of or recognition of relationships.  So don’t come to me now, just because it’s tough.  I was never quite an equal on the team before.  The other idea is, I could accept something like this if I thought everyone else had to. 

That sounds like pretty much the moral code a lot of older people grew up with.  In the Vatican idea of sexual morality, “infidelity” was an offense against the whole community, not just a marriage partner, and “adultery by thought” was as much a sin as anything.  Any sexual pleasure at all implied an openness to taking possible responsibility for others, where one does not always know the potential “quality” of someone who could become dependent.  Sometimes the best one can do is help another person live as well as possible, not achieve according to one’s own standards of how one wants significant others in life to perform.  Likewise, any stake in public life involved having a stake in the lives of others, and responsibility for them.  When one has become public, indifference merges into hostility.

Of course, we can see where this kind of moral thinking can lead.  A somewhat authoritarian culture, where the “most able” (and hardest working) are in charge and are responsible for making sure everyone else’s life has “meaning” within the social structure.  In benevolent circumstances, such a culture can seem stable and sustainable for a long time, and then suddenly collapse.  (What did happen to the Soviet Union?)
Such a culture, as a paradox, also encourages “upward affiliation” among those having trouble competing for position in the “tribe”.  That can lead to focus on one’s own thoughts and talents and a resentment of being expected to pay attention to people one does not “choose” (the “best that I can do” syndrome.) 

Individualism (and resultant libertarianism) is a modern antidote to all this.  Personal responsibility becomes an absolute concept, and everyone becomes his or her own moral agent.  But common goals far by the wayside, and non-competitive people drop on the floor, and may not survive at all. Or they may become nihilistic or destructive, believing none of society’s legal standards are meaningful because it’s impossible to earn what one has without hidden dependence on others.  An overly individualistic society may not be sustainable either, and could break down into lawlessness.  That leads to another galling circumstance: forgiveness being expected for someone who has shown contempt.  

There is no such thing as a perfect social-political system, and there is no way not to sin.  That may be why we need Grace!


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