Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Agapē and our Mettā Obligation

Guest post from C.Ewing:

Linkage and here.

Recently, I had a discussion with TR about the linear assumption people seem to have. That is, if one appears to be acting in a kind way (performing a kind action) then we tend to assume that this relates back to kindness (as intention/emotion), which lies behind the action itself. We commonly assume such is the case, possibly due in large part to our own experiences, and the inclination we have to relate ourselves and our own experiences to others. In attempting to understand others, and their motivations, we make a lot of assumptions, some rather bold, and some less so, but they're always assumptions, since we can never known what's happening in another's mind.

But we can be, and have likely all been deceived at one point or another. One can act in a kind way towards us, but only be doing so out of self-interested pursuits, etc. Certainly love, kindness, concern, compassion, etc. can be avoided from being acted upon out of fear of potential consequences, embarrassment, etc. We can craft as many scenarios as we like to demonstrate this, and we can all take turns telling our individual stories, but this seems unnecessary to make the point.

Most of us can readily agree on kind actions. When your child is hurt, you comfort them and tend the wound. When a friend needs a few bucks for gas, you chip in. But in such cases we seem to assume the presence of something more. A friend is not merely someone who chips in as needed. A relationship must be present, and this requires more than acting in a particular fashion. When a mother tends to a scraped knee, it is more than bandaging and cleaning a wound. A friend performs actions out of friendship. A mother performs actions out of love. This is an assumption we readily make.

To merely go through the motions, however, seems to cheapen the relationship. A loveless marriage may well be considered a marriage only in name. Fair weather friends are more mere acquaintances than friends. This seems to indicate a lack of substance, or perhaps better termed, a lack of worth in the actions performed. They are not what they seem. It's a sort of social and moral dishonesty.

We often say to children, "Behave". We want them to act in a certain way. But we do more than this. We also tell them to, "Be nice". We do not say merely to act in a way others will interpret as being nice. We tell them to actually be nice. This is descriptive of their person, or rather how they are as a moral being, as a person in the world, a state or mode of being. This is unseen, but in their being nice we also expect demonstrations of this, otherwise we will not assume it to be present.

This is the linear assumption. If you are nice, then we expect you to behave in a fashion indicative of that niceness. When we describe someone as kind hearted, we do so after drawing the assumption from behavior. But this too falls into the category of assumption. Certainly, they can perform kind acts without ever having such intention as part of the impetus.

This seems to cheapen the behavior as well. There is dishonesty in the presentation. But if we are merely obligated to behave in a particular way, then there seems to be no harm. Indeed, there is not even the possibility, as the dishonesty is utterly unimportant.

I was visiting a friend in SoCal last summer. She was getting married, and I arrived early to spend time with her before the nuptials hit, and the mania began. We were sitting outdoors, having supper with several persons, who were all there visiting. I took the chance to head to the ATM and grab some cash. On walking to the ATM I passed a young woman (maybe early twenties) sitting on a bench, who had obviously been crying. I naturally had to pass her again on the way back. I wanted to say or do something, but I couldn't fathom precisely what. I didn't know this random young woman, and wouldn't have the foggiest how to broach the subject of her crying.

The previous examples all dealt with developed relationships. It does seem that there are other aspects assumed to lie therein, and the dishonesty can and ought to be reproved. We have not entered relationships of that type with random persons in the world. But does this alleviate any sort of obligation toward kindness?

If morality need be universalized, and is not merely based on reciprocity, self-interest (of whatever sort) or contractual agreements, then how do I escape my obligation towards the strangers of the world? Need I love them, care for them, and act upon that? Surely, I can care for them and not act. But there seems to be an avoidance there that is morally reprehensible. Surely, I can act without caring. But does that dishonesty only become problematic in established relationships? Is it their own damn fault for assuming that my kindness in action implies a kindness of the heart?

I can't escape the idea that I did something wrong that evening by not doing anything at all. Simply caring does not seem to be enough. But simply acting seems to be somehow insufficient as well. Am I obligated to be nice, and not merely behave? If so obligated, is it only to those in established relationships with me, or must it be universalized? Need I love the world, and all such people in it? Does love have nothing to do with it? When you are told to hug your brother after a fight, it does not seem to be merely for the sake of the action, but because the action is stating a certain condition of affairs within the person, and between the two of you. Am I not similarly obligated to embrace the people of the world? Is lip-service ultimately good enough for them?