Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Self-Less and Unenlightened?

Guest-post from C.Ewing today (let me repeat my invitation to anyone who stops by the Playground to send me something as a guest post):

So, I was thinking the other day (I don't suggest it as a hobby, 'tis rather burdensome), and realized that I don't think our interpretations of self-less acts, when thinking about ethics, aligns very well with how we use it in more common language, which (amazingly) I think is a more consistent, forgiving, and proper understanding of the term in relation to moral concerns. That is, much as some people (you know who you are) have attacked me for being too strict and too stringent when dealing with a notion of knowledge, perhaps when we attack self-lessness/altruism in ethical debates, we are simply being too severe. Self-less, then, becomes labeled as something other than what it is in the common understanding and application of the term, and so we've stopped communicating and started bickering, or as my father used to call it: having supper.

Let us say, that you're in a relationship with a lovely woman. You're both very much in love, and during the day she calls you up and complains about what a horrible day she is having at work. You know that she is a fan of orchids. After work, you stop off and pick up some flowers to bring over.

Now, there are various reasons why you could be doing this. You could be doing it because you know she'll be vulnerable, and she'll be so relieved that you thought of her, and tried to cheer her up that you'll likely get some play. A little stress release/grateful sex. You could be doing it simply because you're hoping it'll brighten her spirits. You could be doing it because you think she'll expect something like that, and you don't want to get in trouble for being thoughtless. We can continue, but you get the idea.

In order for it to be self-less, however, all that seems to be required is that you do it "without regard to self" or to couch it in different language, "you and/or your own goods/wants/desires are not the impetus of the action". So, in the case of wanting to turn this into some sort of booty-call, you're being selfish, and pretty much just a douche. In the case of wanting to escape getting in trouble, you're doing it to save your own butt. In the case of wanting to cheer her up, it would seem you're being self-less.

Of course, then we get the enlightened self-interest boat rowing ashore with Mikey and his posse. And sure, it's feasible that some where down the line this will play out in your favor. Then, there's the case of the warm fuzzies. Surely, you get some sort of joy out of making someone you love feel better. Her happiness, seemingly, is intrinsic to your own, so you're helping yourself out as much as you're helping her.

A common retort is to say all of this is strictly coincidental, but not actually part of the deliberation. Well, likely it isn't. Most people simply aren't that calculated. Oh, but they'll say: it was in the back of your mind all along. Certainly, you've been in enough situations like this that you can be reasonably assured of how it'll play out. And certainly, we aren't assuming you're so irrational or lacking of such a capacity as to not see it coming.

The thing is, I don't think we need to worm our way out of this. Let's accept it. Yes, I'll get warm fuzzies. And I like warm fuzzies. Damnit, I want warm fuzzies. Yes, it'll make her more inclined to recipriate. And despite its being a bad word these days, I'd very much like it if she were to recipricate. Yes, I'm even aware that if I don't do something, I'll seem like a bad boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse/SO. It could come back to bite me in the butt later, and certainly I don't want that. I'm even aware that if things go really well I might be getting some tonight, and that certainly doesn't seem like a bad turn of events.

So what?

All that's required is that her interests, her needs, her wants, etc., are sufficient for my action. Are they? Yes. And so without regard to self, I still perform the action. All the various accoutrements are beside the damn point. They're extras. They're fluff. They're filler. They're like the air pumped into a twinkie. Sure, it's nice, but it's not like you're eating it (whatever the Hell a twinkie actually is) for the friggin' fluff. But, "How could you know?" one might ask. I'm the one doing the deliberating. I'm the one making the choices. I'm the one performing the action. I might not know with certainty, because I'm a human being, and we're complicated creatures. I could be mistaken. I could be in error. But I'm in a far better position to discern this than you are. And surely, the easiest, simplest, and most consistent answer is that I'm doing this for precisely the reason I evince. Now, if you can overcome your own epistemic difficulties in order to correct me, have at it. But I don't see that happening anytime soon.

In short: you can have your cake and eat it too. Delicious cake. And you can do it simply because it was a very, merry unbirthday, indeed.

Thoughts, questions, comments, ice cream anyone?