Monday, February 01, 2010

The Superbowl, Care Ethics, and Numbers

Tommy Scils asks,

"Saints or Colts?"

It depends on the question: which team do I think will win or which do I want to win? I think the colts will probably take it, but anyone who is not rooting for the Saints is a horrible person. I especially want the Saints because I started cheering for them in 1984 when Robert Irsay took the Colts from us in the middle of the night, like the spineless piece of garbage he was. When I was two years old, I carried Earl Morrall's playbook at training camp back at what used to be called Western Maryland College. My room as a boy was painted white and royal blue and I went to half the home games the last year they were in Memorial Stadium. Watching the colts win a Superbowl is like seeing your ex-wife, the one you loved with all your heart, who left you for the jerk she was cheating on you with, on television winning the lottery.

And that brings us to our second question from C. Ewing,
"Would you mind explaining cared-based ethics?"

Not at all. The idea is that human relations are not just calculations of pain and pleasure as the utilitarians would have it, contractual relations as the social contractarians argue, or based on abstract duties as Kant and the Deontologists (a great name for a band) argue, rather humans engage with each other in deep interpersonal ways, we have relationships. Those relationships come with moral weight. When I know you, I owe you.

If it is a dark rainy night and you are late for a very important meeting and you pass someone broken down on the side of the road without a cell phone and you don't stop, you should feel a bit guilty. But if it is an old friend, you are a complete cad. If it is your mom...what's the matter with you? The idea is that when you have a connection to someone, that connection is based on care, concern for the person's welfare and you need to act in such a way as to help promote that person's well-being.

It is a line that comes from insights of second-wave feminism who saw traditional ethics based upon notions of contract and exchange, ideas of the courtroom and marketplace. But these didn't fit when we looked at basic human roles like parent or spouse. I don't do something for TheWife in expectation that she will pay it back, I do it because I love her. Similarly for the shorties, I want what is best for them because I care and that care means that they occupy a privileged ethical position. Consider the classic utilitarian conundrum in which you have one child drowning at one end of a pool and two at the other. The utilitarian says that you must go to the side with two, but suppose the one was your child. We would think something wrong with the parent who acted according to this cold calculation. By having the child, you accepted a special ethical burden.

This is why when you send those chocolates to your beloved who doesn't care for you, she sends them back. Not that she doesn't like chocolate, after all, who doesn't like chocolate? But by accepting them, she would be completing an act of care and allowing herself to be part of a relationship and that means that she now has a certain standing towards you she does not want. "We can still be friends," delimits the relationship and the degree of care that can be expected.

An act is a good act if it reinforces, deepens the relationship and problematic if it violates the sense of care, alienating those in the relationship. Baltimore loved it Colts, but Irsay left for a new stadium. He took a care-based relationship and severed it for contractual, monetary concerns. And that is why I say "Geaux Saints!"

This also accounts for part of the answer to Claude's question:
"Why do people feel it dehumanizing to be labeled by a number instead of a name? There are hundreds, if not thousands, with my name (first + last), whereas numbers can be unique."

It is true that name or number would be a symbol we use to represent our identity and that the number would be unique, the difference is that the number is randomly assigned whereas the name is something we see as part of our identity. When someone addresses us by name s/he recognizes you for the person you are and thereby a relationship is implied. By using the number, or in many instances a title, it keeps you as an abstract being, as a generic human. But when we call someone by name, especially a first name or a nickname, we assert in our utterance that we are dealing with you as you, not just as anybody.