Score One for Flourishing

marriage cert

David Brooks has a good column today. Here’s the money quote.

The proponents of same-sex marriage used the language of equality and rights in promoting their cause, because that is the language we have floating around. But, if it wins, same-sex marriage will be a victory for the good life, which is about living in a society that induces you to narrow your choices and embrace your obligations.

Brooks is rightly cutting through the current political rhetoric about rights and equality, both of which are important, to point out that flourishing (he called it the good life) requires limits to choice and commensurate responsibilities. The idea that unlimited choice is equivalent to liberty is absurd on the face as long as two human beings exist close enough to interact in any way. Social existence, the form of life we are born into, is always a balance of selfishness and care for others in the form of accepting limits to how my actions encroach upon your space.

The whole idea of rights, it seems to me, is a consequence of our failure to care for others. When we do care as a fundamental behavioral pattern, this legislative way of constraining behavior becomes unnecessary. If we start with a premise that human beings are fundamentally selfish, then we will construct, as we have, our institutions around rules that limit action.

But when we construct institutions, such as marriage, based on love as the mutual acceptance of the other, few rules need to be imposed. Flourishing or the good life, as Brooks writes, is found in the satisfaction that comes when all those others (humans and non-humans) that enter one’s life are being cared for. I would hesitate as Brooks writes, to call these acts of care: obligations. That word sounds too much like “shoulds” or “musts” imposed from the outside. Care, as I write, always refers to actions internally and authentically generated.

I do agree that a win for same-sex marriage is a victory of sorts for flourishing, but only for those who choose to live authentically within whatever constraints they determine for themselves. It is almost laughable to see it as a victory for a society that could not be farther away from a culture based on love and care. Even this issue is being largely argued, as Brooks says, on the grounds of equality or equity, and the legal construct of non-discrimination.

Perhaps this win if or when it happens will come to be seen as a step towards sustainability-as-flourishing, but we will have to start looking at it through a different lens, one of love and care. If we do do that, then maybe we will start to redesign our institutional rules from the level of the Constitution to those we use to set our children’s allowances to reflect the natural limits that govern relationships in loving contexts. I have a profound belief that human beings are at heart loving creatures, in spite of our selfish and bloody behavior over a few millennia. But this short article I quote today illustrates the difficulty of re-discovering that in a world where love and care are commoditized just like almost everything else of real value, and where unlimited choice is equated with the good life. People who believe that is true should read Barry Schwartz’s excellent book, The Paradox of Choice.

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2 Comments

Boudewijn said:

Hi John,

Thanks for this post. I think the paragraph you write about rights and care is interesting. It reminds me of the work of Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue) who describes how modern ethics (thus rights-based ethics and utilitarian ethics) are a failing project because they miss a fundamental base upon which ethics should be resting. This base, if I'm correct, is around Aristotle's question of how to live the good life; i.e. how one can flourish.

You also seem to say that you belief that loving and care is in our nature. I'm kind of thinking about this topic as well and read some work by Frans de Waal, a primatologist. Through him I've become quite convinced that, indeed, love and care is in our nature. He speaks of empathy being present in many of our close primate relatives. A nice TED Talk by de Waal: http://www.ted.com/talks/frans_de_waal_do_animals_have_morals.html

Mike Tennant said:

hi John,

I've been reading Annemarie Mol's book "The Logic of Care", which is a deep-dive into the supposed dichotomy of choice and care. Although she uses diabetes care as a case study I think the ideas and sentiments conveyed are pertinent to the sustainability discourse. A couple of things struck me:
the first is that she contends that care is about battling through the messes of today and trying to make things good (or better) - there may not be a quantifiable objective function to help us out, so we have to try and fail and try again. That reminds me of our pragmatist friends.
the second follows on from this. She tells us that care is always active - we have to get out there and do things. Choice, on the other hand is foisted on us and is passive. We're left to our own means to make sense of what's presented to us.

One of her essays can be read at the Lancet - the last paragraph is particularly poignant: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(09)60971-5/fulltext

cheers,

Mike