The Moral Imagination

Many years ago when I first wrote this post, a comment was made by someone calling himself “Auth” in which he (or she) characterized the poor as “folks who are usually smoking crack and pumping out babies at 1 a year.” I thought at the time that the comment, such as it was, deserved an extended response. So I wrote the following piece.

Some years ago during the Summer I was a visiting professor at the University of Rhode Island and taught a course in Ethics to a class of about 30 students. It was a good class and we had some lively discussions. At one point we were discussing Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act so the maxim of your will can serve as a universal law.” We tried to unpack the peculiar words in order to make some sense of them and perhaps see how they might help us resolve moral perplexities — which is the purpose of an Ethics course, after all. We decided that Kant was saying something like this: adopt a moral principle that would affect both yourself and others equally. Don’t think of yourself as the exception; we are all morally equal. In a word (though somewhat of an oversimplification) Kant was saying something very much like the “Golden Rule” — do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The interesting part of the discussion came about when we were trying to use examples to see how the rule might be applied in a particular case. We finally came around to the case of a poor person who required assistance and we decided that anyone who was in the position of the person in need would want, even welcome, assistance. We all pretty much agreed — except for one student who simply could not imagine that he would ever be the person in need. He denied that it was morally right to help those in need if the rule depended on the one making the rule supposing himself or herself to be the person in need. He simply would not allow that the right thing to do was to help the other person. The entire class went after the young man to the point where I was genuinely concerned about his well-being. He never did change his mind.

It is possible the young man was just trying to draw attention to himself, or make a scene. But I suspected that he honestly could not imagine himself ever to be a person in need of assistance from someone else. He was not stupid by any means, though he certainly lacked empathy. But above all he lacked the faculty of imagination. He simply was incapable of putting himself in the place of another person — even for a moment. As a result after the discussion was over and I reflected on the class, I decided that this young man was incapable of acting morally in Kant’s sense of that term. If he were to do the right thing it would have to be by habit, training, or accident.

I think this is the case with the anonymous comment to my previous blog: the author of the comment simply cannot imagine that he might be poor and in need of assistance. Otherwise, how could he possibly take such a narrow, superior, unfeeling, condescending attitude toward another human being? I suspect that in this person’s mind, the poor are less than human — certainly nothing like him! Perhaps this is what allows such people to adopt the superior air. In any event, most of the comments on the blog suggested that “Auth” is in the minority: most people responded with feeling to the possibility that they might themselves be poor, given the uncertainty of today’s economy, for example, and that we do have an obligation to help those in need. I just hope that the majority of those who responded to the blog are typical of the rest of the people in this society. If they are like “Auth” or the student in that class then heaven help us!

Obeying the Law

One of the central problems Rousseau wrestled with in The Social Contract was the question whether it is possible for a person to remain free while at the same time obeying a civil law. It is indeed the central problem for any political thinker, but Rousseau is the one who seems to have understood the problem most clearly.

Rousseau embraced the notion of the “noble savage,” claiming that we would be better off if we didn’t have to live in social units at all, especially social units with a government. But we do, and he knew it. So, how can we make the best of it? There’s only one way, he thought, and that is by living in a true democracy. Rousseau had little patience with representative government, insisting that we are free at the moment we choose our lawmakers and thereafter we are slaves to that person’s will. The only way we can live together in political units and retain our freedom is if we actually make the laws ourselves.

This is where it gets interesting. If citizens are able to discuss an issue at length and take the long view, Rousseau thought, they can pass laws that express what he called the “General Will.” That is, they can pass laws that really do further the common good — whether as individuals we accept that fact or not. In obeying a law that we have made in conjunction with other enlightened (!) citizens, we will invariably make the right law and in obeying that law we are free. In a word, freedom is about doing the right thing. If we are in a minority when the law is passed after thorough discussion, we are “forced to be free.” This is Rousseau’s famous paradox, and it sounds a bit like Pauline Manford in Wharton’s Twilight Sleep. But I doubt that Wharton knew about Rousseau’s take on this paradox and she was almost certainly ridiculing the notion that someone could be free while being forced to do what New York society decides is best for him. But is it that crazy? It certainly is when New York “society” determines what is best for us. But what if we made the laws ourselves?

We equate human freedom with having as many choices as possible, as I have mentioned in previous blogs. The more choices we have, the freer we think we are. Rousseau (and other enlightenment thinkers) would disagree. Freedom comes from doing the right thing. And, for the Frenchman, doing the right thing means acting in accordance with the General Will. This is a notion that powerfully influenced Kant who translated it into his famous “Categorical Imperative.” If we will what would be good for anyone else in the same circumstances (that is, distance ourselves from short-term self-interest and gut feelings) we can be free moral agents. Thus, we can make laws and in obeying those laws (moral or civil) we maintain our freedom. But when it comes to civil law, we must make the laws ourselves: Rousseau would have nothing to do with our Republic (which we mistakenly call a Democracy). Freedom is only possible in political units where all participate and all seek what is best for the community as a whole, recognizing that what is best for all is best for each.

What we have in the end, it seems to me, is a case for enlightened self-interest, a notion of morality that identifies the good (personal or public) with doing what is best for ourselves in the long run. The problem is, of course, that few of us are able to think in terms of the long-run and tend to be focused instead on short-term self-interest, which is antithetical to the good and can never lead us to what Martin Luther King famously called “the moral high ground.” In a word, if we want to be free and to do the right thing (which amounts to the same thing) we need to think about ourselves in conjunction with others and ask what would be best for all of us and not just for me here now.

Just a little philosophical food for a lazy Saturday.