Anthony Gottlieb reviews Will Storr’s new book on the humbug of self-esteem promotion. It sounds like Storr makes a number of good points, but the following reflections were prompted by his conclusion.
The “lie at the heart of the age of perfectionism,” according to Storr, is that “we can be anything we want to be.” At the end of his quest, he decides that we should stop trying to change ourselves and focus instead on worthwhile ways to change the world.
I would have thought that unearned self-esteem is a hindrance to self-improvement, so that debunking the former would actually promote the latter. True, there is something narcissistic about an exclusive focus on improvement of one’s self absent any sort of transcendent reference. But striving to change the world is not to be encouraged, since it only destroys the good things handed down to us. Is not the jump from self to world an excessively large leap? Is there nothing in between these extremes?
Interestingly, Christian morality bases itself on neither self nor world. Its two poles are God and neighbor. “Neighbor” is a category lost to today’s ethicists. The neighbor is not myself, but he is in some sense close to me, someone God has placed within my field of concern. Jesus was evasive when asked how we are to identify our neighbor, and necessarily so; there is no simple rule. A person may slip in and out of my neighborhood. My family are neighbors even if they are on the other side of the world, because they are particular people with particular claims on the particular me. Coworkers and students are neighbors. Literal next-door neighbors are neighbors. Anonymous African children in distress are not my neighbors, but if one of them shows up in my vicinity in need of help, he becomes my neighbor, as in the story of the good Samaritan.
Even proximity, though, depends on social context. Each of us is more likely to offer help or a neighborly greeting to a stranger if he is the only other person around than if we are part of a crowd. We may be wrong to behave this way, but it is natural to us. The anonymity of crowds carries moral hazards. This consciousness that I have particular other people within my field of concern is indispensable. We conservatives, we anti-individualists, aim to protect the topology of society, the sense of a neighborhood to each member.
Here we must confront the humanitarian, the over-zealous preacher and moralizer, who thinks he can do one better by making all of humanity one neighborhood, declaring that each of us must be concerned with every other, that there is no more restricted set with a special claim on us.
I give two reasons for avoiding a promiscuous expansion of neighborhood: one positive and one negative.
Positively, our duty toward our neighbors is more substantive if this set does not embrace all of humanity. We are commanded to love our neighbors, and love always involves the valuation of particular persons. Toward the abstract mass of humanity, one can show at best benevolence. A command to treat abstract humanity and concrete neighbors the same cannot force us to love the abstraction, for this is impossible.
“Act locally, think globally,” the unfortunate saying goes. No doubt Storr and Gottlieb would say that the Good Samaritan did a little something to improve the world, but I think it a mistake to assimilate helping a concrete person to the abstract project of world-improvement; this is to ignore what is most morally valuable about it and our neighbor.
All men are not brothers, and anyone who says otherwise can’t really mean that he wants me to treat a stranger like my brother; he means I should start treating my brother like a stranger. The humanitarians assume that the default human response is how I treat those inside my circle of concern, rather than how I treat those outside. Thus they declare the circle suspect, because it takes away concern that would otherwise go to those outside. In fact, their assumption is wrong. Outside treatment is the default; my circle of concern adds a measure of care for those inside and takes nothing from those outside.
The negative argument for human-sized neighborhoods is no less crucial to human flourishing, for the fact is that if the masses of men are to have any happiness in life, we must attenuate the moral claims of the most miserable of the species upon the rest of us. When a crisis strikes a household or neighborhood–say, a flood or a fire–it is right that less urgent tasks be put aside until our family’s or neighbors’ urgent needs are met. But if the world is a single neighborhood, then it is one in a permanent state of crisis. There is always famine, pestilence, or war somewhere. In this case, there could be no place for any art or science or innocent merriment. Most of us want a world with museums and playgrounds and ice cream; none of us is really willing to live an egalitarian ethic. Even acknowledging an unlivable ethic as the ideal, though, will prompt unjust criticism and cause us to take legitimate moral demands less seriously.
Certainly, I have moral duties to those who are not my neighbors, duties of an impersonal sort. I owe obedience to my government and the Church hierarchy, for instance. Many such impersonal duties are rooted more directly in love of God than love of neighbor. Authority is delegated from God. Patriotism extends piety toward ancestors beyond the horizon of personal connection, so it finds a religious ground in reverence for the fatherland as a mediator of the divine order. God is the only being whose essence is identical with His substance, who is therefore both concrete (and so able to be loved) and universal, so He serves as a natural bridge between the personal and the abstract.
We do have moral duties to total strangers, simply because they are instantiations of the abstraction “humanity”. Most obviously, there is the negative duty that we refrain from seeking them out and harming them. Positive duties may also arise, but our duty to love our neighbor is a much deeper thing. What’s more, the desire to help anonymous strangers should be considered morally suspect. It is often an excuse to make oneself look good or to castigate neighbors whom one regards as enemies. Even when it is not, it is too much like trying to “change the world”. Each of us is vexed by the knowledge of his mortality and has noticed that “the world” will last much longer than we and our acquaintances will. It is natural to wish to preserve a part of ourselves by imprinting it upon the world. Like other expressions of our rebellion against death, our desire for food and sex, this pursuit is not sinful in itself, but it is selfish and has its attendant temptations. Far more mischief is caused by attempts to “change the world” than by gluttony or lust. It is also a futile pursuit; the lot of men is to perish and be forgotten. I would say that “changing the world” is least morally perilous where it is most impersonal, as in a quietly-made donation, and most prone to sin where we are most visible, as with today’s twitter-warriors.