Self, world, neighbor

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.

15 thoughts on “Self, world, neighbor

  1. If anonymous African children are next door because a government that hates you and wants more obedient voters flew them over from Africa and Section-eighted them into your neighborhood, are they your neighbors?
    Cities like Lewiston, Maine once welcomed African immigrants for the Federal dollars they bring to economically depressed communities as permanent welfare clients. I wonder if they’ve come to regret it yet.
    If true Christianity requires that we lay down and let the brown masses take our homelands and ravish our daughters, Jesus need never return, as all his followers will soon be in Heaven.

    • Yes, I’d say one has more responsibility toward a group of Africans one has importing into one’s hometown than to other Africans one has left behind. A reason to think carefully before doing such a thing.

      • If the importing was done without consulting me by people who hate my kind, I have zero moral responsibility toward the imports. Shoot, shovel, and shut up, or if possible, sell my house to a Section 8 landlord and move someplace where there are no neighbors.
        In the modern welfare state there is only “self” and “world” — neighborhoods are dead and families nearly so. And charity is pointless because whether you give or not, the poor will vote a big chunk of your paycheck into their pockets without the slightest remorse or gratitude.

  2. Pingback: Self, world, neighbor | @the_arv

  3. It is curious that they use the neutral term “change” with an implicit assumption that any change would be an improvement. Are we to suppose that the world is so very bad as all that? I suppose it might be possible that someone could make a change in the Mona Lisa that was universally regarded as an improvement, but I am certainly not that person. If I were to change some lines in Shakespeare, the result would be an inferior play. Bringing things a little closer to home, I have often destroyed machines that I set out to repair when they were merely broken, and I cannot count the number of times my benevolent meddling in other peoples affairs have exacerbated those affairs. Thus I believe all would-be doctors of this world should follow the Hippocratic principle “first, do no harm.”

    Loving one’s neighbor does not always mean helping him. In fact it just as often means leaving him alone because he is quite satisfactory without assistance from me. Loving one’s wife entails a certain amount of helping her out, but it also entails a certain amount of letting her be because one appreciates the person she already is.

    • … and I cannot count the number of times my benevolent meddling in other peoples affairs have exacerbated those affairs.

      The things that convert a conservative into a traditionalist.

  4. While I understand the point you’re making, the self is bound up with love of neighbor. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves.
    It takes real humility to know what is good for yourself and others. Christianity is not a “selfless” religion really. God cares deeply about your character, even your own peace and personal strength. God’s word is rich in encouragement to virtue and even joy. But you have to have humility about your own limitations to get there.
    I view it as one of the great failings of the modern church that it doesn’t do all that well at really showing the way and why of consecration and Charity. We’re dead because our hearts are joyless and numb, our minds are confused, and our courage is being constantly discouraged. Fixing that starts with you and God.

  5. Pingback: Self, world, neighbor | Reaction Times

  6. The Tenth Commandment characterizes the neighbor as the paramount instigation to envy or covetousness although through no fault of his own but simply because of his existence and his nearness. The Tenth Commandment is the only discursive commandment, enjoining covetousness no less than five times, first in the case of the neighbor’s house, next of his wife, next of his servant, next of his donkey or ass, and finally in respect of “anything” belonging to him. Catholic tradition links the injunction against covetousness with the imperative to love the neighbor as one loves himself, but I take that to mean, not so very much. Perhaps the essence of neighborliness is not love but respect for the dignity of people and property. Neighborliness requires the suppression of resentment. It requires therefore a certain degree of conscious distancing.

    • Dr. Bertonneau, yours above is an interesting comment/perspective. Years ago there was a big push in certain Protestant circles in which church members were informed that before they could properly and effectively love their neighbor as themselves, they would first need to learn to love themselves (as opposed, I guess, to despising themselves). This became, for a time, a common refrain amongst those with which I had daily interactions. Especially the women. What ultimately became my standard reply was, “well, that shouldn’t be too hard,” it being my judgment based on my experiences that people are naturally predisposed to love themselves above all others.

      • I can’t bring myself to love me very much. I’m too aware of my faults. The priorities, it seems to me, are making good our faults as best we can and staying out of the way of other people, as much as possible. Love, except when it is confined among a few people, as between husband and wife or family members, is to me a suspect phenomenon.

      • One of the unquestionable dogmas of the current day is that women need to be more selfish. Another is that women need to have more self-esteem. These selfless, overly-humble beings seem to love the message, too.

    • Your phrase “suppression of resentment” captures something that I was trying to express in an earlier comment. Love is often experienced as respect, or even reverence, and is very far removed from any impulse to “improve” (i.e. interfere with) the loved one. Sometimes what passes for love is a sort of resentment that another person is getting on just fine without any help from one’s self, and an overwhelming impulse to punish their self-sufficiency with a little unrequested assistance.

      • Ah!, now we have a glimmer. Love thy neighbor as thyself usually means ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ In other words, ‘mind your own business.’

      • Yes — we must all become better socialists every day. Working, but not living, in the university, I know plenty of people who love themselves inordinately and who wish for the (imagined) causes of that self-adulation to be the cynosure of public notice. They dislike it intensely when the collective attention shifts to other parties, who of course have no real cause to love themselves or be the cynosure of public regard. These people are experts, as you so finely put it, in punishing self-sufficiency with a little unsolicited assistance.

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