Someone shared this quote with me, and I want to pass it on: “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” – John Kenneth Galbraith
I find life with young children fascinating, because in many ways, I think all of the world’s biggest questions comes up just in playing and interacting with them. How should people behave to one another? What are our obligations to one another? If one child is playing with two toys, should the child be obliged to give one to the other child? But what if that first child’s game was dependant upon both toys, and the second child has other toys available? Does either child’s right to the contested toy depend upon how they were behaving at the time? To me nothing is cut and dry, but the dilemmas facing young children are in some ways quite similar to the dilemmas faced by adults. They are questions of responsibility to oneself and to others. (As a side note, I must say, I find it interesting that many people who would insist instantly that their children share would not be willing to do so with their own possessions. Adults often seem to expect sacrifices from children that we feel we don’t need to make as adults.)
Sometimes I wish I knew better what I believed on these things, to be able to teach my children better. Yet I am hopelessly confused by the complexity of human relationships and moral dilemmas. I do know that I don’t want justification for selfishness, I want hope that selflessness will work. Yet as I write that, I think “how do we expect selflessness to work?” By magic? By some underlying law of nature? By evoking other humans to do the same? By accepting that selflessness “working” doesn’t necessarily mean things turn out in a happy way but rather that some good is accomplished anyway?
Selflessness, carried to extremes, would be martyrdom whether in a literal or figurative manner. I’m not interested in that. I want to understand how to set good boundaries too, and figure out when and how to do it. And when are boundaries selfishness, and when are they justifiable self-defense? I ask this because people have different measure of what they need or not. John Kenneth Gailbraith’s modern conservative would say that he objects to paying for others social safety net because he is just trying to scrape out a living. It is self-defense, he would say, not selfishness. There is no objective standard for what is “enough of a living.” Using terms like “selfishness” is a bit like saying “go forward and then turn right” without knowing where a person is starting out from. This is very apparent in conversations about the politics of wealth redistribution. Different people have different ideas of what they need or are entitled to. Or in the words of Jane Austin’s character Elizabeth Bennett, “Where does discretion end, and avarice begin?”
I think there need to be more conversations about this issue, because I think people who identify as being “left wing” or “socialist” in some way need to take seriously the way in which others feel threatened by the perception that they are being asked to give up more than they can give up. We need to take seriously the questions that people raise.
One of the things most appealing to me about Christianity is the idea of selflessness, and of having no self-defenses… being willing to give up everything. My understanding of Christianity was heavily influenced by the book The Robe, by Lloyd C. Douglas,, which I first read as an eleven year old child. In that fictional story of the soldier who won Jesus’ robe, there are two ideas that stand out to me. One is the idea that believing in Jesus means giving up everything, risking everything. The other is a line about how once a person does believe, he cannot go back to living the normal exploitive life. The book is historical fiction so the character who says he cannot go back to living his everyday life is talking about not resuming the life of a Roman Tribune, but I look at our modern Western society and the way in which it is propped up by the exploitation of others, and I think the same idea should apply here. Once aware of the exploitation around us, and of the message that all humans are…. in religious terms, children of God, and in modern humanistic terms, equal… we should not be willing to accept the exploitation. We should be throwing our whole energy into trying to find a different way to live. We should be striving for a way of life that reflects our beliefs that all people are loved by the all powerful being.
I’m not actually willing to try to define what it means to be a Christian. Everyone can define that for his or herself and I don’t care if people call themselves it and believe totally opposite of what I think it should be or not. Yet if I defined Christian as one willing to follow such an extreme view of obligation, I probably would have to say I don’t know many Christians, and I don’t think that I would count. I would be like the wealthy man in the gospel story, wanting to be Christian but unwilling to give up all my belongings and defenses. I’m not willing to go in for martyrdom, whether literal or figurative. Yet I can’t help thinking that I should be willing to.
Now I know as I write this that Christians do not agree on what it is God wants for everyone. Does he want us to have equality here on earth? Some would say that the blessing of being God’s child is internal not external, or that it comes in the afterlife and not this world. I don’t think that way. To use another quote, this one supposedly by someone named S. Parkes Cadman, “I would not give a fig for any man’s religion whose horse, cat and dog do not feel its benefits. Life in any form is our perpetual responsibility.” To that I would add, that the benefits of a person’s religion should be felt by every human the person comes in contact with too. It makes no sense to claim to believe that other people are God’s children and then say that it is okay to exploit them, perhaps as immigrants picking one’s vegetables or as displaced people whose land is being ripped apart to get the minerals needed for one’s Ipod. Religion should make us nicer to others, more able to care about their viewpoint, less willing to try to justify our own selfishness.
And yet the counter to the argument that religion can be good for encouraging selflessness is that religion has also been used to encourage people to endure abusive situations and to turn the other cheek to injustices. So we’re right back to that parallel question of whether some self-defense and boundaries are necessary.
I have no answers. Only questions.