Okay, first things first.1 One true answer to the titleâ€™s question is: not entirely. Phew. Dodged one there, didnâ€™t you? Not so fast, though. The answer may well be â€œSomewhat,â€ in which case it behooves you to read on to see how.
Alright, Iâ€™ll admit it. Itâ€™ll behoove me if you read on. You see, I might have gotten myself into a bit of hot water, although with some thought and an even keel, this water may turn out resemble more the palliative springs of many a television boom town than the terrifying pit at the end of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The sitch is that I am giving a talk on Friday. My first talk professional talk post-grad school. And Iâ€™m nervous. Iâ€™m nervous for the usual reasons. These include the fear that Iâ€™ll make a fool of myself in the Q&A, and that my central argument is just not that good. But there is an additional, more idiosyncratic reason that I really want to think hard about before delivering the talk. And thatâ€™s the distinct possibility that while my central argument is fine, I have used a poorly chosen example to add support to my conclusion. This would leave me dialectically naked, even if my underlying argument remains cogent. So I want to try to extract myself for this situation as carefully as possible, and this is my test run.
Hereâ€™s the deal. I have just argued that since we democratic citizens act politically to enforce coercive laws on each other, we should show concern for one anotherâ€™s autonomy, so that all can accept these laws willingly and competently. So what we have here is an example of one feature of modern political life that generates a duty to be concerned with our fellow citizensâ€™ educated autonomy. This is not yet an argument in favor of any particular institutional scheme, much less an argument to the effect that every unchosen departure from full autonomy underwrites a claim to further autonomy-enhancing resources. But it does suggest that there are duties we have toward others that are separable from facts about what they have done for us, or how much they have contributed to GDP, say.
I then ask whether there are features of modern political life that could generate further duties of concern, especially those that would bear on the justness of health care policy. Hereâ€™s where I seem to get myself into trouble:
If the fact of joint-coercion generates a duty of concern for fellow citizensâ€™ autonomy, then arguably the facts of mutual loyalty and dependence generate further duties of concern. But concern for what? It is, I suggest, a concern for them, for their general wellbeing. Anything less, such as a concern fairly to grant them the share of socially generated resources that has been calibrated to reflect the marginal value of their role in the economic division of labor, involves too much alienation from them as persons, individuals on whom we rely to sustain the social basic structure which in turn sustains our quality of life. Consider an analogy. If husband Jackâ€™s mother is a delight and wife Jillâ€™s mother is a nightmare, Jack would be wrong to say he is not obliged to accompany and support Jill on stressful outings with her mother on the ground that Jill has never had to make a comparable sacrifice for Jack. Rather, the nature of the relationship they share generates a wider, less discriminating duty of concern for Jill herself, concern whose proper expression is inconsistent with Jackâ€™s refusal. Analogously, the especially acute and pervasive relations of mutual dependence and vulnerability that attend the citizen relation warrant concern for our fellow citizens themselvesâ€¦
In the comments heâ€™s sent me, my commentator already notes the obvious: surely Jack should be concerned for Jill because he is her husband, because he loves her, because thatâ€™s what husbands do. And of course I agree with this. But I donâ€™t think the success of the analogy depends on the citizen-relation being intrinsically one of mutual love.
While Jack should do certain things for Jill because he loves her, this is not the only reason he has. It seems to me that he has special responsibilities to her that stem from the intimate intertwining of their lives, not simply from the intersection of their affection. As I say in the quote: both the citizen relation and the husband/wife relation give rise to acute and pervasive forms of mutual dependence and vulnerability. These are what I wish to stress, not love.
I think it is safe to say that the analogy is going to draw a lot of criticism from the crowd. But why should it? Since at least Aristotle is has been common in political theory to illuminate the demands of â€œcivic friendshipâ€ through reflection on what close, personal friends owe to each other. This of course does not justify the strategy, but it should be some help in deflecting the knee-jerk reaction I expect to the Jack/Jill case.
In fact, there is at least one feature of the spousal relationship that is present in the civic relationship, but not amongst friends. And that is the involvement of the state. That spouses have responsibilities to each other that are not grounded in love seems to be the guiding principle behind many a divorce law. Soon-to-be former spouses seek an equitable parting of ways, and the state steps in to ensure this happens. True, divorcing partners often do not have the forms of concern for each other that we may think warranted by their joint history and the tough predicament each (or maybe just one) finds him- or herself in. But this may just be a case of relying on the state to help enforce moral duties that each party in fact has, but may be unlikely (for obvious reasons) to discharge in its absence. (Did you know that social security benefits are paid out to ex-spouses as long as the marriage lasted ten years?)
There are three features of the citizen relationship that I emphasize in my paper. These are (1) the coercive imposition of laws, (2) our profound dependence on the cooperation and compliance of those others on whom we help to impose laws, and (3) the cloud of vulnerability we operate under when virtually every facet of our lives is left open to influence by the legitimate political actions of others. While the first, I believe, generates strong duties of concern, it is not present in the spousal relationship. But the last two are. What, precisely, do they contribute to the moral story I want to tell?
It seems right to say that the primary initial inducement to enter into or accept both an intimate relationship and a political relationship is self-interest, prudence. I of course donâ€™t mean pathological self-interest, which yields a disregard for the interests of others. I mean perfectly legitimate concern with the betterment of oneâ€™s life. Now, in the case of intimate relationships, this initial self-interest or self-love is a gateway drug: it leads us to a different form of valuing, valuing or loving another for his or her own sake. Our relationship with them is not (only) a means to some independent end, but something worth valuing in its own right. And we come to see their good as part of our own and as something that helps give our lives meaning.
Even if this last feature is not present in the civic context (many think it is, but I want to stay agnostic), the initially prudentially motivated joining with others should be attended by a recognition of them as having legitimate interests of their own, and of possessing a dignity that places constraints on what forms of treatment are permissible. One way of respecting that dignity is to be responsive to how that other personâ€™s life is influenced by oneâ€™s own choices, actions, and omissions. The more profound the effect of these influence on anotherâ€™s life, the more, it seems, we should be concerned about the person influenced.
In the spousal case, while the aim ultimately becomes one of a shared life well lived, it is still a relationship comprised of distinct individuals with distinct personalities, aspirations, foibles, and, yes, sometimes downright pathologies. Each person is not only a contributor of the benefits realized by the union, but also of the inevitable hurdles and injuries that arise when distinct persons pin their hopes and dreams on the choices and good faith of one another. I think most of us know how challenging such an arrangement can be, even when things are going as well as could reasonably be hoped.
Likewise in the civic context. Even when prevailing laws track the demands of social justice reasonably well, there will still be conscientious disagreement both about whether this is the case and about further policy decisions that donâ€™t seem wholly resolvable by a priori moral reasoning. Monetary policy, fiscal policy, trade agreements, etc., all appear to require a willingness to make second- and third-best tradeoffs, often in ignorance of likely outcomes. This creates inevitable risks and strains of commitment.
In both contexts, we join in a profoundly fateful project with others on whose willing cooperation we are heavily dependent and whose lives we profoundly shape. Even if they too are benefiting greatly from the arrangement, it seems wrong not to specially acknowledge the self-discipline and good will it often takes to be fully entrenched participants in both marital and political life.
Although I am in disagreement with him on many things, moral and political philosopher David Schmitdtz seems to take a similar view, and puts the point poignantly:
I do not believe that reciprocity and gratitude are called for only in response to people who are going above and beyond the call of duty. Because reciprocity and gratitude are forms of mutual affirmation, it makes perfect sense to feel grateful to people simply for doing their dutyâ€¦Normal competence is an achievement, not an effortless default. (Elements of Justice, pp. 87-88)
How, then, ought we to show our gratitude? One way, I suggest, is by not conditioning provision of benefits to relevant others solely on (the prospect of) their having provided something of similar value to us. As I indicate in my paper, keeping a moral ledger of this sort seems to me alienating, divorcing the person with whom I am related from the things I can get from the relationship. Of course the things I can get matter, but so do the people I cross paths with to get them. And showing others that they matter to me seems to me to require my showing concern for how their life goes, independently from whether the moral tally sheet is sufficiently even at the end of the day. Such concern, I hypothesize, is properly displayed when I stand willing to make certain sacrifices for their wellbeing, and doing what I can to support universal health care seems as good a place to start as any.
Obviously I donâ€™t have a knockdown argument in favor of my thesis that there are facets that are shared by both spousal relationships and civic relationships and that underwrite strong duties of mutual concern among those standing in these relationships. But I think I have done enough to help me get through Fridayâ€™s talk. Thanks to anyone who made it this farâ€”even if you never even accounts by leaving a helpful or encouraging comment!
1. Is it â€œfirst thingâ€™s first,â€ or â€œfirst things firstâ€?