Monday, September 20, 2010

Being the Other

Ta-Nehisi seems to be on a roll again: a bunch of great posts in which, to my mind, he strays from the "thoughtful moderate" persona he seems most comfy with. One of the most provocative is "Compassion," which is about the path to, and the utility of, bracketing one's moral judgments in order to acquire knowledge. Or something like that. Two aspects stood out for me.

One is that the piece elicited a powerful comment by Hilzoy, a philosophy professor who, unlike Martha Nussbaum, reads blogs. Here's an excerpt:
This is one reason why I've always thought that the idea that morality and selfishness are opposed only really makes sense if you bracket a lot of questions about where your own interests lie, and what constitutes "selfishness". There are often reasons for bracketing questions about the interrelation between my interests and someone else's, and saying, for instance: my interests lie in kicking back this afternoon, rather than running an errand I said I'd run for my mom (which I don't feel much like doing just now); my mom's lie in my running the errand for her (which she isn't in a position to run for herself); shall I choose selfishness or duty? But in reality, there are all sorts of other questions around: would I, in fact, be happier if I had the kind of relationships with my parents in which any of us could just opt out of commitments to the other for this kind of reason? Would I be happier if I regarded keeping my word as optional, and helping out my friends and relations as mere inconveniences to be shirked when I felt like it? Or if I just didn't have the capacity to think: my mom can't run this errand, and I can, and it matters to her – and be moved by that knowledge?

Of course moral people aren't always happier. Things go wrong. But for my money, you stand a much better chance of being happy if you have, and exercise, the capacity to define yourself in such a way that compassion serves your interests, and self-protection and ignorance undercut them.
Another is how TNC's argument illuminates and complements this passage that Timmi likes, an argument the beginning of which has always bothered me. Why, I asked, was SRD harping on the importance of being racist, sexist, homophobic, and ableist? Didn't those prejudices come naturally, from inhabiting a racist &c. society? In what sense is it imperative that he have them in order to be able to talk to or influence teh bigots? Maybe Ta-Nehisi's argument offers a way in.

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