Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Should She Pretend to Care?

Sometimes, while reading newspaper advice columns, we fall into a state of despair. Exception given for the luminous writings and unimpeachably correct advice offered by Miss Manners. As for the rest, we wonder how these people miss the mark so consistently. And we are even more dismayed by the fact that the great American public reads and even follows their advice. 

Strictly speaking the New York Times Ethicist column is not your standard advice column. Written by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, a man who is neither a therapist nor a wanna-be therapist, it is consistently thoughtful. Better yet, it consistently offers good advice. And it adds some seriously philosophical analysis of the situation.

We would be living in a better world if people could differentiate between mental health and ethical behavior. Aside from the fact that mental health is a contradiction in terms-- the mind is not a biological organism, and can neither be healthy nor sick-- we ought to understand that science, per se, cannot offer us any rules for conducting our lives in society.

As David Hume famously argued some two and a half centuries ago, science is about “is” while ethics is about “should.” You cannot get from the one to the other. You should not even try.

Here is the letter, written by a woman who is preparing for widowhood. Her husband had had several marriages before he married her. They have been married for decades. For these many years she has barely tolerated the obligation to spend time with her stepchildren. Nevertheless, she has observed formalities. They have been polite to her. By my calculations, these children are already of a rather advanced age.They might easily be grandparents themselves.

So, the letter writer wants to know whether she can sever contact with her step-family members once her husband dies. It feels strange, but apparently she does not much like people. She would rather not be tied down with social obligations toward people she simply does not care for. 

Here is the letter:

I married into my husband’s family decades ago. We have one child together, whom I adore. The rest of the children are from his previous marriages. I get along superficially with all of them. I make conversation and act interested in what they have to say. I tell them I love them when they say it to me. Generally, they have treated me very well, and I think they actually do love me. But I do not have any real feelings for them. I have never wanted much contact with people. Having interactions with all of them over these years has been painful for me. I fantasize about severing contact with his family once my husband dies. Is my pretending to care about them unethical? 

Name Withheld

Appiah begins by reflecting that it is very difficult to explain why we do not like someone. (A useful and cogent thought, one that we rarely consider) And he adds that sometimes when we affect affection-- nice locution that-- when we pretend to like someone, we end up liking them. Sometimes we do not. But, it is good to open with the pretense of liking someone.

I concur heartily when he writes:

… not loving someone, like loving someone, is seldom something you can explain. Sometimes affecting affection can, in time, make the affection real; sometimes, as you’ve discovered, going through the motions leaves the heart unmoved. But is the pretense itself wrong?

It’s all about social conventions and the rules of polite behavior. We make certain polite gestures because not offering them would be rude and dismissive. They establish a formal tie, but they do not necessarily express what either party has in either party’s heart and soul:

It’s conventional to say, “Very well, thank you,” in response to “How are you?” on the phone, even when you have a cold. That’s not dishonest; it’s merely polite. Replying to family members who say they love you with “I love you, too” can be merely conventional in the same way. Isn’t pretending to be fond of people you have to spend time with a better and more generous tack than being cold and distant? We know all too well the odious alibi invariably offered for some cruel remark: I’m just being honest.

Being polite is more generous than being cruel. One understands that Miss Manners would heartily concur with this sentiment.

Now, Appiah continues, the soon-to-be widow has been going through the motions for decades now. Thus, her social anxiety disorder is not incapacitating.  But she says it is painful.

Given that you’ve pulled it off for decades, you evidently don’t have an incapacitating social-anxiety disorder. And you’re certainly not the only person who sometimes feels like running away from family gatherings and hiding out. Yet plainly it’s harder for you than for most: I was struck that you describe your interactions with the stepchildren not as tedious but as “painful.”

One suspects that she recoils at the evidence of her beloved husband’s past marriages. This does not relieve her of the duty for being polite, but it explains why she might not feel overjoyed at dealing with people who resemble his other wives. One also understands that said children, being adults themselves, understand the difficult position she has found herself in.

So, Appiah recommends that she not be open and honest about her real feelings. (How refreshing is it to read that.) Especially, I would add, because the children themselves have done nothing to merit her disaffection.

Besides, he adds sagely, the woman is about to lose her husband. One thing she should not do is to retreat and withdraw, to diminish her social contacts.

 But there’s no point, at this stage, in telling everyone what your real feelings are — in dropping truth bombs, to use the aptly military metaphor. Despite your lack of affection toward your stepchildren, you clearly have some measure of regard for their feelings, and you’re right to. Another concern is that cutting yourself off from the world in widowhood (your adored child aside) can lead to depression. Your adjustment to life without your husband will probably go better if you don’t lose touch entirely with family and friends. Even introverts, as a rule, benefit from some human connection. So perhaps you can find a way to reduce interactions you find unpleasant without ending them altogether. Create a life that suits you, but in doing so, try to minimize the injury you do to others.

So, Appiah tries to split the difference. She can reduce the number of contacts while at the same time not cutting these people off entirely. And certainly not being rude about it.

One notes that we do not know how many people are involved in this family. And we assume that, given the age of the children, there are grandchildren involved too. 


Leo G said...

Stuart, I would like to take this on a bit of a tangent. I have been thinking about your philosophies of manners a lot lately. Especially considering the Chinese/Asian variety in respect to the corona virus.

If I understand this correctly, the Asian culture of saving face runs towards not admitting mistakes for yourself or others (very general explanation I am sure).

Could this be one of the factors as to why the Chinese government took so long to act on this latest dis-ease? Admitting, that in essence they are still largely a third world country, that still has less then modern societal norms.

Anonymous said...

China has DF-41, and probably other missiles comparable to Minuteman. If China is a third world country then it is a third world country armed comparatively to France, UK, USA, etc. Wearing face masks is some kind of effort not to spread disease, I doubt Chinese want to be sick either.

Asians are an intensely proud people and also a rather large percentage of American universities. It is possible this is how China got the nuclear technology from American Universities way back in the 1940s-60s? It appears to be an intentional part of American and Capitalist strategy to have a strong China? Maybe the hope was to have a China friendlier to the USA instead of the Soviet Russia at the time.

Anonymous said...

If she cuts off contact with her step-children, she risks alienating her adored only child. After all, the step-children are his/her only siblings.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Good and very important point... sorry that we missed it.

Sam L. said...

The U.S. used to have missiles with bigger warheads, but the 54 Titan II missiles were pulled out and all but one of the launchers were destroyed by '84 or so (the one remaining is a museum site now, near Green Valley, AZ, south of Tucson.) They were liquid-fueled, and both fuel and oxidizer were toxic. Designed for a 7-year life, they did 18-20 years.

Anonymous said...

You can't really use them as weapons anyway, so it's kind of wasteful spending.