This lecture, I am tempted to say in keeping with the spirit of the times, should be blamed on last year's flooding of the Mississippi River. Filled with sympathy for the victims of the flood , I was jolted out of my compassionate slumber by an editorial which appeared in the Fourth Estate, the conservative student newspaper at the University of Chicago, which I now paraphrase from memory: Don't feel sorry for the people of Davenport, Iowa. These fools deliberately chose not to build levees against possible flooding. Why? Because levees would obstruct their view of the river, and because levees (and the cost of building them) would hamper the growth of riverboat gambling casinos, established to attract tourists and to raise revenues. The city fathers gambled away the city's survival, betting not only on betting but also (and more recklessly) on the cooperation of the river. Thus, the damage in Davenport is not, as it seems, an undeserved and accidental misfortune. It is rather the direct consequence of legislative foolishness. The Davenporters have made their bed, now let them swim in it.
I winced. Once again, an insensitive, smug, and complacent lout, comfortably safe probably in some high-rise apartment and overly impressed with his own rationality and prudence, was embarrassing the conservative cause. What sort of person could fail to be moved by the sight of homes under water and of people desperately trying to defend themselves and their neighbors from the ravages of runaway nature? But insensitive clods sometimes utter a truth, and truth is truth regardless of the messenger. This fellow set me to thinking. Did these people really have their troubles coming to them? Of course they weren't responsible for the flood; that was the work of Poseidon--with a little help from the levee-builders upstream. But they had chosen to live next to Poseidon and, therefore, had put themselves in harm's way. Moreover, they apparently refused to take prudent measures to reduce the risk of harm. True, some of the residents among the hardest hit had no doubt favored the building of levees, but when the vote went against them they did not choose to move; besides, popular government makes legitimate the brute fact that living in a city means that its inhabitants will generally sink or swim together. But, one wants to add in the Davenporters' defense, living in the modern city in this age of technological mastery and institutionalized humanitarianism often distorts prudent civic-mindedness. Though one cannot prove its role in this case, the expectation of insurance that will compensate for loss--here in the form of national disaster relief--increases the likelihood of imprudent or risky civic choices. People weigh the alternative courses of action differently than they would were they themselves sure to be stuck with the bill for all resulting damages. Our guaranteed-in-advance organized compassion in the event of harm surely encourages others in risky conduct. Besides, given that all decisions carry risk, what sort of risk is too high? Taking what chance of what degree of flooding is foolish, when it is taken for what sorts of economic or aesthetic or civic benefits? And, all rational analysis aside, can one really withhold sympathy and assistance once the damage occurs and on a massive scale, once it is seen on television, and once suffering becomes concretized in the persons of named, decent, and now homeless individuals indistinguishable from ourselves, whose complicity, if any, in their own misfortunes is overwhelmed by the manifest depth of their misery? Are we not our brothers' keepers?
Sorting out the rival claims of justice and compassion in this and other natural disasters seemed to me beyond my powers. But I began thinking about the whole range of cases in which we as a society are increasingly being asked, encouraged, and sometimes even compelled to come to the aid of those who refuse to take care of themselves. I suspect that it was long-building discontent with the welfare state's support of such no-fault living that hardened the heart of the student editor. But if we reject indiscriminate compassion for people who bring their troubles on themselves, must we embrace the young editor's hard-nosed view? What, if any, are our moral obligations to those who, in their personal lives, choose to live dangerously, even foolishly? That is the questions I wish to open up this afternoon.
I. Living Dangerously
To live is to risk; all life involves danger, all life involves the risk of failure, all life is always loseable and eventually always lost. In a deep sense, to be and to stay alive means to live dangerously. But by living dangerously here I mean engaging in conduct known to carry more or less obvious and unnecessary extra risks, not only to life and limb, but also to economic and psychosocial well-being. It includes the harmful practices of smoking, heavy drinking, and drug abuse; motorcycling without helmets and driving without seat belts; traveling into dangerous or hostile environments; and engaging in treacherous amusements--from skating on thin ice to skydiving, from mountain climbing and skiing to white-water canoeing and surfing in shark-infested waters. It also includes excessive gambling, excessive borrowing and spending, and refusing to make good on ordinary obligations in school or on the job--including tardiness, truancy, and the neglect of required tasks. And it includes a vast array of unsavory and unsafe sexual practices, both with known-to-be-risky as well as completely-unknown-and-therefore-risky partners, and also the foolishness of giving birth to children one cannot afford to raise. Most of these activities are legal, only some of them are immoral, but all of them carry risk--sometimes great risk--of self-inflicted harm. In a free society, people will be free by-and-large to run these risks; the question is to what extent everyone else should bear the cost of the resulting harms.
Chris DeMuth provided me a perfect parable of our situation in the two mottos he found written on the motor vehicle decals issued by New Hampshire and Massachusetts: New Hampshire uses its state motto, "Live free or die," but in Massachusetts the decal reads, "Your safety is my business." Question: When your "live free or die" turns out to mean "live free and die," should I make your safety my business?
Even a little reflection shows this to be a massively complicated subject, and there are many questions to be disentangled. The various risky businesses differ widely among themselves, and in many respects. First, likelihood and degree of harm will vary, and so will our confidence about causation: the risk of getting lung cancer from smoking can be given only statistically, unlike that of dying from deliberately taking ten times the lethal dose of cyanide. Also, the harm from risky behavior often shows up only much later: alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver or boxer's dementia or tooth decay are each remote in time from their cause, unlike the harm that awaits a skydiver whose parachute fails. Next, the moral desirability of helping, where we do find it desirable, does not translate readily into sensible policy proposals. Measures aimed at preventing risky behavior are often difficult to devise; it is notoriously difficult to get people to do what is good for them without tyrannizing them. Measures aimed at remedying the harm afterwards may, as already noted, remove disincentives for prudent self-restraint: the option of corrective coronary-bypass surgery subtly encourages many of us to eat more and to exercise less, while pharmacological cures for venereal disease have helped to increase its incidence. (This is, I believe, what economists in their morally neutral way call "moral hazard": when all losses are compensated, there will be more losses.) The availability of an ounce of cure drives out pounds of prevention. It even changes our view of whether risky behavior is in fact foolish.
Not so long ago, a man who had contracted syphilis was, by and large, not an object of pity, and quite apart from the question of his likely immorality. For he had almost certainly consorted with the wrong sort of woman, and carelessly to boot. He had brought his troubles on himself. Today, in contrast, many sufferers from venereal disease--and especially from AIDS--blame their miserable condition not on their own foolish conduct but on the failure of the government to find a cure for the disease. To be sure, our mores have changed and so has (in part) the popular judgment of the morality of the risk-filled behavior. But the privileged status of suffering--of being a victim--now makes it almost impossible to see this as self-induced harm. On the contrary, people are able propagandistically to harness compassion for the victims in order to morally legitimate their dangerous lifestyle and to remove any question about their harmful and foolish practices.
And, finally, there is the troubling fact that those who live dangerously also put others at risk--especially their spouses and children. Because no man is an island, self-harm harms others. Reasons to intervene often focus on these innocent others. Yet not surprisingly, policy efforts aimed at easing the harms which the stupidities of the fathers visit upon the sons often increase paternal stupidity: for example, we have compassionately spared illegitimate children the opprobrium of being called bastards, thus making it much easier for many more of them to be sired and abandoned with impunity by their fathers. Bastards can now legally inherit, but they inherit the wind. Now here's a real moral hazard.
All these complications make it difficult to consider this topic with the generality that I have--I dare say foolishly--chosen for myself. So I will simplify further, backing away today from the all important policy questions to consider only the moral one: Am I My (Foolish) Brother's Keeper?, considering only the harm he can do to himself.
I focus on the moral question for several reasons. First, it is salutary to try to get clear what we ought reasonably to expect of one another, with regard to both personal responsibility and aid to the suffering. Second, because we see that there are ditches on both sides, we would like to discover a principled way to avoid falling into either the hardened-heartlessness or the mushy-mindedness that dominate so much of our public argument in these matters: we hope we can articulate a principled middle way between the harshness of social Darwinism and the stupidity of no fault compassion. Finally, though policy proposals must each be guided even more by what is feasible and effective than by what is right, I suspect that any policies we propose regarding those who live dangerously will be acceptable and welcomed only to the degree that they roughly correspond to our basic moral intuitions. In considering the moral question I will be thinking mainly about the dangerous activities that threaten bodily harm, both because harm to the body is easiest to recognize and because our current medical approach to the consequences of dangerous living will, in the end, prove especially revealing.
II. Am I My Brother's Keeper?
Many of our opinions and moral intuitions regarding these matters are rooted in our Judeo-Christian tradition, which gives support for all sides of the question. On the one hand, we find many biblical passages that insist on strict justice--giving people just what they deserve--and numerous stories that tie redemption to prudence, for example, Jesus' parables about the talents or about the wise and the foolish virgins. On the other hand, there are many passages that teach charity beyond justice and that praise unqualified love of neighbor, in imitation of God's mercy, for example, the parable of the prodigal son. But the primal story about love-of-self and love-of-other, about justice and mercy, and about brotherliness is the story of Cain and Abel. Cain, you will recall, was ashamed, angry, and jealous because God had accepted his younger brother's offering but delayed acceptance of his own. Not comforted by God's promise that his sacrifice would be lifted, "if you do well" (and perhaps even misinterpreting what God meant by "doing well"), Cain plots and executes the murder of his brother and rival. In response to God's question, "Where is Abel thy brother?", a question designed to make Cain confront himself in his brotherliness, Cain denies knowledge of Abel's whereabouts, and adds an evasive and lawyerly question of his own: "I know not. Am I my brother's keeper?" Cain's question is uttered no doubt with indignation, even mocking: Why are you asking me? Am I supposed to be his guardian? You, you who liked his sacrifice, you who made him prosper--aren't you his keeper? Why don't you know where he is? And (implicitly) what kind of a guardian are you?
God is, of course, not deceived. On the contrary, he takes Cain's counter-offensive to be a tacit admission of guilt, and so forces Cain to confront it fully: "What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother's blood cries out unto me from the ground?" The exchange is stunning, not only psychologically but morally. For we are given to see that Cain's principle "Am I my brother's keeper?" is in fact the maxim of a murderer, that Cain's statement by itself convicts him of murder even--let me exaggerate--had he never laid a hand on him. For it is, at bottom, an expression of fratricidal intent. To deny responsibility for your brother is, tacitly, to be indifferent to his fate, and in this sense to be tacitly guilty of all harm that befalls him: in short, to say yes even to his death. We should not judge Cain too harshly; God Himself not only spares his life but even takes measures to protect him against a similar fate. For in Cain's world--the aboriginal human world, prior to law and morals--there seems to be no cosmic support for morality and no cosmic support for human industry and effort. The fickle powers that be must be bribed with sacrifices. It is every man for himself, and the gods or the devils can look after the hindmost. Each man nervously concerns himself with only his own well-being, seeking to avoid his fate.
We readers of this story, however, learn, implicitly, the following important lessons: The world is ruled not by fickle and arbitrary gods, and the cosmos is not indifferent to our errors. We are responsible for our own conduct, and we will be punished for our misdeeds--but not as much as we deserve: for God is both just and merciful. And, finally, we are--or should be--our brothers' keepers.
But the last moral lesson is both far from clear and far from complete. Who exactly is my brother--which is to say, for how many human beings do I bear such fraternal responsibility? If all homicide is really fratricide, and if fratricide is the true meaning of any and all brotherly neglect, am I therefore reallyeveryman's keeper? More importantly, what does it mean to be someone's keeper? The word keeper, shomer, means to guard or protect, from a primitive root meaning "to hedge around," as with thorns. Does the duty to guard and protect against outside dangers extend also to dangers one's brother poses to himself? What if he chooses to live dangerously and to court disaster, whether from vice, weakness of will, foolishness, or ignorance? Am I obliged to help him when he won't help himself? What would it really mean to guard or to help a reckless or a foolish brother? And does the duty to protect from harm imply also a duty to supply positive good, especially after self-inflicted harm has occurred? Does guarding your brother mean picking up after his stupidity?
Consider the following homey example. My parents take my older brother and me to the zoo. They buy us helium-filled balloons and admonish us to tie down the loose end of string, either to wrist or button. But I want the pleasure of holding onto my own balloon, feeling and resisting its upward pull, grasping my treasure in proud display. Fully confident of my own powers, I reject my parents' warnings of likely catastrophe and they allow me to learn my lessons. A gust of wind arrives when my grip is slightly relaxed; the balloon flies away. My wise parents don't make a fuss, for the lesson is clear; should I cry for a replacement, they refuse, adding gently that next time I should take reasonable precautions. And what about my brother? Have I a claim on his balloon? Not at all. Should my parents make him share it with me? Not at all. But seeing my unhappiness, he is moved by brotherly feelings of generosity to allow me to play with his balloon when we get home. It is a most brotherly act, taking some of the sting out of my loss but without depriving me of the needed instruction in prudence.
Twenty-five years later, I am again in need, but this time in mortal danger. I have been in an auto accident and damaged my entire liver. My brother is the most suitable donor for a partial liver transplant. Have I a claim on his liver? Not at all. Should my parents--or anyone else--put pressure on him to donate? I believe not. But what does our brotherliness require of him? And should his decision to donate be influenced by the fact that I was responsible for the accident, that I had been speeding on icy roads and not wearing a seat belt? And what if my need of a liver transplant were due not to a one-time auto accident but to a lifetime of alcoholism? Should my brother be obliged to help? Should he be praised for donating? Blamed for not? Does my promise to stop drinking and join AA make a difference? Should some unrelated donor's willingness to donate--or our public policy regarding donation--be influenced by whether and how I have brought my troubles on myself?
There can be, of course, no simple or set rules for answering these questions. Much will depend upon the particulars. For example, one will be more inclined and expected to help alleviate harm caused by foolishness or weakness-of-will than by vice, by a single or occasional episode of folly than by chronic foolhardiness, by dangers undertaken in the course of some serious pursuit than in sheer frivolity, by bad judgment stemming from depression than from insolence, and so forth. And, these qualifications aside, any prima facie obligation to help will surely be limited and perhaps even overturned (1) when one does not know what real help is; (2) when assistance will be useless, because refused or squandered; and (3) when there are better or more urgent outlets for one's beneficence, including competing obligations to others. For these reasons, among others, there are times when it is surely foolish to come to the rescue of foolishness. Moral obligation cannot mean that the remedy for someone else's foolishness is to match or surpass it with our own. If this is what morality requires, it will never command our assent. The obligation to be even our blood brother's keeper cannot be absolute and unqualified.
Much as we may love our brothers, and much as we should endeavor to care for our neighbor, we also love and care for what is good and right. Indeed, the beginning of morality is the subordination of unqualified self-love and love of your own to the standards of better and worse, justice and injustice. The trick, in moral education, is for parents to exploit the familial attachments and loyalty to one's own to teach habits and principles of conduct that one makes one's own because they are recognized to be good. We are taught to do what's right; we are taught not to make exceptions in our own case; we are taught to accept responsibility for our own lives and conduct--and to expect others to do the same.
This is, by the way, perhaps the most important lesson God teaches to Abraham. Abraham had shown himself to be his brother's keeper, first by adopting his nephew, Lot, after the death of Lot's father, Haran, more impressively, in going to war against the Babylonian kings to rescue Lot who had been taken prisoner. But, by engaging Abraham in the decision over the fate of Sodom, home of Lot, God teaches Abraham that the love and devotion to one's own cannot be indifferent to justice. Lot had once again foolishly chosen to live among the wicked, and he must now share their fate. Abraham, in accepting the destruction of Sodom should there not be found a saving remnant of at least ten righteous, becomes a witting partner in executing judgment also against his foolish brother Lot. (That God later spares Lot for Abraham's sake is beside the point; for He does not tell Abraham He has done so. Abraham needs to learn first the supreme importance of strict and impartial justice.)
III. Am I My (Foolish) Brother's Keeper?
The importance of accepting and fostering personal moral responsibility leads me to say, for openers, that I do not see myself as my foolish brother's keeper. Neither do I regard anyone else as responsible for protecting me from my own follies. Human action is based on human freedom, human freedom is manifested in choice, and human dignity in action resides in making our choices in full cognizance that we are the sources of our deeds and responsible for their effects--including even for their unintended and unanticipated consequences. Dignity through responsibility necessarily cheers for justice, for a world in which people get what is coming to them, first, because it is rational and right, second, because a belief in justice is a necessary premise for all human effort. If the world were utterly irrational, if there were no relation between cause and effect, if the cosmos thwarted human attempts to match effort and success, human beings would do little to advance their own cause. And while we all know that the world is far from wholly just--lightning striking the innocent as well as the guilty (but, please note, the reckless more often than the prudent)--all societies and institutions and most human lives work on the premise that the world makes sense. Moreover, by our responsible practices we contrive to have it make even more sense. Parents read children stories like "The Little Red Hen," and children immediately see that it is right and just that those who work for their food should get to eat and those who refuse to work should not. Most people are pleased when ingenuity, hard work, and fair play are rewarded; our passion for competitive sports is at least partly due to our love of justice: for in this realm of our public life more than any other virtue and playing by the rules are rewarded. At least until recently, whiners, complainers, and those who blamed others for their own failures only made themselves look worse. A man who pleaded drunkenness as an excuse for his ignorance or violence was doubly punished; a woman who went to a man's bedroom and then got drunk with him could not escape bearing some responsibility for what happened next. Our country grew strong--and justly so--because people believed and acted in the spirit of the maxim, "By the time a man is thirty, he is responsible even for his face."
But what then about compassion? The claims of compassion might seem to oppose the claims of justice, and lead us quickly to our brother's assistance. But, if compassion is rightly understood, this turns out to be at best only partly true. In fact, compassion as experienced sentiment--rather than as ideological principle--is actually somewhat allied with justice. The point was noted already by Aristotle, in his account of pity:
Pity (or compassion) is a certain pain at manifest or apparent badness, destructive or painful, hitting one who is undeserving, which one might expect oneself or someone of one's own to suffer.
Pity is not indiscriminate sympathy for suffering. An at least tacit judgment of whether the badness suffered is deserved or not is implicit in the feeling of compassion. This is not to say that everyone judges well whether the suffering is deserved or not; racists think all suffering of the despised other is somehow appropriate, while bleeding-hearts are willing to overlook blatant fault in those whose suffering they have privileged, sometimes by designating them generically as victims. But, ordinarily, decent people given half-a-chance and adequate information will pity fittingly, which is to say justly. They feel little pity for Tonya Harding, because they sense that she has brought her troubles on herself. They feel more pity for crack babies than for their mothers, more pity for the man whose liver failure was caused by tainted blood transfusion than by his chronic alcoholism, more pity for the homeless person who is mentally ill than for the one who for years has refused to seek work. True, we do not always have information enough to judge, and the sight of suffering if sufficiently great can overwhelm all capacity for discernment. But pity as sentiment is not, in principle, at war with an interest in justice.
Modern life and modern thought have done much to distort the normal operation of compassion, even while elevating it to political principle. Powerful visual images of suffering, obscenely ripped from their human context, are television's daily fare, tugging at our heartstrings which are already overstretched far beyond the capacity for normal response. As Aristotle noted, pity is especially aroused by the seeing of evil, by visibly manifest and evident harm or badness; and such evident harms are preeminently harms to the body, what he called "destructive or painful" evils. The vivid sight of serious bodily injury, near at hand and suffered by someone like ourselves, will--if the sight be not too gruesome--immediately fill us with unqualified sympathy, so much so that it can overwhelm other feelings and thoughts, (unless of course, we are already overwhelmed by other passions, for example, great fear for our own health and safety). Vividly presented to sight, another's suffering--especially seen out of context--lays sole claim to our attention. In this respect, it tends to move us to toward what one might call a medical view of the world, or more precisely, the emergency room's view of the world. When John Wilkes Booth comes to Dr. Mudd on April 15, 1865, Dr. Mudd attends only to his broken foot, not to where and how he got it. In the emergency room, botched suicides, ingestions and overdoses, gun shot and knife wounds, broken bones, and overt bleeding cry out for immediate attention: the doctor dare not reason why, his only thought is "Fix the guy." [Honesty compels me to report an exception: the last time I broke a finger playing softball, in a game with my students, the emergency room physician--a callous young punk--looked at me contemptuously: "Softball? at your age?" I resented his comments, but afterwards took his implicit advice.] Ironically, the great success of medicine in alleviating acute suffering and illness has encouraged the spread of its non-moral and no-fault approach to all bodily suffering and its justice-neutral brand of compassion--a point to which I will return. Add to this the political hegemony of compassion as the first proof of public virtue, and we see how we have created a world in which victims gain more sympathy than heroes, indeed they are lionized for their suffering --and, more to the point, despite their own culpability in coming-to-harm: Do more people think that Magic Johnson is a fool for living dangerously than think he is a hero for going public as a victim? Does being your brother's keeper really mean being your brother's non-judgmental therapist?
Leaving compassion to one side, for now, there are however other reasons why the principles of responsibility and to-each-his-just-deserts, however suitable as a starting point, cannot be the whole story. Given the unpredictabilities of life, it is presumptuous to believe that one can live with perfect forethought and planning, immune to bad results. Besides, there is--need one say it at AEI?--much virtue in risk-taking. Explorers, immigrants, settlers, founders, pioneers, entrepreneurs, investors, scientists, inventors, soldiers, writers, and statesmen all live dangerously, and gamble on their ability to make good in the absence of guarantees. Needless to say, not all failure is the result of folly or vice. In recognition of this fact, and with a view to encouraging risk-taking, society prepares partial safety-nets to catch those who fall while trying to climb. We abolished debtors' prisons, permit people to declare bankruptcy, and, in many other ways embody our sound belief in the rightness of second chances. America is a land internationally famous as the home of the second chance.
We protect risk-takers, of course, mainly because we all benefit from the successes of enterprise, not primarily because we applaud dangerous living as such. It does not therefore follow that we are or should be inclined to be soft-hearted where living dangerously serves no public good; and here, it is not enough to justify foolish risk-taking to observe that it provides new opportunities for entrepreneurs (e.g., the legitimate gambling or tobacco or skydiving or rescue industries). But though difficult to prove, one suspects that there is considerable overlap between those who will face danger for high purpose and those who, for purely private pleasures, are willing to live dangerously. Valetudinarians are not the highest human type; Winston Churchill drank more than his share. Generally speaking, those of us who play safe and sane benefit from the erotic and the adventurous, providing that they don't overdo it. In addition to their concrete benefactions, the risk-takers remind us all that there is more to life than health, safety, and comfortable preservation. And through their struggles and failures, they also teach us by example the possibilities and limits of our own human cleverness.
Odysseus the paradigmatically clever and self-reliant man was made to travel far and to suffer much before he was allowed to win the day of his homecoming. These travels, as I have learned from the studies of my wife, served to teach Odysseus the limitations on human cleverness, primarily through his many encounters with the minions of the earth-shaker Poseidon--god of temptuous nature--and through his visit to Hades--place of the dead. In Hades Odysseus was given a commission, to be discharged after his homecoming, to carry a sailor's oar inland until he came to a people who knew nothing of the sea and who thus would mistake the oar for a winnowing fan. Here Odysseus must plant the oar, marking a sailor's grave, in order to teach complacent, clever, and comfortable men about the dangers and irrationalities of the world and to moderate the hybris entailed in rational man's refusal to acknowledge the unavoidability of facing danger, fate, and the permanent possibility of tragedy.
For such yet more profound reasons, viewing the misfortunes of our foolish brethren solely through the lens of justice turns out even to be unjust. For not everyone starts out with a full deck when it comes to living prudently. Differences in rearing and life experience issue in differences in our ability to choose, in the choices we make, and in our capacity to stick by our better choices. The mysterious yet nigh universal phenomenon of incontinence or moral-weakness--that is, knowing the good but not doing it--accounts for much of what we call foolish conduct; and, repeated, it is habit-forming. Nor for nothing did Aristotle, that great exponent of personal moral responsibility, teach also that "it makes no small difference if we are accustomed this way or that right from childhood, but a very great one, or rather the whole difference." We are harmed both by indulgent parents who shelter us from learning from the consequences of our mistakes and by negligent parents who fail to teach us the importance of avoiding them in the first place. Some of us are timid, others bold--often straightway from birth. Inborn influences, no less than environmental ones--neither of them of our own making--predispose to success or failure in the high-stakes game of self-command. About these things science knows yet very little, but enough to suspect that some aspects of intractable and self-harming behavior probably have a genetic foundation--possibly even regarding smoking, alcoholism, and other "compulsive" practices. And, perhaps most important, there are inborn differences in intelligence. One can say to one's child, "Be sensible," but one cannot say "Be intelligent." And if, in this increasingly complex world, it takes more and more intelligence to figure out what "being sensible" requires, lots of people are going to be playing the game of life with severe but invisible handicaps.
Two years ago at an AEI luncheon seminar, Charles Murray presented stunning data which showed that nothing correlated more with success on the job than "G" - general intelligence--a correlation more than double that for the quality or amount of education, letters of reference, or success in job interviews, and the like. Everyone in the audience saw immediately the foolishness of laws that now prevent the use of general intelligence tests in hiring. But I wonder how many felt the sadness at discovering that, if Murray's data are right, hard work and the best intentions will still leave many people at the bottom of the heap--all the more so in the hypertechnological age in which a strong back and a willingness to work will not do enough to enable you to prosper.
This does not mean that we stop teaching the young to brush their teeth, do their schoolwork, avoid bad companions, and stay away from drugs, tobacco, and motorcycles. We should still demand and foster personal responsibility and publicly speak as if it were possible for all --at least at some basic level. But we would do well to remain modest (rather than proud) about just what it is that has made us--at least for now--less foolish than some of our brothers.
On the basis of arguments like these, one might suggest that a decent community will try to care not only for those who are worse off than others through no fault of their own, but even to bear some of the costs of helping those who are partly responsible for their own troubles. This is not so much a matter of justice or of rights, but a matter of the common good. We care for our fellow citizens because we are all in this together. True, people have no right or claim--not against society and not against nature--to receive from life any better than they deserve. But we, especially the fortunate and less foolish ones, have every reason not to be bound by such strict proportionality. We can, not least for our own sakes, improve upon justice--in the direction of generosity and care. Acts of beneficence not only contribute to the common good; they are also manifestations of virtue, and as such are central to the flourishing of the benefactors. Rightly understood, philanthropic deeds are not self-sacrificing but self-affirming and self-fulfilling. Thus if our brothers need defense against themselves even more than against outsiders, we should be willing--in principle--to offer it, not least for our own goodness' sake.
The difficulty for us turns out to be not one of intention but of knowledge: What does it really mean to help and to keep? The present hegemony of no-fault compassion is to be blamed not so much for its implicit willingness to care, but for its failure to understand what care really means. For one does not really keep one's brother by helping him in ways likely to increase his foolishness. On the contrary, help aimed at undoing the harms caused by foolishness is insufficient if it is unaccompanied by help aimed at fostering the benefit of assuming moral and personal responsibility. Most deserving of our sympathy and compassion is not our brother's bodily suffering but his inability or unwillingness to stand in the world with freedom and dignity, which is to say, as a responsible source of his own conduct ready and willing to be held accountable for himself and for his actions. Just as the sentiment of compassion-rightly-experienced is natively not immune to judgments of past responsibility, so the exercise of compassion-rightly-practiced is centrally concerned to enable the recipient to become more willing and able to choose better and to accept responsibility in the future. True compassion, especially toward the remediably foolish, is synonymous--in the current lingo--with "tough love"--exactly the sort of beneficence exercised by parents toward their children, who must be helped through present crises but in ways that make possible adult self-command.
How this is to be accomplished is, of course, a tricky matter, varying case by case, individual by individual and folly by folly, and is not reducible to set rules or strategy. And it will not be easy to effectively shift from moral principles and strategies for the interpersonal and genuinely familial cases to the necessarily statistical approaches of public policy for larger populations, especially in view of the fact that genuine compassion is--quite properly--much harder to mobilize for countless unnamed strangers than for blood brothers. But the sound moral principle of tough-loving prudence is the same in every case, regardless of scale: to foster personal responsibility, and a world that approximates justice in which people get what they deserve; and, at the same time, to foster fellow-feeling, and a world in which people are inclined to be generous--and especially generous in helping people morally and spiritually so that they become less in need of and less dependent on such generosity. This means not only attaching demands and inducements for change of behavior to offers of outright aid in relief of harm; it also means not destroying the public will to generosity by not making excessive and unreasonable demands upon our compassion. As Clifford Orwin remarks in his brilliant essay on compassion, "Compassion resembles love: to demand it is a good way to kill it." And to demand it in pursuit of unreasonable hopes and utopian dreams is to crush it entirely under the weight of cynicism.
IV. The Tragedy of Enlightenment Utopianism
The moral questions--about moral responsibility and fraternity--that we have been considering are not free-standing. They rest on and embody deeper intuitions and beliefs about human life in the world and about exactly what kind of a world this is. Implicit in our opinions about what we should morally and politically expect of people and of ourselves are still more fundamental opinions about what we can and should expect from nature, from the cosmos, and from the powers that be which govern the whole. Not surprisingly, our modern moral prejudices are tied to our modern metaphysical ones. The soundness of the former may be no better than the soundness of the latter. I conclude with some brief remarks about what, with obvious simplification, I will call the modern "enlightened" view of the world.
An appropriate point of entry is the medicalized view of life, to which I have already referred. Illness is beyond guilt or innocence; because suffering is suffering, it demands attention; even bad behavior that often leads to illness comes itself to be treated as illness, e.g., alcoholism or rage-behavior, or sometimes as inborn hard-wired predispositions that one must not even classify as abnormal, e.g., a penchant for pederasty. The medical view of life is the bodily or somatic view of life: it not only focuses on the ills of the body, it finds bodily causes for all seemingly psychic phenomena. Drunk on its remarkable successes in the analysis and treatment of acute infectious disease, modern medicine is confident that its materialistic approach to life will unlock all the secrets of mind and heart and will permit for the first time a rational and successful approach to the troubles of the human condition. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in ourselves but in our genes that we are underlings--which is to say, there is no fault or responsibility, only the misalignment of matter. It is stunning how the outlook of the present day pays tribute to the dreams of our founder, Descartes, who saw in his newly invented science the possibility of human mastery of nature and through it the relief also of man's psychic and moral troubles:
For even the mind depends so much on the temperament and disposition of the bodily organs that, if it is possible to find a means of rendering men wiser and cleverer than they have hitherto been, I believe that it is in medicine that it must be sought.
Psychophysics, not praise and blame and moral self-command, is as Descartes predicted the wave of the future. It is no longer "God helps those who help themselves," but rather "mankind through a scientific medicine helps everyone regardless."
In fairness to our rationalistic forebears--in whose debt we stand and which debt we gratefully acknowledge--one must note that they were rather unimpressed with how hospitable nature was to human life or with how well the partisans of God were able to enlist His aid on humanity's behalf. (It suffices to mention that Descartes' Discourse was written during The Thirty Years War, a war ultimately about differences in religious faith.) They saw, in fact, a cosmos governed by natural necessity basically indifferent to the human world, and a human world itself governed by ignorance, fatalistic superstition, and chance--in short, a terrestrial world seemingly tragic for all human aspiration. Rejecting fatalism and the tragic view of earthly life, they set out to conquer fate and fortune on the basis of the rational understanding of natural necessity, which is to say, of the laws of motion of bodies. Such knowledge would issue in power to predict, and eventually to control, terrestrial and human phenomena--in the limit, to eliminate the role of fortune (and misfortune) through rational mastery. Though they were not themselves utopians in any political sense, the founders of modern science, like Bacon and Descartes, set the stage for the vast modern technological project, which is, in principle, comprehensive and complete: by rational means, to banish Poseidon--and perhaps even Hades--and to remake the world according to human aspirations. Our current political utopians are their direct descendants.
The successes of the modern project have materially improved our lives but they have not made us content. On the contrary, all residual failure and suffering now become increasingly unacceptable. We have come to expect rational medical solutions for all our ailments, and we demand that society provide them. While we wait, we insist on being compensated for harms and losses, regardless of fault. (One could, by the way, probably write the history of modernity through the lens of insurance: insurance was first instituted to compensate sea-going traders for losses to pirates. Thus insurance originally protected risk-takers against deliberate human wrongdoers, and only at sea, that is, where law and government could not protect them from outlaws. Now one can be insured against anything and everything: life is to be both no-fault and no-harm.)
But while science forges ahead toward the goal of complete mastery, the continuing presence of personal misery and misfortune becomes primarily the responsibility of the state. Compassion is "elevated" from natural human sentiment to necessary political principle. Society is one big hospital, government one big healer. The technological approach to life--rational mastery through methodical problem-solving--finds its political expression in bureaucracy and the welfare state. We go slowly but surely from "Uncle Sam wants you" to "The Doctor is In." No longer is the main goal of statesmanship to make the citizens good and obedient to the laws or to make secure against interference the natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but rather to guarantee universal day care, health care, and hospice-care. Driven partly by guilt for its own good fortune, the utopian elite takes up the cudgels for the least fortunate, demanding a politics of compassion on behalf of society's victims, a politics which is ironically perfectly willing to victimize those hard-working, morally-responsible, God-fearing Americans who do not have the margin to be very generous to strangers and who are not yet aboard the train to utopia. The medicalization of politics, the politicization of compassion, and the coming bureaucratization of medicine--all symbolized by the Clintons approach to health care--are the logical outgrowth of the modern view of the world.
The not surprising irony of this project for the rational medical-cum-political conquest of fortune is that it leaves most of us less rather than more in control of our own attempt at a prudent life. The project for the human command of nature rests on materialistic ideas about human life that deny human freedom and self-command, and it issues in technologies (and their accompanying bureaucracies) that, in myriad ways, make many of us actually more dependent and helpless in our daily lives. Moreover, the politicization of compassion and the welfare-state's institutionalized and faceless humanitarianism also erode the strength of the only institution within which people acquire genuine compassion and learn the true practice of brotherly care: the family. Even a benevolent big brother is the enemy of brotherliness. The bureaucratic enforcement of compassion--welfare, universal coverage, no fault living, and the homogenization of all distinctions between kin and stranger--saps most of the impulse to care for another. For to look on every man as brother, and on every stranger-brother as guiltless victim for whom I am responsible, eventually produces a condition in which I feel myself victimized by the burdens of care, and therefore seeks to excuse myself even from my primary duties to those who are nearest and dearest. The utopian project for mastery of fortune through rationalized technique is thus in danger of bringing about the very tragedy whose likely occurrence it willfully sought to deny. For to produce a herd of people who don't care for themselves and who then have to rely on unreliable and ineffective powers that are only capriciously responsive to their needs is to recreate the ill-fated and fatalistic world against which Cain rebelled in fratricide--and which we see today returning in our inner cities.
But there is another world view, between an irresponsible surrender to indifferent fate and an unreasonable belief in human mastery, one still within hailing distance of our collective memory. It was the reigning world view of the West until the coming of the Enlightenment and its newer nihilistic descendants. And it remains the source of our residual moral good sense. It is the sensible, moderate but hope-filled worldview of human freedom and dignity, under law, both encouraged and demanded by divine providence. It emerged in the aftermath of an earlier flood.
After the Flood, God makes a covenant with Noah and with all terrestrial life never again to destroy the earth. Unruly nature will not utterly crush human aspiration; you have God's own word on it. At the same time, however, human beings to make good on their prospects undertake to practice moderation and justice, under the rule of law: Though now permitted to eat meat, they moderate their bloodlust and appetites by refusing to eat the blood. More important, they hold each other accountable for all violence done to one another. "Whosoever sheds man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God was he created." Human life emerges from the state of nature where man lived as just another animal, might making right. Recognizing for the first time both his godlikeness and his vulnerability, man lifts himself above the plane of a purely animal existence by freely choosing to become a morally responsible being, whose first rational duty is to be his human brother's keeper and to justly remove those of his brothers who will not justly honor our equal common humanity. A balanced picture of prudent self-command, justice, and fraternity emerges, all under the aegis of a providence that both cares for life and cares for justice. It knows full well the evils and follies that lurk in the hearts of men; but it believes that these troubles of the human condition can not be eliminated and that they are best addressed by appealing to our better nature, which even today, is still able to hear the truth in this ancient tale.
Leon R. Kass is Harding Professor at the University of Chicago.