Two guys you might think didn't have a lot in common: Dr. Phil and Dan Savage.
Dr. Phil is the Oprah protégé who has that annoying afternoon TV show. He's full of family-values opinions and over-reactions that drive me crazy. "You were smoking pot and having sex? You're a drug addict! You're going to ruin your entire life!"
Dan Savage is the writer of the advice column Savage Love. His main thing is, sex is important; it matters a lot to people. Take it seriously; be open-minded, and be nice to each other, but if you're still not satisfied you may have to break up and find someone new.
OK, so pretty different. But Dr. Phil and Dan Savage have one big thing they share: a belief that the moral minimum is not enough.
Dr. Phil frequently tells people in conflict that it's not enough to think about what's fair: for the relationship to work, or move forward at all, one or both of them is going to have to "be a hero" -- to forgive or forget, or reach out, or something. To do more than would be strictly required.
Dan Savage frequently tells people whose sexual desires are an uneasy fit that they must be "GGG" with one another: Good, Giving, and Game. "Game" here means being open to another person's fantasies, no matter how strange or unsettling they strike you. If your boyfriend is dying for you to dress up in a wetsuit, well, you owe it to him to try it out. Even if, you know, it's not really your thing. Do it anyway.
These both strike me as expressions of the same basic idea: that when you live interconnectedly with other people, sometimes "fair" or "within my rights" just aren't the relevant things to consider. It's not fair that you have to forgive before the other person changes; it's my right not to dress up in a wetsuit if I don't want to. But the moral minimum is not enough: these are still, nonetheless, the things one must do.
One reason I think these guys find they have to give this advice so often that they've got handy phrases for it ("be a hero," "GGG") is that we've sort of become moral minimalists.
We're very good at signing on for moral requirements specific things you must do, rules you must obey, things in which a transgression is obviously blameworthy. You can't kill people, cheat on your taxes, rob a bank. You can't cheat on your spouse.
But a world of moral minimalists is a shitty world. It's a world in which everyone is calculating how little they can do, and what they can get away with. Everyone's a defensive little island. It's no way to live.
In a world of moral minimalists, the least misunderstanding, the least unforeseen bit of trouble, the least disruption in the agreed on order throws everything into chaos.
In a world of moral minimalists, you do things for other people, but always with a silent calculation that changes the very interaction. Maybe you can get your partner to dress up in a wetsuit. But the very elements of exchange ruins the feeling: you can't help but be reminded, "Oh, I know, it's a favor. I know."
It's funny that the actual word for going beyond the moral minimum is "supererogatory," a word that no one even knows.