Sunday, November 18, 2007

Moral Anti-Minimalism: The Case of Dr. Phil and Dan Savage

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.


Captain Colossal said...

See, I have a theory about why this is true. Namely, we're goddamn terrified of what happens if we open ourselves up to doing more than the moral minimum, because we can't see any stopping point. The theory is, if I stop living within my rights, what can I say no to? Should I give my favorite Christmas present to the poor, as one Sunday school teacher told me? Etc.

Lionel Trilling, in his essay about Mansfield Park, talks about "the Terror which rules our moral situation, the ubiquitous anonymous judgment to which we respond, the necessity we feel to demonstrate the purity of our secular spirituality, whose dark and dubious places are more numerous and obscure than those of religious spirituality, to put our lives and styles to the question, making sure than not only in deeds but in decor they exhibit the signs of our belonging to the number of the secular-spiritual elect." Which strikes me as a pretty cogent way of putting it -- and makes it unsurprising that so many of us try to beg the question by standing on our rights.

Which, in turns, creates a pretty miserable way to live. I don't know; I'm reminded of a co-worker who was a devout Christian, and she was explaining to me what that meant to her, and one of the things it meant was that she would go around in the grocery store putting things back into their right places.

Anonymous said...

this is a really interesting topic. I was part of a lunch group once, where everyone sort of chipped in what money you had, without making a big deal of it. One person, several of us noticed, started ordering really expensive main courses, and dessert, and wine -- and then never, somehow had more than a coupla bucks on her when it came time to pay. The whole group got really tense and fell apart pretty soon, actually, because we couldn't deal with our angry feelings, or having our acts of generous supererogation taken advantage of like that. it was sad.

The Secretary said...

That's interesting.

It's funny how all stories seem to lead us, in a resigned, oh, shucks way, back to clearly defined rights and obligations, private property, and the Invisible Hand. It is sad. I think we end up at that default because deep down, we are all sort of pessimistic about our fellow man and woman.

The other side of this is that some people don't want, or feel weird about, people going above and beyond what is expected. For example, some people don't want dinner to be bought for them. Some people don't want to receive an extravagant birthday gift. (I have bought dinners and given extravagant birthday gifts to these some people.) Some people don't want to feel like they are in someone else's debt or owe something back. Maybe it's because they're still too caught up in the framework of rights and obligations and fairness and haven't yet signed on to the doctrine of exuberant and exorbitant giving and receiving.

(Also, did you just explain to everyone who Dr. Phil is?)

Noko Marie said...

It's definitely true that there are risks in doing more than the moral minimum, and the main risk is that if everyone else is doing the minimum, you become a chump - someone everyone else is taking advantage of.

The Dr. Phil/Dan Savage examples have to do more with close relationships than with public goods. In some ways public goods present a less troubling -- or less puzzling -- situation, because we can deploy clear communal solutions in the form of taxation and benefits.

The situation of intimates hasn't got any policy solution. Here, especially, I think CC is right that not knowing when to stop is frightening. And I think in this case what Anonymous and The Secretary say about pessimism about others plays a big role. No one wants to sacrifice for someone who won't reciprocate, but the very thought of reciprocity brings into play the very "fairness" and "rights" that make the whole thing so troubling.