Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Baby News, and Some Reflections on Equality

First off, apologies for the delay in posting. I have a good excuse, maybe the best excuse, as my daughter was born a little over two weeks ago. Since then I've been too caught up in life to reflect on it. I have been able to get out for a few runs, and man is it nice.

 One of my philosophical friends who is a mother herself, sent me this John Dewey quote when she heard of our good news, which I thought was nice:

"A baby in the family is equal with others, not because of some antecedent and structural quality which is the same as that of others, but in so far as his needs for care and development are attended to without being sacrificed to the superior strength, possessions and matured abilities of others. Equality does not signify that kind of mathematical or physical equivalence in virtue of which any one element may be substituted for another. It denotes effective regard for whatever is distinctive and unique in each, irrespective of physical and psychological inequalities. It is not a natural possession but is a fruit of the community when its action is directed by its character as a community." - Dewey, The Public and Its Problems

For those not attuned to the philosophical code words, Dewey is taking on Kant in this paragraph, saying that what makes us equal is not some pre-existing, rationally deducted, and a-priori transcendental quality that is the same across all humans.  Equality is not founded in mathematical equivalence or in the higher reason of philosophers. It is instead an effect of human action; it is constructed by communities and individuals in effort together, and it is found wherever care is demonstrated. Dewey prefers to see equality as a fruit of labor rather than as a transcendent principle. It's the name that we give for care and concern.

That's the pragmatist take. I suppose the reply from Kantians and a-priorists would run something like this: "Sure equality requires care and effort from communities and is certainly a fruit of human action, but arguments are needed for providing that care, and the attempt to ground care and concern in shared human qualities provides the basis for argument. The value of equality needs arguments to support it and cannot be taken for granted or shown by an appeal to parochial experience." In other words, what philosophers ought to do is give arguments for why we should treat people with care and concern, and the best argument for that is our shared and universal human project and characteristics.

But to my mind, this is just as question-begging as the pragmatist take. It assumes that we need arguments for treating each other well and equally -- which assumes from the outset that equality is something desirable and worthy of being defended. How do we arrive at that idea? Probably through the experience of having been treated with care and concern.  To my mind it's that treatment--not an abstract argument--that leads us to even have the idea of a shared and universal human project. We don't come to this idea deductively, but inductively, on the basis of many disparate experiences of equality. Our best political and social ideas don't come prior to experience but are instead grounded in actual experiences of good will and regard. Capitalizing "Equality" and naming it as a right and locating it "prior to" experience is a way of honoring Equality, but such honorifics also devalue the hard work of making small-e experiences of equality.

I'm on the front lines of human care and concern right now, and I have the bags under my eyes to prove it! I can tell you that I am gaining daily a more intimate knowledge of the true effort that care and concern takes. I also am struck with a profound appreciation for the care and concern that has been shown to me by my parents, by friends and family, and by colleagues. It's these experiences that animate -- and re-animate again and again -- our moral and ethical life. The arguments of philosophers are pale shadows too far removed.

As for the blog going forward -- please don't worry. I haven't given up on it and hope to get back soon into the more or less weekly posting rhythm that is always my goal. Merleau-Ponty reminds us that philosophers are perpetual beginners, and I am excited to begin again.

As runners, too, we are always beginning again, and I wish you all the best as we head into that resolutionary season where we re-evaluate our goals and training and set out once more to become the runners-that-we-might-be.

Thanks as always for reading!

17 comments:

  1. Well, as a minister, I've got to say, that'll preach. Congratulations and enjoy this time!

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  2. Congratulations, Jeff! I'm not worried about the blog. Everything has to take a backseat right now to the object of that care and concern. It's so true that I never appreciated my parents and extended family and what they did for me until I had my own kids. Enjoy--I remember those first few weeks vividly.

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    1. Thank you Terzah! One other thing I now appreciate more fully -- all you folks out there getting after it in addition to the responsibilities of family!

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  3. I love the picture of Panambi! She looks like she is appreciating the care and concern!
    Mom

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    1. Thanks Mom. For the comment and the meatloaf!

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  4. This almost brought me to tears my friend. Having a child most certainly does make you appreciate the sacrifices made and care provided by our parents. Best wishes with the newborn and keep the amazing writing up... when you can.

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    1. Thank you Picker. It's always nice to hear from readers -- especially when they say nice things, ha ha. Cheers!

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  5. so -- we are not equally skilled nor interchangeable. we are unique and we are equally deserving of (owed?) respect and we are equally responsible for respecting, being respectful. hmmm....

    also, CUTE KID!

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    1. I think that's the story more or less.

      And THANKS!

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  6. That girl is beautiful.

    I think my take would fall in between Kant and Dewey. It seems to me that Lincoln, who is all the rage today, must have started with some version of a-priori Equality. He needed arguments for starters because the slaves were so far out of the white man's experience/definition of the community.

    At the same time, I am sure his experience of having been treated with care and concern was indispensable in motivating him *and* in understanding what the Equality should look like.

    Great post.

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    1. Yes, you are right, arguments have their place.

      We also have to remember that Lincoln and the abolitionists didn't just argue for equality -- they fought, to the death. That tremendous and terrible experience was the decisive factor. If only arguments could be so convincing.

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  7. Congratulations on the beautiful new daughter!

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  8. Oh man, what a doll! Congrats!!

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  9. Parenting sounds like good training for one of those 24-hour races. Congrats!

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  10. Congratulations Jeff and thanks for posting.

    I'm for care and concern (even more so now) although there's a place for argument. As long as it's civil and the participants can see the opposing side's point of view.

    All the best for 2013. Hope she's a good sleeper!

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  11. Wow, an amazing post. Congrats!

    It made me think of song lyrics, from a spanish song; they translate to want to say that kids just want to play, dream, fly, sing, and love. But that the world sometimes forgets him/them.

    "El sólo quizo jugar El sólo quizo soñar El sólo quizo amar
    Pero el mundo lo olvidó
    El sólo quizo volar El sólo quizo cantar El sólo quizo amar
    Pero el mundo lo olvidó"

    **********
    Also, as for slavery, I recently heard that you can't or shouldn't take slaves unless you - yourself are willing to be taken as a slave. Makes sense to me. :)

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