Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Ethics as Perspective-Taking

I'm trying to wrap up reading Alfie Kohn's Unconditional Parenting, since it's been sitting on my desk for the last six months and I have only a couple dozen pages left.

Kohn summarizes his entire parenting strategy/philosophy in terms of "perspective-taking" -- that is, the capacity to see things from the other person's point of view. He maintains that all ethical reasoning ultimately derives from this capacity; we can't treat people with respect and dignity if we can't understand how (and why) they will react to what we do. Perspective-taking is ultimately a capacity of imagination, one that allows us to empathize, which is at the root of all ethical behavior. So, in his view, all our efforts in "discipling" our children needs to be in developing that capacity: rather than handing down mandates, and using arbitrary rewards and punishments to get children to behave a certain way strictly out of their own self-interest, we want to teach them how to see things from the other person's perspective and let that guide their actions. We don't want them to not hit their brother because they will be punished for it; we want them to not hit their brother because that will hurt their brother and make him upset.

I like the elegance of the thesis. It's not often you can take a whole host of parenting recommendations and boil them down to a single principle like that. And I think he's basically right about the perspective-taking capacity as core to ethical development.

So the question is: is that it? Can you reduce ethics entirely to perspective-taking? I'm not sure you can. Just because you understand how someone feels, and why, doesn't necessarily mean you will be motivated to do the right thing. It's not enough to understand the other person; at some imaginative level you have to be the other person, and thus naturally want the best for that person. That jump from "mere understanding" to "visceral being" is not a function of perspective-taking. Perspective-taking can make it easier to engage that capacity, and easier to act from that capacity, but it isn't the capacity itself. What is it that makes us want the best for the other person, to literally become that person in our thinking?

My guess is that that recognition of the other person as ourself is a metaphysical intuition. We think that way because, at some level, we see that that really is how things are. It's not merely a metaphor or psychological trick; we really do recognize that the other person is ourself. The Godhead that manifests as consciousness in ourselves is the same consciousness in the Other. That intuition must be present in order for perspective-taking to work.


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