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Essay on carers and society


To: Rachel C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essay on carers and society
Date: 19 December 2007 13:45

Dear Rachel,

Thank you for your email of 9 December, with your essay towards the Associate award, 'Is it wrong for someone to devote themselves to caring for another (sick, disabled or vulnerable) person at the expense of their own self-development?'

This is a good start. The first point I would make is that the wording of your question implies that we have just two alternatives to consider:

A. It is wrong for someone to devote themselves to caring for another person at the expense of their own self-development.

B. It is not wrong for someone to devote themselves to caring for another person at the expense of their own self-development.

I find myself wanting to say that there are at least two further alternatives: 'It depends on the circumstances' and 'It is not a question of "wrong" and "right".'

The big problem here is that it is not clear where the claims of 'self-development' fits into ethics. Kant argued that it follows from the categorical imperative that I have a duty to develop my talents. This of course has to be understood against a background of my duties towards others. As Kant would not allow that there can be irresolvable conflicts of principle, there must be in every case -- depending on the particular circumstances -- an answer to the question whether I should pursue my self-development or care for another.

On the other hand, moral theorists have recognized that the claims of self-interest cannot be accommodated into a strictly ethical view. Here is a passage from Henry Sidgwick, 'Methods of Ethics' which I had occasion to quote yesterday to one of my Pathways Moral Philosophy students who had written an essay on the 'dialectic of self-assertion and self-sacrifice':
I do not mean that if we gave up the hope of attaining a practical solution of this fundamental contradiction, through any legitimately obtained conclusion or postulate as to the moral order of the world, it would become reasonable for us to abandon morality altogether: but it would seem necessary to abandon the idea of rationalising it completely. We should doubtless still, not only from self-interest, but also through sympathy and sentiments protective of social well being, imparted by education and sustained by communication with other men, feel a desire for the general observance of rules conducive to general happiness; and practical reason would still impel us decisively to the performance of duty in the more ordinary cases in which what is recognised as duty is in harmony with self-interest properly understood. But in the rarer cases of a recognised conflict between self-interest and duty, practical reason, being divided against itself, would cease to be a motive on either side; the conflict would have to be decided by the comparative preponderance of one or other of two groups of non-rational impulses.

Henry Sidgwick Methods of Ethics Book IV, Ch VI, 5

The ethics of consequentialism (e.g. utilitarianism) is, in effect, an ethics of altruism. While we are permitted to do actions which benefit ourselves, we must always remember that each person, including our own self, counts for one and no more than one in the utility calculation. It follows that the only acceptable ground, within utilitarian ethics, for neglecting another person's needs for the sake of one's own self-development would be that the fruits of one's labours will be more beneficial to humanity than caring for that one person.

Rebounding (as many people would do) from this austere picture, the obvious alternative would be to accept that moral claims have reasonable limits. We are not all required to be saints or Mother Theresas. You can be a moral person, a fully paid-up member of the moral community, while setting limits on how far you will go to take the desires and needs of others into consideration.

However, it seems to me that this is not your question. You are more interested in whether we can see caring for another person in a positive light from the point of view of a wider notion of self-development or self-realization which recognizes the value *for the self* of the nurturing/ caring role. On such a view, caring for another is not self-sacrifice but rather a worthwhile vocation. This puts a very different complexion on things.

Society recognizes that some persons have a vocation to care for others -- nurses, doctors, teachers etc. -- yet at the present time there seems to be a strong bias (as I suppose you would want to say from our previous exchanges) towards professional carers, at the expense of the army of mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, wives, husbands who see no acceptable alternative than to devote themselves to caring for their children, or parents, or partners.

The keyword seems to be 'vocation'. You can be a non-professional carer who does what they do out of a sense of vocation: but 'not seeing an acceptable alternative' is not the same as having a vocation. The life of someone who acts because they see no acceptable alternative is grim. It is a life of self-sacrifice. It is no compensation to be told how heroic you are or how much we admire your moral courage.

But isn't the same true of the soldier, who offers him/ herself up as a target to be shot at for Queen and country? There are those who regard with disdain the sacrifice of members of the armed forces. I would strongly disagree. The point, however, is that the soldier does not die for the sake of glory. They die because it is necessary to put oneself in the line of fire in order to do the task that we ask them to do, because that is what they are professionally trained to do.

Those who have traded their life for the lives of their comrades by an act of heroism, would say (if they had time to reflect, which is usually not the case) that 'there is no possible life for me' if I do not do this. To know that your comrades died because you valued your life more is an intolerable burden, or, at least, it is for the one who chooses the heroic course.

Pursuing the line of what we expect from the state and society, one could indeed make the parallel (given recent highly publicized cases) that we do not sufficiently show our appreciation for the sacrifices made by members of the armed forces.

How far does your discussion of Hegel, Sartre, Marx illuminate these issues? As I mentioned to you, Bradley in 'Appearance and Reality' develops further the idea of 'my station and its duties' to recognize that different persons may legitimately see their 'station' on a spectrum of possibilities between extreme self-assertion and extreme self-sacrifice.

Marx's view -- at least, the young Marx of the 1844 Manuscripts -- was not simply that we should throw ourselves in to the pursuit of the social good, but rather that we should all get the chance to be artists and poets and philosophers, as well as lending a hand in the factory or the field or the hospital. He would be strongly against the idea of 'vocation' which leads to the division of labour between self-asserters and self-sacrificers.

I haven't mentioned the feminist view about the 'traditionally male' and 'traditionally female' qualities, but I sure this point could be developed further too.

As you can see from my comments, there are several strands of argument which could be explored here; indeed, enough for a portfolio of essays should you choose to do so.

All the best,