Saturday, January 05, 2008

Another Paradox: Motivation & Obligation

I'm enjoying all the responses to the last philosophy paradox I gave you. I still don't have a philosophical position that I can articulate and defend. I have my own experience, and then these puzzles.

So here is another puzzle.

A couple of rejected moral obligation wholeheartedly. One person particularly rejected it as a source of motivation. I replied in a comment saying that there were some interesting philosophers who agreed.

On one hand, I would say that parents have a moral obligation to take care of their children. On the other hand, if they are acting only out of a sense of obligation, they are not being good parenst. A lot of things that we might do because we were obligated to do them, we shouldn't do. (Seeing the paradox?) To take a minor, and somewhat less paradoxical example, if I feel like I SHOULD bake half a dozen different holiday cookies, because the kids expect it, because my mother-in-law always did, then I will feel resentful. Of course this one is not paradoxical because I had no moral obligation to bake cookies in the first place.

Parenting can be very paradoxical when thought of in these terms, and I am not quite sure how to think of it. I care for children whose parents have failed to do what they were morally required to do. I believe that. I also don't think they would have been good parents if they did what they should merely because they were required to do it.

And that seems right for a lot of things. If I get to the point where I fulfill my duties as a teacher only because they are my duties, I won't be a very good teacher.

If I do foster care merely because I think I should, I will be a very bad foster parent. The kids deserve so much more than a parent who feels obligated to them. They need parents who love and cherish them.

And yet ... I don't think we can count on that being the case constantly. Though I reject much of Nell Noddings work, the idea that at least in some contexts, morality is the lesser way of being in which we model our behavior on our better caring selves, might be right. Fundamentally, I can only be a good parent, partner, or teacher if I want to do it, and if the desire to do it is born of a genuinely caring or love of the other. Some days though I am just not my best self and I have to make myself act they way I do when I am that better self.

I can't throw out morality completely. It gives me no way to talk about oppression, about the wrongness of people hurting people. I can't agree to say things like "everyone should do what they want" because some people want to do very bad things. I also can't say it because there are things that need to be done, that perhaps we just don't want to do.

I can't quite explain this, but there is also something different about what I merely want to do, like take a hot bath, and what I feel motivated to do and want to do partly because I feel I should.

I think in my person example about Carl, I would not, or should not, have felt obligated to take him if it was only obligation at work, and that doesn't make much sense at all. Part of what made it the right thing for me to do, was that I cared about Carl. I did not love him the way I would come to love him, but I cared about him.

I'm still struggling to work all this out, and I do appreciate you long and thoughtful comments.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:01 AM

    Huh. Three things that might be relevant, or might not:

    First, obligation vs. wholeheartedness doesn't make any difference if you're mailing off a check. It makes some difference if you're working in a soup kitchen, more difference if you're tutoring, and a huge difference if you're parenting.

    So if you're exploring obligation vs. wholeheartedness as a larger, abstract idea, you need something flexible enough to work for both writing a check and parenting. (Which I think you're getting at, moving from the $10,000 example to the adoption example, so this is possibly an unhelpful comment.)

    Second, "fake it till you make it" has some validity. Even if people start out doing something because of obligation, it can become something that they appreciate and perform wholeheartedly. That's an additional value to obligation.

    Finally, have you read Nick Hornby's "How to Be Good"? It's a novel that considers some of the ideas you've been posting about. I wasn't thrilled with the resolution, but I found the premise thought-provoking.


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