Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, April 30, 2012

X is Good != You Must Do X

I've been thinking about the tendency of discussions about lifestyle choices to turn radioactive. You know: homeschooling, breastfeeding, attachment parenting, eating organic, 'sustainable' living, stay-at-home moms, NFP vs. providentialism, marrying young, etc.

One reason discussions on these topics almost invariably become fraught is that they're highly personal, but I think the big issue lurking behind this is that when someone makes an argument that "homeschooling is good" or "there are lots of good reasons to homeschool" we invariably read it as, "everyone should homeschool, and if you don't you're a bad parent."

Now, this impression is not unfounded. You can certainly find advocates of all the above topics who believe that everyone should live the way they do. However, most advocates would not go that far. They might think that more people should emulate their choices, because those choices are very good, but they would, if pressed, acknowledge that doing otherwise can be the best thing in certain situations.

Nevertheless, people tend to make the jump from "X is good" to "You must do X" and respond accordingly. I wonder if perhaps part of the reason is that we're inverting the thought process "X is bad, therefore you should not do X". It does not follow that because we must not do any things that are wrong, we must do all things that are right, but the symmetry is appealing.

Rather, it seems to me there are three categories we should consider (though not all actions will fall in one of these three):

1) Things that are wrong -- you should not do these

2) Things that are good, but not obligatory

3) Things that are good and are obligatory

Now, obviously, even if we posit that some action or lifestyle falls into 2), there's a lot of room to argue about why it's good, whether it really is good, how good it is, when it might be useful as opposed to not, etc. But at least we're clear that it's not something belonging to category 3), as in something that's obligatory.

But wait a minute: if we're classifying these sorts of activities in category 2) as "good but not obligatory", doesn't that put us back right where we started? Aren't people who don't do some good thing less good than people who do?

Not if we think about it clearly. First off, just because something is a good, does not necessarily mean that it is good in all circumstances. Secondly, we often have to choose between goods, because we simply can't do everything.

So, on the side of those arguing for a good, it's probably wise to be aware of whether you're talking about something which is a good but non-obligatory thing, or a good and obligatory thing.

And for those who see or hear someone else arguing that something is good, keep in mind that even if they are right, and what they're arguing for is good, that that does not necessarily mean you are bad (or even less good) if you don't do likewise.


Jenny said...

You left out the skirts vs pants debate.

I think that people feel judged when someone else points out a good.

A few years ago there was a woman with an article about how breastfeeding makes it impossible to work outside the home. Thus it is a conspiracy to keep women tied to the home and pumping milk at work is a myth that doesn't ever work out. The main thrust of the article was that it was impossible. Not hard or challenging or the like, but absolutely not possible.

Ann Althouse had a thread on it and I commented that since I had children and had not ever used formula and worked full-time outside the home, my case alone meant it was not impossible. It was hard and tiring and sometimes a drag, but not impossible.

One woman reacted very strongly. You would have thought I called her and her daughter bad names. She heaped scorn in my direction. She felt very judged. She heard me calling her a bad mother and not trying hard enough. I said no such thing, but what can you do.

My intention in posting was in hopes that if some other mother was deciding between pumping or formula, she would not be discouraged to give the pumping a try and see what happens. The responding commenter thought that I was demanding she pump and would rather the child starve than have formula.

And I love !=. Sometimes I miss C...

JMB said...

But what if you do a "good" with a less than good or "bad" intention? Does that make the thing bad? For example, my vain side liked breast feeding because I was the type that could eat like a truck driver and still manage to lose weight while doing it, lots of weight. Heck, I didn't give one iota about nutrition, increased IQ (never bought that one) or mother/child bonding. I already loved my baby. So my best argument for breast feeding was an easy way to get skinny. All my kids benefited from my vanity as well as laziness and inner cheapness (formula way too pricy for moi).

My argument for not homeschooling is that I like to run my own ship by myself during the hours of 8 to 3:30. Plus, if my kids go away for a little while, I start to miss them....

Anonymous said...

Formula is cheaper than extra food, for many of the women who have to "eat like truck drivers" while breastfeeding and who often haven't got the extra weight to lose. Never was a fan of cheapness arguments for doing anything kid-related precisely because it sounds to secular people like 'hurk, I cheap out on my kid and here is my rationalization about why it's better'.

Anonymous said...

Breastfeeding almost certainly has a marginal effect on IQ because maternal nutrition affects IQ.

JMB said...

Anonymous & Anonymous,

Your comments are examples why I never made it socially with my local LLL. Although I exclusively breast fed my babies for at least a year, some even longer, I never had the street cred because I didn't spew the party line. So I guess that's why I leave the advocacy up to others.

Anonymous said...

What party line are you talking about?

Bill E. said...

I'm loving this irony: The comments on this post have already turned it into a breastfeeding forum. Go internet!

bearing said...

Yeah, it's pretty astonishing how quickly someone showed up to prove Darwin's point. Thanks, brave Anonymous!

I think that part of the problem is that many people have a difficulty distinguishing between "non-obligatory" and "not a matter for moral discernment."

If I say "Whether to X or not is a moral decision," I may mean, "You must carefully consider the benefits and costs of X, and your own motives, and the just response to other people who may be involved with the situation."

And someone else may hear, "If you X yer goin' to hell!!!!!!"

There are many things that are not obligatory but which are so very good that one ought to have a proportionate reason not to choose them. It is neither a question of mere preference, nor is it a question of obligation, but a question of correct priorities.

Which is why I think perhaps you are missing some categories.

Both breastfeeding and eating chocolate ice cream are good and non-obligatory. Still, it seems that decisions about them do not fall into the same category, morally speaking.

MrsDarwin said...

I read JMB's response as being fun and flip, but Anon responded seriously to the literal content, and once again there was an internet clash. I'm struck, in these debates, by the difficulties posed in having a serious discussion about topics that are deeply rooted in individual choices as well as moral considerations. Most people don't actually want to place every aspect and factor of their moral decision-making process out on display for everyone's consderation, especially if that process includes painful details such as medical problems or conflict with a spouse. It's easier to give flip or dismissive reasons for making decisions that seem controversial, even though that invites misunderstanding and earnest correction. In JMB's case, which is much like my own experience, it's easy to give a quick toss-off reason for making a choice that's easy and basic enough to be a default option. JMB can correct me if I'm wrong; I don't want to be engaging in the same kind of over-earnest analysis I've just criticized.

The other day I read a blog post in which someone wrote about a topic I might have been interested in discussing, but which was written with enough flipness and hyperbole that I felt there was no point in presenting a reasoned and nuanced view of the subject. Perhaps an intelligent conversation might have ensued, but my assumption, wrong though it may have been, was that the author used hyperbole, (perhaps unconsciously) as a indicator that this was really a post for the Amen Corner because the author needed affirmation that day.

Jenny said...

It seems category 2 needs to be split.

2a) Things that are good and not obligatory, but still need to be carefully considered

2b) Things that are good, but not obligatory and are no big deal

The ice cream falls into 2b, but breastfeeding falls into 2a. Most of the internet conflicts are about 2a topics.

Darwin said...

Bearing & Jenny,

Yeah, I think I was implicitly assuming that these categories only applied to "thing it might conceivably matter whether or not you do" as opposed to something more like "matters of taste". But then, there's also a lot of disagreement as to what might fall into one of those. For instance, I tend to take "buying free range meat" or "buying local produce" as something which is only to be sought for if you think it makes a difference in the taste, or if for some reason you like the idea of doing that, but others seem to think it is a morally significant action.

Jenny said...

That's the heart of the matter--how do you divide category 2? Last night one of my husband's garden friends posted a mini-rant about some advertisement she received about using household products in the garden. She was incensed that people were being encouraged to contaminate the soil with ingredients she would never put into her body much less her garden. You know ingredients like peanut butter, gatorade, and table sugar. For her it was a moral outrage. For me, not so much.

Anonymous said...

But Brawndo has electrolytes!

mandamum said...

Here's maybe the problem--you refered to the "symmetry" but that can be misleading, as we all find out in logic courses (right? Don't we all take logic in school? You mean it's just us math and philo people??):

"If A then B"

is equivalent NOT to

"If NOT A then NOT B"

but rather to

"If NOT B then NOT A"

In other words: "This is bad, therefor you should not do it" = "This is something you should do, therefore it is good". Can't make any claims about either "This is good therefore you should do it" or "You should not do this, therefor it is bad". But now that I type that out, I would suggest you often get similar things there too: "I just don't feel called to homeschool." But often, in mixed groups, people who state a negative may also give backing ("I've given it a lot of prayer, but..." "Given our family situation...." etc) that make it more blindingly clear it is a specific, not general, statement.

I would also suggest some of these good things might be obligatory for some (kind of like "ordinary" vs "extraordinary" efforts in end-of-life care) but not for others if their implementation would require herculean efforts or impinge on other goods. Maybe this is where people start to head down the "you should do this because it is good"? When you see someone choosing a clearly lesser good, and (you think) you're close enough to the situation to know they're choosing for a bad reason....

JMB said...

You pegged me Mrs. Darwin, I was being flip. I think the problem lies in the "advocacy" part of the thing. There are many of us who simply don't like to be told what to do, especially by well meaning but clueless single-issue types. An example would be Mayor Bloomberg of NYC. He's constantly wagging his finger telling us that we shouldn't eat fried foods or smoke cigs or enjoy half price drinks during happy hour. Yes, now he wants to ban happy hours. Not that I've been to one in years, but still. Whose against half priced Margaritas???

Anonymous said...

Which comment was flip? Certainly can't tell if you are being flip again with the remark about 'well meaning but clueless single issue types'. There are less inflammatory ways to go there, too.

HBanan said...

Your post made me think of Mary and Martha of Bethany. Hospitality is an undisputed good, after all, so why isn't lazy ol' Mary pitching in? She has chosen the better part. And yet, Jesus did not tell Martha to stop making dinner -- just that He wasn't going to make Mary get up.

It also made me think of Talladega Nights: "If you're not first, you're last!"

This attitude that the best is obligatory, and second-best is unthinkable, is so imprudent and unhealthy. I think it is one reason people take on dangerous levels of debt.

Good discernment involves the choice between goods, not between superlatives and dreck. It is good to recognize that there are many goods and many acceptable choices under the freedom God has given us. It is also good to practice humility. Can we bear to think that someone in the world thinks herself superior? The need to justify ourselves to everyone is such a burden.