Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Love as a (Kantian-like) Moral Emotion

I first read J. David Velleman’s Self to Self: Selected Essays (Cambridge University Press, 2006) when it came out over ten years ago; reading it afresh leaves me far more impressed and moved by its arguments and insights. I used to discuss the chapter, “The Genesis of Shame” in my class on comparative world religions. It’s a moral and philosophical meditation on the Adam and Eve story in Genesis, which I thought gave the students a taste of what it means to look at religious narratives as (possibly) containing “interpretations” and “meanings” that stretch beyond those emphasized by adherents to a tradition or subscribers to a specific worldview (it was not intended to belittle or deny what those believers thought about this same material), much as we understand good literature to be “speaking” in some manner to all of us (of course we need not agree on what it is saying, but its qualities appeal to our nature as persons, as human animals with all their powers, capacities and possibilities). 

I was motivated to post something on the book upon reading the following passage: 

“ … [Iris] Murdoch’s ethic of attending to particulars is not necessarily at odds with the ethics of impartiality. On the contrary, Murdoch emphasized that the attention required is ‘impersonal’ and ‘an exercise of detachment.’ To be sure, Murdoch equates attending to individuals with a form of love for them, and a morality based on love might naturally be assumed to differ from any morality that is impartial. Yet the attention that embodies love, in Murdoch’s view, is strictly objective and fair-minded: 

‘Should a retarded child be kept at home or sent to an institution? Should an elderly relation who is a trouble-maker be cared for or asked to go away? Should an unhappy marriage be continued for the sake of the children? [….] The love which brings the right answer is an exercise of justice and realism and really looking.’ 

In Murdoch’s language of impersonality, detachment, realism, and justice, there is no suggestion that particularity entails partiality.” — From the chapter, “Love as a Moral Emotion”  

As to what precisely is meant by “Kantian-like” in the title of the post, one should read the essay in its entirety.

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