Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Zinc Rule

As a child, I learned the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. After growing up, I learned that Kant developed what someone (I don’t remember who) has characterized as the Silver Rule: Don’t do unto others anything that you would not have done unto yourself. Most recently, I have learned from Schopenhauer what I have to characterize as the Zinc Rule: Do unto others because they are yourself.

In the last post, I discussed Schopenhauer’s view that in an event of pure contemplation of the World, viewer and viewed are one, and Will knows itself. Will is the essence behind everything that is. It’s not that the natural world I see is the representation of a will while my body is also the representation of a will (namely, my will). No, he says; there is only Will, and every thing I see, including myself, is a representation of that one Will. The basic of ethics, according to Schopenhauer, follows logically from this doctrine: it is the recognition that any apparent distinction between myself and the next guy is purely illusion. I love another person because in doing so I love myself.

Now, I’m OK with loving self. The force of “Love thy neighbor as thyself” depends on the agreement that one should love oneself (and, I could add here, on the understanding that the neighbor does not equal thyself). I know that Paul enjoins every husband to love his wife with the acknowledgement that the two are one and that no one hates his own body. What really bothers me about Schopenhauer’s view (apart from the whole “all is one and one is all” business) is that he explicitly says that to see a distinction between myself and my neighbor is to be selfish. To see things correctly, he says, is to love oneself and serve oneself and to concern oneself with oneself – and oneself alone because oneself is all there is. But not to agree with his view, he says, is selfish. Now what does “selfish” mean other than serving oneself and concerning oneself with oneself alone?

Soon after reading this bizarre sophistry, I started Little Dorrit and found Dickens examining selfish people. Curiously, while these characters serve only themselves, they all rationalize their actions as serving someone else. Mrs Merdle says she would rather live on an island dressed in leaves but keeps up her lavish lifestyle in order to please Society. Mr Merdle says he makes money to keep the country strong. Various members of the Barnacle family make fortunes dealing internationally with the professed goal of preserving Britain’s sensible reputation in the world. Fanny Dorrit says she stays away from paupers in order to preserve the dignity of her family (half of whom have lived in debtor’s prison for over two decades.) These are the true pictures of people serving themselves by serving others, and not one of them is attractive. By contrast, Little Amy Dorrit, Arthur Clennam, and other “good guys” in the story help other people only because they recognize that these other people are other and then spend the mental and emotional effort to sympathize, to put themselves in the place of the other. But if I am he as you are me, I/you/he can’t put myself/yourself/himself in the place of any other because there is no other place.

Perhaps Schopenhauer, unlike Dickens, never saw or even imagined an altruistic action. Maybe he could never imagine someone doing something selflessly for someone else. But if someone is to act selflessly, isn’t it logically necessary that there be something other than oneself on whose behalf to act?

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