In re the discussion of accepting gifts, a recent post by Eve Tushnet seemed apropos. (Note, she’s discussing her experiences working with women at a crisis pregnancy center, and I would prefer any discussion not be derailed by an argument about crisis pregnancy centers, since that’s not the part of the story I’m highlighting).
I thought Eve’s strategy of asking the woman to imagine that she and her friend’s positions was a good idea. Most moral systems (solipsism excepted, I guess) assume that you don’t occupy a special place in the moral system. Maybe we could call this failure to universalize moral geocentricism?
I’ve been struck recently by how many of my clients are ashamed to go to their friends for help: both material or financial help, and emotional support, the love in time of distress which might be thought of as one of the key purposes of friendship. I’ve written before about my own struggle with the temptation to keep my troubles to myself and not seek help because I don’t want to burden others, so I totally sympathize with this dilemma. But as I’m trying to teach myself, love in a time of need is what you have friends for. St. Aelred’s emphasis on transparent honesty with one’s friends may be considered an antidote to the shame we feel at exposing our own needs and weaknesses.
One of the biggest tasks at the center, at least for someone with my style of counseling, is to help the woman find the sources of love and support already available to her in her own life and community. I try to help her identify and strengthen those connections. And I’ve been startled by how often people will identify a friend as a possible source of desperately-needed strength, and then admit that they’re ashamed to rely on that friend. “Well, if she were in need, wouldn’t you want to know?” I ask, and that helps a bit. But the tight old relationships–not only friendship but the fictive kinship relations of godparenthood and godsisterhood, and maybe even the extended-family relationships of cousinhood–seem to be weakening.
But since this is an error I fall into, of course I’ve got a sneaky way around it. I am universalizing moral obligation, I’ve told my friends in debate, but you’ve misunderstood the nature of the universal rule I’m applying. All I’m saying is: Everyone should give the actions of other people the most charitable reading possible and their own actions the least charitable interpretation. After all, I don’t know anyone else as well as I know myself, so I must be unaware of some mitigating factors.
I don’t think this is a fundamentally bad approach, just that I tend to take it too far, and that it undersells the extent to which friends may know us better than we know ourselves.