Winning a Moral Arms Race?

Winning a Moral Arms Race? May 2, 2012

The first person to comment on my post about The Hunger Games and not seeing gifts as debts had a pragmatic concern:

I don’t see this as moral progress. If more people would see a sacrifice as a debt the world would be a better place.

I’ve got a (richly deserved) reputation as a not-so-soft paternalist when it comes to social policy, so I’m sympathetic to this critique.  Isn’t there a benefit to chafing under a debt insofar as it spurs us on to better acts?  How is this kind of inducement different from picturing someone observing you when you act, imagining how you’d feel about someone else taking the act you’re considering, or some other exercise you take to build up your moral muscle?

I think the main difference is that we live in a culture where debt is shameful, and, therefore, it’s hard to be in debt to someone without resentment.  (I’d be curious about how this dynamic would play out in a culture that had a radically different approach to indebtedness, i.e. one that actually practiced a regular Jubilee where all debts were forgiven).

But, in the world where we live, we want to escape from debt as swiftly as possible.  The commenter’s question is premised on this fact: we urgently want to escape from obligation to another person.  And that’s the attitude I’m wary of encouraging in anyone, but especially in me.

If you’ve ‘won’ in the debt-as-spur world, you don’t owe anyone anything.  You get a Successfully Atomized Existence plaque or something.  And you’re likely to look askance at someone trying to do a nice thing for you; you don’t want to be entrapped now that you’re finally, radically free.  When this attitude crops up in gift economies, it really does look like an arms race, where people beggar themselves in order to humiliate their neighbors through generosity.

But even if you could secure a gift-giving non-aggression pact, and even if you didn’t live in fear that someone was going to sneak-attack be too nice to you, this attitude would still end up pernicious and unsustainable.  It’s a brute fact that we come into the world with debts we cannot repay.  The most obvious one is our debt to our parents (and Christians would presumably add our dependence on God).  It would be poisonous to resent our parents for their love or to chafe under their generosity.  We need a different way of talking about gifts and sacrifice.

Oh, no! I’ll need to take out the trash for a week to restore balance after all this unasked for affection!

We can’t try to discharge debts or want to be free of our dependence on others.  The way I try to curb these thoughts is to remember how happy it makes me to be of use to someone else and then to be glad that my friend can be similarly happy by being of help to me.  I shouldn’t spoil it by worrying about the good deeds score between us.  (Before all my offline friends jump into the combox, yes, I know I am still terrible at this).

And anyway, my duty to others isn’t something I could ever be free of, even if I had slacker friends or no friends at all.  I’m still called to forge my character and refine my conscience no matter which way the ledgers stand right now.  If I have any obligation, it’s an absolute obligation.  My responsibility to others isn’t something I can work off or live up to, it’s a law that I’m as subject to as I am to gravity.

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