Austin Meredith: Letter to the Editor

I am basing these remarks on your “Charity Perpetuates Poverty” essay on page 6 of IC32, about kindness that prolongs suffering, food shipments that prolong starvation by perpetuating an evil establishment, where you comment:

There is nothing wrong in making gifts that leave us feeling happier, provided the recipient also benefits, but if there is a risk that the effect may be to prolong suffering, or even to increase it by easing the the demand for radical measures to remove the cause, then we need to stop and think. The primal motivation, lying at the base of all intentional behaviour, is to overcome limitations.

1. If it is true that the function of intentionality is to overcome limitations, then it would seem to follow that it is natural to seek to overcome limitations, unnatural not to seek to overcome limitations. Indeed, it would seem that you have been able finally to destroy Locke’s and Moore’s false dichotomization between what is and what ought to be – you have created the basis for a naturalistic ethic. If I should seek to honor limitations rather than overcome them, then I am merely being foolish, I am merely fooling myself, I am setting myself up to be deselected in this great struggle which is life. Deselected in favour of someone with more wit, wit enough to see that the primal motivation, lying at the basis of all intentional behavior, is to overcome limitations, and someone with more courage, courage enough to act on the basis of that wise understanding, someone with balls to seize the future.

I wonder how you would apply your dictum to the study of the Talmud. The common conception of Jewish law is that it seeks to avoid transgression. Where there is a law such as “seethe not the kid in its mother’s milk,” the scholars elect to place a hedge around that law to ensure that, even inadvertently, it will never be transgressed. Perhaps someone would cook a pudding with the mother’s milk in it; and then perhaps a second member of the family would fail to wash the pan thoroughly that night, and then perhaps some third member of the family, some time later, would use that pan to seethe a kid, and perhaps that kid would be the kid of the ewe from which that milk had been drawn: result, disobedience. Therefore henceforth each good family should not only keep all meat dishes entirely separate from all milk dishes, but should also try to maintain two completely distinct, marked sets of cooking utensils, one for dishes involving milk as an ingredient and the other for dishes involving meat as an ingredient. Would you say that this style of reasoning, since it seeks to honor limitations rather than overcome limitations, is an unnatural style of reasoning? Would you say that this style of thinking goes against our primal motivation, lying at the base of all intentional behavior, and is therefore… what, fallacious? Perhaps wrong? What word would you apply? Foolish? Misguided?

I wonder how you would apply your dictum to the psychology of children. As the father of four, I testify that the common conception, that children will push as hard as they dare and gain as much ground as they can, is an incorrect conception. In my experience, children push only until they meet firm parental resistance, and then they seem relieved to have found their guidance, and they are quite content to be good obedient children. In fact, my experience is that children become quite disturbed when they need again to probe, to find out what are their real parameters. Is my experience incorrect? Are my children unnatural children, retarded in their maturation, who have not yet learned that their true and primal motivation, lying at the basis of all really intentional human behavior, is to overcome limitations rather than to honor limitations?

I would suggest to you that some psychologies are based on overcoming limitations, as an unexamined given, while other psychologies are based on honoring limitations, as an unexamined given, in the same way that some psychologies are based on making certain in every circumstance that one is getting more than one is giving, while other psychologies are based on making certain in every circumstance that one is giving more than one is getting. (My father and my mother were examples of the former and the latter, which made for an interesting marriage). I would suggest to you that the people who are immersed in one such psychology would naturally tend to assume that their own psychology is the only possible psychology, and that indeed this is the trap into which you have falllen.

2. When I read what you had to say about considering the probable outcome of our charitable impulses, and perhaps refraining from giving food to starving Ethiopians until they have a better government than the Mengistu regime, quite frankly, I was reminded of the little set speech that Herr Himmler used to make to his concentration camp guards. He would gather them together and express his understanding of their natural feeling of compassion for the miserable people they were guarding, and he would counsel them about their need to guard their emotions, their need to make themselves hard in the service of a better world. In order to build a decent future for the children of tomorrow, a world with less pain and unfitness…

I would of course concur that one ought not to give in such a manner as to do harm. One doesn’t “give” a pocket knife to a six-year-old, etc. However, I would suggest that when Jesus encountered the rich young man who wanted to attain the Dominion of Heaven, and advised him to go sell all he had and distribute the proceeds among the poor, the prime focus of Jesus’ advice was not on turning poor people into rich people, it was on helping this rich young man dispose of specific encumbrances, encumbrances which were definitely standing in his way. In this story the poor are merely a convenient sink, a way harmlessly and incidentally to dispose of excess richness, they provide a service to the needy rich, a way for the rich to get rid of their encumbrances without actually hurting anyone. Jesus knew that the poor we have always with us, that no amount of gifts will ever rid the earth of starvation, and Jesus also knew that these worldly facts are not in any way an argument against charity.

Yours etc.

When Austin says ‘I would of course concur that one ought not to give in such a manner as to do harm,’ he expresses agreement with the main theme of the piece in IC32; this was precisely the point of the article. It suggested that the charity received by the Ethiopians might be doing harm and said that if so, then some reconsideraticin is called for:

if there is a risk that the effect [of a gift] may be to prolong suffering, or even to increase it by easing the demand for radical measures to remove the cause, then we need to stop and think.

If the mention of Himmler has any relevance it must rest on the proposition that whatever a bad man says is wrong, and we cannot believe that Austin would seriously maintain this. Proverbially, the Devil can quote Scripture, but this does not make the Bible untrue. Himmler found his statement worth making, it carried persuasive power, just because, in another context, it could be valid. All responsible parents find themselves at times obliged to guard their emotions, harden themselves and, for the sake of their children’s future, refuse them things it would be easier and pleasanter, at the moment, to let them have.

Now to turn to the main theme of the letter, the question of limitations. IC32 spoke of overcoming limitations, not of escaping from them. The limitations to be overcome are of course those suffered at the time, and they can be overcome only by accepting in their place another set believed to offer greater freedom. This applies only in purposive, intentional, volitional behaviour. If, struck on the knee, my leg moves in the knee-jerk reflex the action has no purpose and no question of overcoming, selecting or honoring limitations arises. But if I perform the same action with the purpose of kicking a ball, then I show myself to have chosen the limitations involved in kicking the ball in preference to those entailed by not kicking it. To quote Walsby:

Even when we willingly submit or subject ourselves to some limitation or other (as, of course, we are constantly doing) we do so only in so far as we think this subjection enables us to overcome a greater limitation. For instance, we willingly submit to the limitations imposed upon us in the getting of food in order to avoid the greater limitation imposed upon us by the internal stimulus of hunger. In fact, every successful action must be based on the acceptance of certain limitations… which then become the means of overcoming the greater limitation otherwise suffered. (Domain of Ideologies pp 190-1).

IC32 did not develop the theme even to this extent, and we are now using Austin’s letter as a punching-bag on which to demonstrate what would have been better made clear in the first place. When looked at in this light his distinction between honouring limitations and overcoming them becomes one between accepting those now suffered and changing to a possible alternative set.

Accepting his account of Judaic practices, to seethe a kid in its mother’s’ milk would be to incur divine displeasure, and Jahveh is known to impose upon those who displease him limitations ranging up to eternal damnation. The limitations entailed by disobedience (even unintentional) are overcome by accepting in their place the lesser ones of ritual cleanliness.

In paternal experience we have to defer to Austin in the ratio of two to four, but for what little it may be worth our own impressions of children’s behaviour agree with his. They press against the limits only to obtain assurance of their firmness. They overcome the limitations imposed by the consequences of unguided experimenting by accepting those of parental guidance. The younger the child the more this applies; older ones with more knowledge to guide them are able to choose, among the various sets of limitations offered by independent life, ones believed to entail lesser limitations than continuing submission to the parents.

If we wanted to compete with the sociologists in constructing pretentious polysyllabic terms for relatively simple procedures this could doubtless be termed ‘limitation-analysis.’ Its application to items of personal behaviour often seems ponderous and pointless, the usefulness appearing mainly when studying the behaviour of ideological groups. The limitations chosen in preference to others are always those assumed to impose the lesser limitations, to allow the greatest freedom. The choice of limitations and the meaning given to ‘freedom’ depend upon the assumptions made, and when the behaviour of large social groups comes in question the operative assumptions are those very broad ones lying at the bases of the various major ideologies. Walsby’s concept of limitations forms one link, and a load-bearing one, in the chain of evidence and reasoning connecting the deep ideological structures with observable behaviour.

from Ideological Commentary 33, May 1988.