It is generally frowned upon for white men to write about race. It’s about “white privilege” and all. I transgressed that boundary, earlier today, for one simple reason: to remind readers of a domain of life too often missed: the middle ground.
I confessed to loving a few people, hating a few, and being indifferent to most.
That concept of “indifference,” as applied to most folks, is worth contemplating.
The great truth of life is that, on a personal level, we — nearly each one of us — do not (cannot) love everybody, do not hate everybody. True misanthropes are rare. True humanitarian philanthropes are even more scarce.
Though many of us who are religious, or nurture some sort of philosophical humanism, do indeed sport a limited love for “everybody,” that love is a weak pretense, most of the time. We don’t even know most others, and the great majority of people live and die not only without our knowledge, but without our interest.
And this is just fine.
Indeed, on a practical level, we remain and must remain indifferent to the vast run of humanity. Indifference is the middle ground between love and hate. Indeed, there is a wide range of positive and negative on both sides of indifference.
My point in bringing this up, now, is in mere preparation for making a case for the glory of indifference. While some moralists — often of a totalitarian streak (they want to prescribe for your whole life) — preach universal brotherhood and universal love and fraternity and all that, these notions of universal affection are worked-up ideals, often designed not to inculcate those feelings, but designed to make people feel guilty. So that they will then fall prey to some brummagem policy prescription from demagogue or tyrant.
The legitimacy of indifference liberates us from psychological martyrdom.
It is just fine not to care about most people most of the time. A moral person’s heart does not bleed for others (for a bleeding heart is a metaphor of self-destruction), but, in some few and limited situations, will come to the defense and even positive aid of those to whom he is otherwise indifferent. Those situations are few, but important.
But we must not be led to some idiotic, self-sacrificing altruism to “feel good” or “feel bad” about our own moral stance. Such a stance would be as unrealistic as . . . egoism. Selfishness.
The truth is that the moral life is a compromise between the extremes of egoism (promoting self-regard at the undue expense — perhaps “sacrifice” — of others) and altruism (promoting other-regard at the undue expense — “sacrifice” — of self). The middle ground, often excluded from dogmatic discussions of ethics, is not selfishness or selflessness (two odious terms in and of themselves) but a compromise between them, a conciliation. (See Herbert Spencer’s Data of Ethics, chapters 11-14).
But this middle ground in personal ethics does not, I think, yield a proverbial “middle way” between socialism and laissez faire. Instead, think in terms of me-sacrificing-you and you-sacrificing-me. The middle ground in social ethics becomes liberty, where sacrificing one for another is prohibited. The compromise amongst contending egoists is the same as the compromise among contending altruists. Liberty gains its traction not only as an ideal but as compromise, as an ideal compromise.
Much harm was done to the idea of liberty by writers like Ayn Rand, who disregarded Spencer’s careful reasoning and set up, in its place, a dualistic system without a middle ground. And in the process ungrounded talk of compromise from its actual real-world instance and instead floated it, instead, in a too-rarefied Kantian realm.
So I am merely re-asserting the middle ground more dualistic others incautiously omit.
I will get back to the great blessing of civilization: treating with emotional indifference but formal respect the great mass of humanity. What we owe others is not, at base, everything, but only a limited forbearance. Our positive obligations accumulate and extend as we interact in a wide range of mutually voluntary and advantageous arrangements. And our heartstrings are pulled by certain drastic predicaments, as is only natural. To these situations charity and generosity is the appropriate and natural (but not required) response.
Most of the time, most of the day, we ignore others in depth. Especially in cities, one sees others, but does not see them and comprehend them in their full individuality. We only acknowledge their rights to separate existence, and walk on by.
And it is this very unfamiliar and non-communal attitude upon which civilization rests. Pretending, as so many do, that this situation is a predicament is to misunderstand what human love and caring can accomplish. It would stretch our souls too thin to demand universal loving brotherhood, many major religions to the contrary. (It helps to believe in God, for the Deity is defined as all-this and all-that, and all-loving becomes possible. But religionists of even the most benevolent religions compartmentalize all this, and let their “love” for “God” stand in for an impossible love of man.)
Demands that humans love one another, at all times and in all places, and regarding as sin or viciousness any lack, is itself anti-human, and a blight upon humanity. Humanists, especially, must resist the siren song of altruism. Or the strange twisted doctrines of egoism. The middle ground is better, and it contains a huge helping of indifference.