Tag Archives: care

Acts and Sets of Acts

This passage in Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons (1984) deserves calling out, not least because it sets the stage for the arguments against climate change despair I reviewed in a previous post.

In small communities, it is a plausible claim that we cannot have harmed others if there is no one with an obvious complaint, or ground for resenting what we have done.

Until this century, most of mankind lived in small communities. What each did could affect only a few others. But conditions have now changed. Each of us can now, in countless ways, affect countless other people. We can have real though small effects on thousands or millions of people. When these effects are widely dispersed, they may be either trivial, or imperceptible. It now makes a great difference whether we continue to believe that we cannot have greatly harmed or benefited others unless there are people with obvious grounds for resentment or gratitude. While we continue to believe this, even if we care about effects on others, we may fail to solve many serious Prisoner’s Dilemmas. For the sake of small benefits to ourselves, or our families, each of us may deny others much greater total benefits, or impose on others much greater total harms. We may think this permissible because the effects on the others will either be trivial or imperceptible. If this is what we think, what we do will often be much worse for all of us.

If we cared sufficiently about effects on others, and changed our moral view, we would solve such problems. It is not enough to ask, ‘Will my act harm other people?’ Even if the answer is No, my act may still be wrong, because of its effects. The effects that it will have when it is considered on its own may not be its only relevant effects. I should ask, ‘Will my act be one of a set of acts that will together harm other people?’ The answer may be Yes. And the harm to others may be great. If this is so, I may be acting very wrongly…. We must accept this view if our concern for others is to yield solutions to most of the many Prisoner’s Dilemmas that we face: most of the many cases where, if each of us rather than none of us does what will be better for himself — or for his family, or those he loves — this will be worse, and often much worse, for everyone.

When Lily Says “No”

Always take no for an answer is a cardinal rule of asking, I wrote in my first post on this theme. It’s a version of the golden rule that’s especially worth bearing in mind when making plans to collaborate or act with others, or just talking about what we are going to do.

While giving someone an order might be a way to delegate authority and raise her stature in a group, asking recognizes the authority and standing she already has. According this basic respect takes precedence over extracting promises and concessions or getting to yes in a conversation or negotiation, and unless another person can say “no” and have that answer heeded, she will never really be able to say “we”. “No” marks the spot where you stop and we begin.

In other words, taking no for an answer is not just about respecting others, but about respecting and caring for how things are between us (the theme of a post I wrote earlier this week) and for the sense of us we have. That sense of us is how we make up and maintain the social world together. When we ask someone to do something, or ask what we are going to do, we openly acknowledge that there is — or can be — a “we,” not just you and I, but a plural first person. Asking creates an opening. It puts us out in the open.

The philosopher Margaret Gilbert seems to be heading in this same direction when she remarks in passing: “successfully questioning someone involves entering a joint commitment with that person.”

Take a moment to consider the example she offers. Bob addresses Lily with the question, “Shall we dance?” And Lily answers, “Yes, lets!” From this point on, the usual Gilbertian scenario unfolds. Having expressed their readiness to enter a joint commitment — indicating “that all is in order as far as one’s own will is concerned” — Bob and Lily are now jointly committed to dance together.

Once they start dancing, or, actually, even before that, once Lily has said yes and as she rises from her seat, each will have to answer to the other in the event one of them violates the joint commitment, or at least Lily would be justified in complaining if Bob were to drag his feet, go outside for a smoke, or give in to sultry Melissa, who is beckoning with her eyes from the other side of the room.

Unfortunately, Gilbert never elaborates on what “successfully questioning someone” entails, or what might make it different from unsuccessfully questioning someone. On the surface, it looks as if Bob “successfully” questions Lily here because she says “yes” to his request: she accepts his invitation to dance. Bob and Lily have therefore reached an explicit agreement. But let’s not confuse successfully questioning someone with getting to yes, or confuse getting to yes with reaching an agreement. (It’s worth noting that for Gilbert, joint commitments don’t always entail explicit agreements. The way Gilbert puts it is: “everyday agreements can be understood as constituted by…joint commitments” [her emphasis]).

What if Lily says “no”? What if she rolls her eyes, or sticks her nose in the air? In that case, has something like an agreement been reached?

Maybe. As long as Bob takes Lily’s no for an answer, we can say he and Lily have agreed not to dance. Of course, Bob might not like our putting it that way. He might say he failed to get Lily to dance with him, but that might also go to show that he was not prepared to take no for an answer and regarded Lily’s consent as the only acceptable outcome. We might do better if we were to characterize Bob’s questioning Lily in terms of Lily’s responsiveness — on that score, both yes and no would count as success — or if we think about what Bob’s asking Lily to dance and Lily’s refusal puts between them, how it constitutes them as a plural subject.

Though not committed to dance together, Bob and Lily are not done with each other or free of shared commitments after Lily says “no.” In a very important way, their relationship has just begun. When one person addresses or flags the attention of another, with a question or a nod, the squeak of a chair or a sneeze, they “jointly commit to recognizing as a body that the two of them are co-present,” Gilbert writes. People mutually recognize each other in this way all the time, on queues and in coffee shops, in bookstore aisles and on city sidewalks. Here we are, a “we”. Asking helps get us there.

So even if Lily politely refuses Bob with a “no thank you,” or rudely brushes him off, Bob can take solace in the thought that he has successfully questioned Lily. Bob’s failed bid to dance with Lily commits Lily and Bob to recognize that the two of them are co-present, there in the dance hall. Bob and Lily now have a sense of us, even if Lily will never dance with Bob, and that sense — that relationship — will endure.

With that enduring sense of us between them, Bob and Lily are now jointly committed to Lily’s refusal as well. So if Bob were to order Lily or insist that she dance with him, or grab her by the arm and drag her to the dance floor, coercing her, Lily has every right to complain. And if the next time Bob saw Lily he were to pretend that she never refused him at the dance, he would be doing Lily wrong.

How Things Are Between Us

Time now to say something about the tendency, nearly everywhere apparent, to reduce human relationships to transactions, as promised in an earlier post. The topic is vast and I won’t pretend to give it comprehensive treatment in this short post. Instead I’ll just outline some of the problems I have with this tendency, and try to work my way back to some of the thinking and reading I’ve been doing about ordinary first-person plural activities, like conversations, taking a walk together, and so on.

I’m going to pass quickly over what seems to me the most obvious point about this transactional way of thinking about human relationships: namely, that it’s crass to recast human relationships as mere exchanges of goods or information or words. I can easily conceive of situations in which a transactional approach might become abusive, destructive or reach sociopathic proportions; and examples (like this ugly item from today’s news) wouldn’t be very hard to find. But I think crass is the word I’m looking for at the moment, especially if we’re talking about the everyday activities of relatively decent people. “Crass” denotes coarseness and a lack of intelligence and refinement. It’s bad manners, we might say, as long as we remember that manners are more than etiquette, but a respect for how things are between us.

In a commercial transaction the seller can be indiscriminate: usually it doesn’t matter who the buyer is, as long as the seller’s price is met. (Of course there are special cases even here: the Christian baker who will not sell a decorated wedding cake to the same sex couple; the Soup Nazi — “No soup for you!”; and so on.) In relationships, on the other hand, we regularly discriminate and sort out our feelings toward people. Attitudes matter. We are friends, lovers, enemies. I like or dislike you, or I am bothered by what you said. It’s easy to spend time with this person; but that one gets my goat within the first few minutes. She is my mentor with whom I enjoy having lunch at the Greek restaurant on Wednesdays; here comes the tedious colleague with whom I despise talking. All these attitudes are fluid and subject to change, but the point is that in relationships we are always discriminating, reacting and adjusting. Relationships involve moral judgments and ground us in moral community.

Transactions tend to be finite; once the price is negotiated and paid in exchange for goods, the transaction is over. (I recognize that there are transactions that trigger other transactions and so on, but even so the extension of that scaffolding does not necessarily amount to a full-fledged relationship.) Relationships are not events but enduring states; and while some relationships may involve negotiations of price (e.g., we talk about relationships with longstanding clients or customers), those negotiations have as it were been imported into the relationship or continue within it, and they can be destructive of it.

Relationships properly speaking involve much more — above all, a sense of “us,” and all that the first-person plural brings with it: mutual recognition and mutual authority, a whole range of changing attitudes, evaluations of beliefs and actions in light of recognized norms, as well as all sorts of promises and obligations, claims and grievances.

In a word: relationships involve care.

Obviously, but care for whom? This, for me, is the essence of the matter. Most of us would probably be quick to say that a relationship involves care for another or someone other than oneself, for a second person or persons. But all the attitudes we have toward others and the actions we undertake on behalf of second persons demonstrate, at a minimum, that we care not just for the other but also for how things are between us. And that is probably the more important point here, or at least the point I would like to stress: that in a relationship we are jointly committed to how things are between us. We are not only a first and second person who have each made an individual or personal commitment, but a first-person plural, a “we.”

Answering ‘The Ask’ with a ‘Huh?’

I’ve written a number of posts about “the ask” and why we should insist that ask is a verb, but I haven’t said much about the provenance of the ungainly nominative “ask” or taken its origins into account.

“The ask” is not the revival or survival of an archaic or medieval form, as one writer in the New York Times suggested. Far from it: it’s a piece of stock trader’s jargon that crept from the trading floor into bureaucratic conversation. On Wall Street, “the ask” is shorthand for the minimum price a seller sets for a security. The difference between the ask and the bid, or what a buyer is willing to pay, is known as the spread; and the spread is one pretty reliable measure of market liquidity. 

Presumably, when someone uses the term “the ask” or “my ask” to direct work or coordinate action, he expects (or pretends to expect) the second person, his interlocutor, to counter with a bid, as if conversations produced a workable measure of practical liquidity — or a measure of what’s practically possible — in the difference between what one person wants to do and what another wants or is willing to do, or what each thinks ought to be done.

We can sketch a model: the ask would invite the bid and the bid would meet that invitation with an offer. And we can develop this rudimentary model of conversation a little more by exploring the etymology of the word “bid” — itself the substantive form of a verb with roots in Old Teutonic, where *beudan means to stretch out, reach out, offer or present; and by extension beodan or boden in Old English and bede in Middle English come to mean to announce, proclaim or command. So here, again, an ask-bid model might confer some power on the bidder, or help create the appearance of parity, a sharing of command between petitioner and respondent, asker and bidder. What we are going to do is what we together command, or what will fall within the spread, span or scope of our shared command.

That doesn’t seem so bad, on the face of it: at the very least it sounds as if people on both sides can give and get in return. “The ask” holds out the promise of some share in power, or at least more flexibility than command-obedience would seem to allow. That might help account for its widespread use in the first decade or so of the twenty-first century. Ideas about organizational hierarchy are changing, and people have begun to pay outward homage, at least, to the idea that command and control is not necessarily the most effective way to run an organization. In bureaucratic settings, the imperative of command is taking on interrogative affects: the ask makes an order sound more like a request, softening the power one person actually wields over others.

The model has lots of shortcomings: for one, it reduces human relationships to market transactions — and that’s a serious and thorny problem, one I hope to say more about in a future post. But the main trouble with the ask-bid model is simply that it tells us very little about how conversation actually works. Conversations are never so neatly regimented and sequenced as this bureaucratic model makes them out to be, and as I wrote in another post, much of which we might regard as background noise or “beside the point” in a conversation is just as important, if not more important, than the putative point. There’s never just “an ask”; all parties to the conversation are continuously asking and offering, requesting clarification or confirmation, making representations of the other, shifting attention to and from the matter of joint interest, situating, interrupting and re-connecting with each other.

Generally, we’re making it up as we go along, together, and all of that joint effort counts much more than we ordinarily acknowledge. We don’t merely counter asks with bids or requests with offers; we also work together to organize, represent and sustain the conversation as a social act.

A paper published last week by Mark Dingemanse and others at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics stresses this theme. In ordinary conversation, the authors observe, interlocutors ask for clarification and correction about once every 1.4 minutes. This “other-initiated repair” is a central feature of all human conversation; and the cues one uses to initiate repair demonstrate care for the interlocutor and for the “social unit” of the conversation.

There are three main ways interlocutors initiate repair. Interjections like “huh?” are “open requests” for clarification. Asking speakers to repeat what they said (“who”?) are “restricted requests.” Repeating back what the speaker said (“he hit a homerun?”) are described as “restricted offers.” All three are regularly used with the same frequency no matter what language we happen to be speaking and despite differences in grammar and syntax. (For the paper’s authors, this lends support to the hypothesis that there are universals at work in all human language; but rather than get hung up on that point, I prefer simply to appreciate their observation that interlocutors are working constantly together, making repairs on the fly.)

Abbot and Costello's 'Who's on First?' routine is a brilliant send up of other-initiated repair.

So instead of a simple ask-bid or request-offer model, we need a much looser and less linear model in which all parties to a conversation are constantly running requests and offers and making interjections in no particular order or sequence, and so frequently and effortlessly that we don’t even notice we are making them. Requests, offers and interjections might even go unanswered; but they are no less effective for all that. These are cooperative cues and gestures, markers of the conversation as a social act.

(This is, by the way, why,so-called “conversational” interfaces built for digital assistants like Siri are still nowhere near conversational. What the manufacturers of these devices really mean is that you can address your digital assistant — give an order or make a request — in ordinary language, and it will follow. But even if the assistant is designed to say “I did not understand your request, please repeat it” or something along those lines, it’s not producing anything like the steady stream of other-initiated repairs involved actual conversation, where interlocutors are reading each other’s minds and correcting misreadings as they go.)

Conversation recreates and demonstrates joint commitment. That’s what’s really missing from the ask-bid model: human relationship. Asker and bidder, seller and buyer, don’t have a shared project beyond the exchange they are negotiating; their contact with each other can end once the transaction is made, and one or both can just walk away if they don’t agree on price. After all, both the asker and the bidder seek advantage over the other, rather than mutual gain or shared advantage that is the spur, aim and outcome of serious conversation. After the deal is done or abandoned, the bidder is free to pursue his ends and the seller is, too, even if they will be working at cross purposes.

On the other hand, people who are in a conversation about what to do have already committed to doing something together. They’ve committed to acting together, to social action and to a social subject: a “we.” We keep our commitment by repairing as we go. We act together even when we have irreconcilable differences about the way things are or what to do.