Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Drawing The Line On Promises

Hew, Drew, Lou and Sue all promised their mother they would regularly write during their trips. Hew wrote his letters, but gave them to other people to post, none of whom bothered. So his mother received no letters from him. Drew wrote her letters and posted them herself, but she carelessly put them in disused boxes and attached far too few stamps, which meant none of the letters reached her mom. Lou wrote and posted her letters properly but the postal system let her down every time. Mother didn't hear from her. Sue wrote and posted her letters properly and also made brief phone calls to check if they had arrived. Alas, none did. Did any of the children keep their promise to their mom? (Source: The moral philosophy of H.A. Pichard, as critiqued by Mary Warnock in, "What Philosophers Think", edited by J. Baggini and J. Stangroom)

How much moral responsibility should one take to ensure that their duties/promises are fulfilled? What is the interaction between the agents, actions and their consequences in deciding the moral philosophy of executing a duty?

From the excerpt, it feels like Sue was the only child who gave her best in trying to fulfill her promise. The rest somehow, did not put in their best efforts. But in our everyday world, Sue would be called a paranoid person, a stickler, a perfectionist, whose actions are probably unrealistic to be executed for every given situation. Most of us would probably fall under the category of Lou. We all have our duties, our promises, but how much is really good enough?

To me, a duty remains just a drudged monotony, until the heart is involved. When there is sufficient desire stemming out of passion, care and interest, the effort that is expended is much different, much higher. Ideally, that's how most promises must be viewed. This is not to say that Sue was the only caring child. It is the extent of importance weighed on those particular letters to the mother - Sue attached the greatest importance to them. But I don't necessarily translate this to a proportionate extent of love or affection.

Yet, even Sue's letters didn't reach. Didn't she also fail? This is where the role of consequences come into play. Not all situations and actions can be purely evaluated by their consequences. Surely what matters is the thought, the intentions and the amount of effort, and type of action that go into it. I do attribute the journey to be more valuable than the destination itself. Yet, consequences cannot be always ignored. The severity of the circumstance surely plays a role. If the
childrens' duty was to make sure their mother was recovering well in a hospital, surely the actions would have been far more sincere, because the consequences are dire. But still, one can only do their best. And each one defines what their meaning of "best" is, by being true to themselves.

This analogy can also extend to bigger responsibilities we have as citizens of a country, members of a community etc. What is the role we play in avoiding wars and working towards peace? How far should we go in fulfilling those duties? Can one draw a line on how much sincerity goes in fulfilling a promise? The minute one starts to contemplate what the minimum expectation is, the promise becomes a mere compulsion. When the heart is not involved, one can never put in their best, and they stop being completely true to the other person/

However, having said that, even if each of us did
execute only our bare minimum just for the sense of duty, in the larger perspective, the higher goals can be achieved; like those little squirrels helping Rama build a humongous bridge. Hmm... for a tiny squirrel, maybe that was the best, not the least? I'm digressing... from a practical standpoint, I guess even if each of us did our very least, the effects will still count - helping just one child in need of help, growing just one tree, saving just one room worth of electricity... etc.


SecondSight said...

" When the heart is not involved, one can never put in their best, and they stop being completely true to the other person/recipient."

-Also depends, to a certain extent, on how you define duty, and doing your best.
If you were a war photographer, and witnessed someone being cudgeled to death by a soldier- How would you decide whether to drop the camera and save the man, or report the atrocity so other deaths might be prevented?
Which of those is duty, and which is the best effort possible?

Neeraja said...

That's a wonderful analogy. I have had similar thoughts of photographers in the wild, who will continue to film a dying animal rather than help. In such cases there is no objective definition of duty. But what one chooses as his "duty" also has to come from his heart.

If the photographer is more passionately inclined towards saving the animal/soldier then he will try to put in his best efforts towards it. If his passion is to report the incidents, perhaps due to practical acknowledgment of his limited potentials to help, then that's what he must strive to do.