content warning: some discussion of internalised ableism
I had an interesting conversation with my partner this evening. My vision and hearing have been deteriorating, and it is messing with me as I feel like I am not good at anything. I recognise that’s not true, but that’s how it feels sometimes, when my sensory issues inhibit me from driving, cause me to miss crucial things being discussed by my students on the other side of the classroom, etc. I had misread something on the dashboard while she was driving and made a joke at my own expense about my eyesight, saying don’t trust my eyes, I shouldn’t try to use my eyes because I can’t trust them. She responded “just use your words!”
As a child, my vision was perfect, and I always identified as pretty articulate. I was that ten-year-old whom everyone said talked like an adult, probably because I hung out with adults and sometimes other nerdy kids most of the time. Ever since I left university and haven’t had a regular schedule of essay writing, I’ve worried about losing my ability to express myself well about things that matter. So in response to my partner’s quip, I pleaded, only half-joking, “I still have my words, right? Please humour me, it’s the only thing I’ve got left.”
She paused. “You don’t need to have anything.” What? “You just need to be. See, humans think they need to have something to give all the time, but cats don’t worry about that. Cats just exist. You have value because you exist. That’s enough.“
It made me pause. To be assured that my mere existence is enough is a lovely thing, to be sure, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. “But we take so much more,” I said. “I think we have a responsibility to give back.”
“So because you eat and poo, you need to give something?”
“It’s more than that. Cats eat and kill and even sometimes kill beyond their needs, I know. They can be cruel; they’ll chase a mouse just for the fun of it. Cats aren’t perfect. But we are the only species that consumes so far beyond our needs that it throws ecosystems so wildly out of balance. We are the only species that takes and hoards in such a calculated, cruel, and systemic manner. I think that is why we have a responsibility to give far more.”
“I don’t know if it’s a responsibility, but you certainly have a moral obligation to give back,” she said.
I was puzzled. “What’s the difference?”
“I think one’s externally driven and one’s internally driven. So it could be that you feel pressured by society to do it, or it could be you feel it’s your belief to do it. You could do things that society pressures you to do, but you might not believe it yourself. And you could believe things that society doesn’t expect of you. Responsibility, for me, is an externally-imposed thing. Sometimes people will say ‘I feel responsible,’ but they really mean ‘I feel a moral obligation to do this thing.'”
“That’s fascinating,” I replied. “I agree that obligations can be internally and/or externally imposed, but I guess I always figured you can be responsible for something even if others don’t hold you accountable? Whereas I thought ‘moral obligation’ was something intrinsic – it’s there whether anyone recognises it or not. But then it depends on whether you believe in moral relativism or not.”
(N.B. I don’t think I do – Nazis are bad and they have always been bad even when the majority condoned their actions.)
MRAWWWAH. What do y’all think? I’d love to hear. Do we have an obligation to give back to the world, and if so, why or why not? Also if you have any suggestions of Philosophy for Children stimuli that could get such a conversation going with seven-year-olds, please drop them in the comments 🙂 I’d love to learn what my kiddos think about this, too.