For the Expressive Individualist, Other People Are Just a Means to Self-Fulfilment

November 17, 2022 | Devorah Goldman
About the author: Devorah Goldman is a contributing editor at Mosaic and other publications and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She writes frequently on medicine.

Surveying 25 years of Carolyn Hax’s tenure as the Washington Post’s advice columnist, Devorah Goldman considers the ethical underpinnings of her supposed wisdom. She takes as an “archetypal example” the case of a woman who finds bringing her children to visit their estranged father’s mother a tiresome chore:

Hax consistently communicates a worldview in which no one owes much of anything to anyone, except in the most transactional way. (The sole exception seems to be the duty of parents toward minor children). . . . There is no suggestion that visiting an ailing grandparent is a self-evident good: a chance to exercise compassion or to gain insight into family history, or simply to show respect and gratitude. If visiting grandma does not provide an obvious and immediate “benefit,” well then, there is no need to see her anymore.

Goldman sees in such responses a manifestation of what Robert Bellah and other sociologists dubbed “expressive individualism,” which in Hax’s hands results in all human relationships being subject to cost-benefit analysis:

Even familial bonds take on a conditional quality, resulting in adults who believe that visiting elderly relatives is worthwhile only if it “feels good” and is not “boring;” or at the very least that such visits should provide some kind of concrete insurance. Kindness and loyalty are fine choices, but they are not necessary. Self-sacrifice becomes less a moral imperative than an option; it loses its heroic sheen. This leaves us with a sensible but desiccated view. Ironically, the expressivists promised a world in which moral conventions could be cast off in favor of something more beautiful, purposeful, passionate, and true.

There are alternatives, to which Bellah nods when he sketches the influence of biblical religion in American life or points to Tocqueville’s public-spirited New England townships. It’s hard to enunciate a moral system in the West without reference to the Bible’s straightforward directive in Deuteronomy: “do that which is right and good.” The idea of doing good or being good, rather than being kind or cooperative or communicative, sounds almost anachronistic. There’s something unseemly about suggesting that people simply strive for goodness; it falls outside the therapeutic vocabulary. And goodness entails a host of innate obligations to others, including one’s elders.

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