by Alton C. Thompson
In our society love and (especially) justice are held up as having especial importance. Thus, it will be useful here to begin by giving some attention to justice.
The first point to make here is that love and justice do not occupy distinctly different realms but, rather, are overlapping. One might argue, for example, that it is one’s valuing of love that causes one to pursue justice. Which implies that love is an attribute that we associate with individuals, justice one that we associate with institutions—and specifically our legal institutions.
It has been said regarding justice that:
According to most contemporary theories of justice, justice is overwhelmingly important: John Rawls claims that “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.” [Note that he fails to mention behavior!]
Justice can be thought of as distinct from benevolence, charity, prudence, mercy, generosity, or compassion, although these dimensions are regularly understood to also be interlinked. Justice is [linked to ]the concept of cardinal virtues, of which it is one.
The concept of fairness is related to justice in that—referring now to a specifically legal context—if fairness occurs during the course of a trial, one has a good reason to conclude that justice was served. We also, however, use the term fairness with reference to interpersonal relationships and our relationships with institutions. For example, employees wish to be compensated fairly—usually meaning paid what they (believe they) deserve. “Deserve” itself can, of course, be interpreted variously, with some arguing that (regarding wages) they should be paid on the basis of the quality of their work, others the quantity, with still others arguing that all should be paid equally, given that “we are all equal in God’s sight.” Etc.
A major problem associated with the concept of “deserving” is that it can easily result in one adopting a “blame the victim” stance. That is, if one holds the belief that fairness prevails in, e.g., the economy, so that everyone receives on the basis of desert, it follows that one will believe that the poor are receiving what they deserve. Because they are, one is allowed to argue, in good conscience, that given that the poor are receiving what they deserve, one is absolved of any responsibility to provide any sort of assistance to them. In fact, one might carry such an argument to the point of asserting that helping the poor would represent a disturbance of the social order, and therefore possibly dangerous!
Insofar as justice, in the sense of fairness, is involved in our relationships with other individuals and institutions, it is usually understood as existing at a somewhat lower level than love. That is, one may treat the others with whom one interacts with fairness, but it does not follow from that fact that the motivating factor was love; rather, one’s treatment of others fairly may have been motivated by, e.g., a conviction that one is obligated to treat the other decently.
How, then, does treating one in a loving manner differ from treating others fairly? Those of us raised in Christianity might, for example, cite the Good Samaritan parable as a story exemplifying what “love” means. What being “loving” means, that is, involves:
- When one is “out in public,” don’t be preoccupied with one’s work or whatever but, rather, observe the people whom one encounters, and make judgments about their degree of well-being.
- If one observes certain individuals who seem to suffering from ill-being, and one is not pressed for time, (a) try to make a judgment as to what their needs are, and then (b) try to engage them in conversation, and (c) if they are willing to converse with you, (d) seek to explore with them the nature of their ill-being, and, finally, (e) do what one can to help them. If the individual(s) is, e.g., obviously in need of medical attention, call 911, of course (unless someone else already has).
Of course, the Good Samaritan parable was told at a point in history when communications technology was very primitive compared with what exists today. Therefore, the modern Good Samaritan might seek out volunteer opportunities, identify and give financial support to, charitable/relief organizations, etc.
Although in the Good Samaritan story the word “love” is never used (but is implicit in what occurs), Chapter 13 of Paul’s I Corinthians is a famous Biblical paean to love, and for that reason is often read during wedding ceremonies. What Paul says under the heading “love” can be placed into two groups, as follows:
- How the loving individual relates to others:
- Is kind.
- Protects the other.
- Trusts the other.
- Shows honor with reference to the other.
- Certain personal attributes are associated with the loving person (which help conduce loving behavior). A loving person:
- Is patient.
- Is not envious.
- Is not boastful.
- Is not proud.
- Is not self-seeking.
- Is slow to anger.
- Keeps no record of wrongs done to oneself.
- Rejoices in truth.
What can one possibly add to a list such as this, one might very well add?! There is, I believe, one very important point that can be added:
To be truly loving, a person must first be empathetic. It is not enough to just learn a set of “rules” (as Paul’s list can be perceived—and as it implies), and then try to follow them. One must first strive to develop the capacity for empathy, and then act on that capacity.
Unfortunately, I can offer here no guidance on how one can develop a capacity for empathy; I would, however, like to think that we humans are “hard-wired” to be empathetic (as primatologist Frans de Waal, e.g., has argued), and that it is only our “possession” by the dominant value system of our society (consisting of greed, materialism, and greed, e.g.) that prevents so many in our society from being empathetic. (The Fundamentalists among us would attribute the possession of these traits to the “original sin” supposedly committed by Adam and Eve while in Eden, when in actuality those traits have a societal basis.)
The fact that empathy is the basis for love is an important one. But the fact that everyone is different (in terms of interests, intelligence, personality, etc.) is also important—especially in the case of those others with whom one has personal contact. For the knowing about that one will have relative to such people will enable one to individualize the love that one demonstrates for them—meaning that the love one demonstrates for one person is likely to differ from that demonstrated for any other person. Thus (and to borrow an item from Paul’s “list”), how one is kind to one person is likely to differ in its specifics from how one is kind to another person.
Still, an important point that needs to be added to this discussion is that one does not need to know another to have empathy for that person. I’m convinced that most of us are born with an ability to read faces, so that whether one has personal contact with others or “merely” sees others on the television (or movie) screen, most of us can “read” the emotions of others by viewing their faces (along with watching their bodily movements, gestures, etc.) It’s true, of course, that the emotions expressed by an actor are not genuine; but what makes an actor a “good” actor is his or ability to convey to the viewer a given emotion correctly—i.e., in a fashion such that it will be “understood” (at an unconscious level) by the viewer. (As an aside, is not what we consider a “great” movie one that evokes in us many of our emotions? A rhetorical question!)
Thus, the modern person with the capacity for empathy can go far beyond the Good Samaritan. Who among us, seeing the faces of those in pain in Africa, Iraq, or wherever, have not wished that we were billionaires, so that we could provide help to the millions in desperate need our sorry world?!! I, for one, can’t help but feel this way. I suppose that I should wish that I had been brought to be a person who valued wealth and fame; I know, however, that it is precisely that sort of person who tends to be Scrooge-like (before Scrooge became transformed, that is—the ostensible point of that story being that transformation is, in fact, possible).
In conclusion, acquiring ideas regarding what it means to be loving (by reading what Paul wrote in I Corinthians, e.g.) is of value, but is not enough. One must also have empathy; and those who are able to resist the pressures placed on us by our society to be individualistic, greedy, materialistic, selfish, etc. will have that ability. If you lack that ability, why not try to acquire it? For if you do, not only others, but yourself will benefit—as the transformed Scrooge came to realize.