Gongol.com Archives: April 2024

Brian Gongol

April 30, 2024

News Proportions beat categorical imperatives

If you return home one day to find that a bird has built a nest in the way of your front door, you face a choice. You could get rid of the nest or move it to a less inconvenient spot. Or you might decide to use a different door until the eggs in the nest hatch and the baby birds fly away. That choice isn't an obligation, but it might be considered the act of a mensch -- a person of honor worth emulating in the world. ■ To wait for the natural cycle of hatchlings from one nest might be good. But ten nests would be too many. And abandoning the front door forever just to permit an endless cycle of birds to nest there would likewise be going too far. Besides the inconvenience of surrendering your own door, you might come to create dependency for the birds and a nuisance for the neighbors. ■ Nearly every good thing is a matter of proportions. Patience and forbearance are good; becoming a doormat is not. Generosity is good; giving to the point of self-impoverishment is not. Vitamin supplements can be good for health; but even vitamins can become toxic in excessive doses. ■ Too many people subscribe to an assumption that all things are subject to categorical imperatives. This leads to a troubling habit of escalation, as people try to apply their absolute certainty over rights and wrongs, using whatever means they find necessary. ■ Fundamentalism or absolutism of almost any stripe is incompatible with an understanding that goodness is virtually always a matter of proportions. There are boundaries around both our understanding of the facts and our capacity to make unconditional rules. ■ Political fundamentalism, religious fundamentalism, ethical or moral fundamentalism -- any approach that requires an abandonment of scale and the adoption of fixed, immutable rules -- collides with the reality that conditions matter, even if they make our human choices messier. "It depends" tends to be a much less implicitly satisfying answer than a categorical imperative, but in the overwhelming preponderance of circumstances, "It depends" is right.