The preceding comments amount to no more than a rough sketch, depicting with very few selective strokes a large terrain. And as with all cartoons, the test for this sketch too is whether its particular combination of sparseness and distortion (the hallmarks cartoons share with social theories) succeeds in drawing attention to important and otherwise less visible features of its subject matter. The intended payoff in this case is normative. What are, then, the normative implications of the preceding comments? In one way or another, other chapters in this book provide snippets of an answer.14 In the remainder of this chapter, I summarily point out some promising lines of inquiry.

Personal Norms and Distance

I have indicated earlier how what I called personal norms, such as those concerning responsibility and autonomy, participate in constructing the self. We can further explore the constructive significance of these norms by relating them to roles and their variable distance. Consider responsibility first. People are primarily held responsible for their actions, but roles can expand or contract responsibility relative to this paradigm case. Whether a role expands or contracts responsibility corresponds to the role’s distance. Under such headings as vicarious and collective responsibility, the occupants of certain roles are held responsible for the actions of others. Such extensions of responsibility signify an identification with the appropriate affiliation, say that of a parent, and through it with the collectivity, the family in this case, of which that role forms a part. Conversely, acting in a role can diminish or extinguish responsibility for one’s own actions. Think for example of the “Privileges and Immunities” that exempt government officials from personal responsibility as long as they act within the confines of their official role. Whatever the historical or pragmatic reasons for this immunity, its meaning concerns role-distance.

Withholding personal responsibility for actions performed in one’s capacity as an official marks that role as impersonal by signifying a separation of this role from the rest of the self.

A similar point applies to autonomy. Enacting a proximate role is an occasion for the exercise of autonomy in a way that enacting a distant role is not. To act autonomously is to be guided by one’s own norms, norms that are internal to one’s self. Enacting a proximate role satisfies this condition. My parental autonomy, for example, does not consist in a license to treat my child with unfettered discretion, let alone arbitrarily. To the contrary, the demands of the parental role are often narrowly circumscribed, sometimes mandating a rather specific attitude or course of action. Still, these imperatives do not compromise my autonomy but give it content by shaping or constituting an aspect of my self. Since there is no distance between me and my role as a parent, since I fully identify with that role, the imperatives that pertain to my child’s education, or behavior, or welfare, guide me from within. It does not follow, of course, that my autonomy in going about my parental role depends on my doing so cheerfully and enthusiastically. Many parents would flunk this test when getting up to attend to a screaming baby in the middle of the night, and yet their autonomy in performing their parental role is not diminished thereby. One’s identification with the role and one’s autonomous execution of its demands are not undercut but are put to the test by temptations and pressures that conflict with the role’s requirements.15 The situation in the case of the telephone operator is diametrically opposed. Since the operator is not supposed to identify with his role, the role’s imperatives are external to him. Engagement in the tasks of a telephone operator does not purport to express the operator’s own will in the way that properly discharging parental duties is ordinarily supposed to be a manifestation of the parent’s will.

The normative significance of roles is not limited to such explicit norms as those of responsibility and autonomy, and extends to other personal attitudes and emotions whose normative underpinnings are less obvious. To give one extreme example, even such a quintessentially personal emotion as love is role-bound: for instance, we are under an injunction to love our children and our neighbors. This injunction thus obligates me toward Sarah or Patrick just in case one is my daughter and the other my neighbor. Moreover, these love-guiding norms are tied in the first place to the roles rather than to their individual bearers. This is easy to miss in the case of natural children, where a gap between identity and role is difficult to contrive, but is quite visible in the case of adopted children: obviously, no obligation of love extends to the particular child prior to adoption. Similarly, the injunction to love one’s children includes children-in-law. But here the obligation toward a particular individual expires upon the children’s divorce. The fact that attitudes such as love are mediated by roles does not, however, mean that the attitudes are delimited by the roles and so does not impugn the personal nature of these attitudes. To be sure, had not Sarah been my daughter or Patrick my neighbor, the obligations of love would not tie me to them. Even so, if these two people do hold the respective roles, the prescribed love is for Sarah or Patrick, rather than for them just qua daughter or neighbor, and is properly manifested in my concern for them outside these roles; for example, in my concern for how they fare in their professional lives. Finally, as in the case of the other norms I’ve mentioned, the normative connection between love and the roles to which it applies is reciprocal. The obligation to love one’s children not only constitutes in part the role of parent as a proximate role, but it also defines in a corresponding manner the role of a daughter or a son, as involving in part a legitimate expectation to be loved by one’s parents.

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