Comments on La Rochefoucauld

I will be posting short essays on each of La Rouchefoucauld's Maxims

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Maxim 640

"We are always nervous of seeing the person we love if we have just been flirting with somebody else."

Why does this maxim seem so self-evident? Is it because we have built into us an ethical sense? That we know that cheating, physically, emotionally, or sexually, is wrong? That there is a sort of universalist ethics? All cultures in all times have always prohibited cheating, lying, theft, rape, and murder. Thus, there are a set of universalist ethics, that exist no matter what culture or time we are living in. What may change are the definitions of cheating, lying, theft, rape, or murder, but not the core moral code.

Where does this come from? The application of a deep set of true "family values" to others. Thou shalt not murder thy family members. Thou shalt not rape thy family members. Thou shalt not cheat, lie to, or steal from thy family members. These, too, seem self-evident. Why else are we so much more outraged when a parent kills or molests their child than when a stranger kills or molests a child? Ethics is precisely the application of these familial prohibitions to strangers – thus we get families expanding into tribes, tribes expanding into city-states, city-states expanding into nation-states, and nation-states expanding into federations. When we expand the way we treat our families to include more and more strangers, we expand ethics itself. A corollary: anything that goes against this expansion, that violates these ethical rules founded deep in our being social mammals, is itself unethical.

Of course, I have not dealt with this maxim head-on – but on the other hand, I think the fact that it seems so self-evident is itself an interesting problem. Why is guilt a universal? It is an indication of feelings of having breeched some kind of ethics, whether universal or cultural. And just because there is a cultural relativism to elements of ethics 1) it does not mean that ethics is itself relative in all cases, and 2) it does not mean that such ethics are themselves invalid. Guilt is how we signal to ourselves that we know we have done something wrong. Thus, it is a valid, useful feeling. It is what prevents us from flirting in the first place or, if we have been flirting, from doing so in the future. And, further, if mere flirting makes us feel bad, it prevents us from going any further than flirting, since we figure that doing so will make us feel even worse.

Guilt is not a bad thing to feel. If we feel guilty for doing something like breeching a person’s trust, we are prevented from weakening or even severing social bonds. We have to have trust if we are to create and foster the social bonds that make us humans. We are, after all, a social mammal. Our bonds are only lightly genetic – and are strengthened through our actions, creating trust. Guilt prevents us from weakening our social bonds – it is how our brain punishes itself for doing bad things, so we do not have to always rely on others to punish us. Is it better to feel guilt, to prevent you from doing bad or worse things, or to have to have people always punish you for being unethical? Perhaps the large prison population in the United States comes about in part through our attempts to alleviate guilt. We should not just do it if it feels good. Now, this does not mean that we should not question our culture-create ethics from time to time, as this is healthy – but we should not throw guilt out in order to do it. The revolutionaries should be resisted by the conservative elements of a culture, so they do not move people too quickly into the future – but in the end, the revolutionaries, insofar as they support increasing liberty for more and more people, should prevail.


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