Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Personal is Philosophical

In hearing a friend recount an argument she had with another friend I thought about how ethics and ethical norms play a role even in intimate encounters. We tend to think of the fights we have with intimates (friends, lovers or family) as purely personal or interpersonal and having to do with feelings. But there is that aspect of arguments in which people say things like: “You should’ve called.” “That’s an overreaction.” “How could you do that to me.” Each has a charged emotional component but they also assume and assert a belief in what is right and wrong. Is it right or expected to call in this or that situation? When is an emotional reaction an overreaction; how do we judge the proper level of emotion for a given perceived offense? Was the wrong committed a wrong? Each of these presupposes and asserts a view of how to behave properly and improperly. Part of the understanding of propriety is based on what we think is right and wrong behavior given our society and culture. In some cultures there could be great offense in not accepting an offer of food or drink upon entering a person’s home. Is that an overreaction? It depends on one’s belief in the social norm being violated. One’s position on that norm is part of the argument in an interpersonal conflict.

When is a reaction to another’s actions an over or under or proper reaction? It is whether the reaction is appropriate to the behavior that caused it? How is that determined if the two people disagree about the norm violated?

A: How could you do this to me?
B: What are you talking about? It’s not that big a deal.
A: It’s a big deal to me!
B: You’re overreacting.
A: No I’m not. I’m hurt by what you did.
B: Well, you’re too sensitive.
A: I’m not too sensitive. You’re insensitive if you can’t see that what you did was wrong.

The emotional element is intertwined with a normative or ethical element and both have to be sorted out. The ethical element brings into play one’s philosophy of right and wrong.

I wonder if some philosophers have thought and written about this. A quick search of the philosopher’s index didn’t reveal anything, but it does seem like the kind of thing others have thought of already, maybe feminist philosophers.