“Mom, can you not care about me so much! Just leave me alone!”
The above line has been a recurring theme in my teenage years, with an almost-always too-concerned mother (a rather fortunate thing, though I am focusing here on the torturous aspects). What troubled me was the fact that she could not stop caring about me no matter how much I tried to tell her. She could not change. Care, concern, and love seem to defy reason.
Harry Frankfurt’s Reasons of Love finally helped me understand my mother. His thesis is this: Morality should ultimately be based on Care, rather than reason, interest, or preference. Care is that which provides us with final reasons for life, based on our volitional faculties rather than rational ones. Something, some person, some cause that draws us in, often, despite our best efforts to avoid it—hence one can fall in love with someone who one seriously doesn’t want to be with, or one may care about the survival of one’s person despite all the reasons that argue for the maliciousness of existence—and, through it, makes our lives meaningful. Meaning, here, is of a higher order than pleasure—it is the provision of a justification, a correctness, a (Nietzschean) “Yes!” towards existence, rather than, as in the case of pleasure, some state that I desire to remain in. This is because I have desires that I don’t care too much about. Thus, every night I desire to watch YT gaming videos after dinner, and every movie I desire to eat a jumbo box of popcorn, but I don’t care so much whether I really do those things, in the sense that I would not regret not doing them after the fact. Even, I may despise what I desire because it prevents me from realizing what I care about (in the example given above, my time spent with my family, or me living a long and healthy life). In the human realm, care, instead of desire, preference, or pleasure, reigns supreme. Care provides the ultimate reason, immune to all refutations, of what one should do.
Frankfurt provides the example of a man seeing two people drowning, one a stranger and one his wife. Intuitively, we feel that the man is justified to save his wife. But for what reason? Bernard Williams, from whom the example is taken, says: out of love. He, further, says that there is no interrogation after this answer. The very questioning of its validity is already suspicious. Frankfurt only adds: The man should not be thinking of any reasons if he really cared. Care has such a strong grip on him that the action of saving must be pre-reflexive, like the much-mythologized grandma who lifts up a truck to save her grandson.
Reading what Frankfurt is saying, one cannot but be reminded of Heidegger’s claim in Being and Time that Dasein’s primordial comportment towards the world is sorge, care. And from Frankfurt’s more lucid analytic (what H may contemptuously call “ontic”) prose, perhaps, one can understand Heidegger better. I take Heidegger to be saying this. There is a level of acting-in-the-world that is pre-rational, pre-reflexive, pre-justifiable, which provides the grounds from which things appear relevant to human beings. This ground is care, which draws one inextricably towards its Destiny without regard for one’s later formed, contingently emergent, preferences. Only with care that disposes us to begin to be able to find things relevant can consciousness, as that which realizes relevance in the computation of a salience landscape by foregrounding and backgrounding information, be. For this reason, also, Frankfurt discusses our fear of boredom as the fear of the lack of care, which, ultimately, is the fear of the cessation of consciousness (in his words, our “psychic function”)—for what happens to us in extreme boredom? Sleep. And what is sleep if not non-being?
This does not mean that whatever I care about, I must pursue. For objects of care can conflict with one another—I can sacrifice my life, which, for sure, I care about, for my beloved, which I care much more. And this constitutes the pathos of some of the most famous Greek tragedies, like Antigone and Oresteia. This also means that although I cannot rationally convince myself to not care about certain things, I can plan to put myself in situations that are conducive to the erosion of some features of my care. I have witnessed this in one of my friends, who daily pondered all the terrible aspects of her crush, in order to dispel her care. This seeking to change one’s care cannot be said to be beneficial or not, however, because if one is defined by what one cares about, then the change of one’s care is the change of one’s person, the death of some part of oneself, and the opening up of a schism that cannot be bridged between two subjects.