Posted by: trev0rclark | May 7, 2009

Reflections of “neutral” language.

immigrants-19412In a discussion I had with one of my philosophy professors recently, we brought up the concept of neutral language. The discussion began with examining one of the five versions in Kant’s theory of the categorical imperative: act only according to those maxims that would hold true in a Kingdom of Ends. What would it mean, then, if we were all Kantians? Would America look as individualistic as it does now? In any case, we determined that the United States, at least domestically, takes a secular framework in their expressions of individual rights: “This is my car. This is my job. These are my rights.” In this language, there is no mentioning of inherent duties or connections to other people, except that we may not infringe on their personal rights.

However, on an international level, suddenly Americans feel quite motivated to find an almost Christian ethic, (or at the very least, an altruistic ethic with strong Christian intonations). If there is a large disaster, a war, or hunger, many Americans dedicate themselves to donating money or even effort to go help. Rarely is this passion found in helping the homeless shelter down the street, doling out tax money for decent health care, or even saving thousands of public schools from closing down. Could this phenomenon be the result of an increasingly secular society in the states? I was struck at how obvious the dichotomy was, but was incapable of characterizing why.



  1. Trevor,

    This is a great observation. My question about this problem is: Does the attitude actually change?

    We can volunteer our time working at St. Patrick’s downtown, or give our money to a local women’s shelter. However, when we tell this to other people, they ask, “What is St. Patrick’s? What’s the name of that shelter?” These activities could be outlets to humbly express our care for others, but they do not draw the attention that one living in an individualistic society needs.

    But if we donate time or money to the AIDS/malaria crises in Africa, the tsunami in Southeast Asia, or even Hurricane Katrina, people will recognize us and say, “Wow, look at him, he’s helping the world.” The situation, then, may be less genuine than we realize. It is actually about what I do with my time and my money. It’s about people seeing my efforts and my commitments.

    I don’t want to loop everyone in this category. I know that there are people out there genuinely helping others. Nevertheless, there are undoubtedly those doing it for fame, which might be an explanation for the dichotomy you point out.

  2. People speak of “culture shock” quite often and I’ve heard somewhere that it is simply the culmination of little thing after little thing that you experience in the other that is different from your own that all add up and hit you in the end like a brick wall. One of these brick walls for me was the difference in community between the US and Central America where I’ve done most of my traveling.

    The word ‘community’ itself is treated as some novel concept, we form intentional ones for a plethora of reasons whether it be something like sharing meals together, simple living, social action it seems counter cultural in the US but I’d propose that it’s seen as normal in most if not all of the developed world. We are allowed to be secular, individuals, consumers because we have such a fantastic gdp and have been exploiting everyone else to get here.

    I’ve spent two summers hanging out in a little rural village in El Salvador and the mentality there is I don’t want to succeed, live by better means if it means leaving my sister, my aunt, my neighbor behind. The idea of family extends beyond the 1.5 kids to the entire community because they realize we are all connected, my success is ultimately tied up in my brother’s, my friend’s and I do indeed have social responsibility towards them.

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