Carolyn Hax of the Washington Post recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of her syndicated advice column, which is read by millions every day. In many ways the perfect pragmatic liberal, Hax consistently communicates a worldview in which no one owes much of anything to anyone, except in the most transactional way. (The sole exception seems to be the duty of parents toward minor children).
In one archetypal example, a divorced woman—let’s call her Anne—wrote in to ask whether she should consider herself obligated to take her children to see their paternal grandmother, an elderly and infirm woman who lived near Anne’s parents. Anne’s ex-husband had become estranged from his own mother after divorcing Anne and remarrying, but Anne had felt compelled to maintain a connection between her children and their grandmother. She concluded with two questions: “How do I balance ‘I might regret neglecting a lonely ill person’ with ‘But she makes it so hard and I’m tired and she’s not even my relative’?”
The responses are revealing. (Hax regularly solicits guest responses from readers, which she prints alongside or instead of her own advice.) One reader put it bluntly:
I’d advise that it depends on what your children get out of the visits. It’s really about them and their relationship with their grandmother. . . . You don’t mention how they feel about these visits at all, which I find strange. If they love her and want a relationship with her to continue, then you should keep making the effort to visit. If the relationship doesn’t benefit them, then I’d say you can stop. But I’d talk to them about it first if you’re not sure.
Other responses are in the same key, advising Anne either to consult her own feelings to guide her actions, or else consult her children. There is no suggestion that visiting an ailing grandparent is a self-evident good: a chance to exercise compassion or to gain insight into family history, or simply to show respect and gratitude. If visiting grandma does not provide an obvious and immediate “benefit,” well then, there is no need to see her any more. The one exception was a response invoking concern for the grandmother’s mental well-being should the visits from her grandchildren abruptly stop. But even that was primarily an appeal to pity rather than obligation.
This is a small but alarming example of a way of thinking that has the appearance of common sense. The responses to Anne assume so much: that she and her children have uncanny insight into their own emotional states, that they can clearly delineate between “feeling good” and “feeling guilty,” and that they can rely on these emotional states to serve as unerring moral guides. The marvelous 1985 book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, by Robert Bellah and four other sociologists, captures this attitude well:
Feeling good now stands in opposition to “being good.” [To be good is] seen not as some objective state of virtue, but as conformity to the evaluations of others—doing what satisfies them or what defers to convention. For all its unmistakable presence and intensity on occasion, the experience of feeling good, like being in love, is so highly subjective that its distinguishing characteristics remain ineffable. The touchstone of individualistic self-knowledge turns out to be shaky in the end, and its guide to action proves elusive.
The idea that a child who prefers playing video games to visiting his grandmother must be correct in some intrinsic or even mystical way seems counter-intuitive at best, morally scandalous at worst. Yet in column after column, Hax offers up this warped account of human relations. It is a striking example of what Bellah and his co-authors—and others before and since—refer to as “expressive individualism,” one of four American cultural traditions outlined in Habits of the Heart.
To Bellah et al., expressive individualism began in part as a rejection of what they call “utilitarian individualism,” the idea that each American citizen is responsible for his own welfare, and that the individual pursuit of material self-interest results in common social goods. The great writers of what F. O. Matthiesen called the “American Renaissance” of the mid-1800s—Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau—scorned what they saw as America’s confining and calculating pursuit of worldly gains and the corresponding trappings of conventional morality: the stuff of rote church attendance and formal visits to boring relatives, of sensible marriages that seem passionless. They believed that the American hunt for financial success left “too little room for love, human feeling, and a deeper expression of the self.”
Bellah et al. quote a lot of Walt Whitman’s poetry, including the lines “Back, back to wisdom’s birth, to innocent intuitions / Again with fair creation.” The purity of natural intuitions becomes muddled, Whitman tells us, by society’s frippery. Unsought social obligations are mere “constructs” with no deeper meaning, and they are a drain on life’s vitality. To the fathers of expressive individualism, the best and truest authority lies within.
Ultimately, Bellah and his colleagues argue, expressive and utilitarian individualism joined forces. Both, after all, emphasize individual interest rather than the individual’s duty toward others. Expressive individualism became part of normative American business culture via the therapist’s couch: Americans are encouraged to share the most intimate parts of their lives with people who owe them nothing beyond the 45 minutes for which they are paid. This strictly contractual arrangement, Bellah and his team contend, lies at the core of many people’s emotional lives, and casts a chill over other profound relationships. The modern emphasis on a particular kind of relational “communication,” for example, can lend a transactional air to our web of connections—with neighbors, acquaintances, and friends. There is a sense in which we owe others little beyond basic courtesy and whatever additional obligations we have strictly spelled out.
Therapy itself has moved toward systematic “professional” models and away from its more expansive, spiritual, psychodynamic origins. As psychotherapist Hannah Baer argued in Jewish Currents, the results-oriented therapeutic method known as cognitive behavioral therapy is “seen as credible precisely for its mechanistic style. The cognitive behavioral therapists’ authority derives not from wisdom, presence, or mentorship with expert analysts, but rather from mastery of the operational structure of dysfunction. . . . In its formal elements, CBT resembles corporate HR more than sacred self-inquiry.”
We can also see the joining of expressive and utilitarian individualism in, for example, corporate attempts to improve workplace productivity by sponsoring yoga or nature retreats. Employees are told to look within and find their truth, to “become their best selves,” but in ways that dovetail perfectly with the pursuit of material and social status. In their flight from utilitarianism, Bellah argues, the expressivists reinforced a utilitarian view of the self.
Ties of Transaction
Let us return to the “Hax doctrine”: a cheerfully pragmatic, deeply self-centered, and terribly lonely vision of being in the world. In a column from October 21, 2022, “M.” asks Carolyn if she ought to make time for “boring and unpleasant” family members. The full question is a rich text:
We’re told from magazines, television ads, webpages and more to get connected with others because it’s good for us. Meeting up with friends is its own reward. I crave time with them. But getting together with some extended family members is torture. We have little in common, and the topics we do share interest in were used up long ago.
If getting together with people who interest and amuse us is good for our mental health, does time spent with the boring or unpleasant drain us of something? (They make me crazy but only figuratively, as far as I can tell.)
The sterile depiction of friends as props for mental health aside, there is a conspicuous lack of any suggestion that visiting family might be a virtuous act even if it is “draining.”
Hax nods to human realities in her response. To her great credit, she goes so far as to acknowledge that “the institution of family is a valid shared interest” between M. and her relatives. She also notes that M.’s more entertaining friends might not be there for her in moments of extreme financial or physical need. Even when making this important point, though, Hax stumbles into a familiar pattern, describing family as “the social equivalent of catastrophic insurance.” She can’t quite break away from a transactional tone in describing profound human connection.
What is wrong with this model? More to the point, what is lost when it is embraced? Among other things, we risk forfeiting the capacity to meaningfully trust other people. Even familial bonds take on a conditional quality, resulting in adults who believe that visiting elderly relatives is worthwhile only if it “feels good” and not “boring;” or at the very least that such visits should provide some kind of concrete insurance. Kindness and loyalty are fine choices, but they are not necessary. Self-sacrifice becomes less a moral imperative than an option; it loses its heroic sheen.
This leaves us with a sensible but desiccated view. Ironically, the expressivists promised a world in which moral conventions could be cast off in favor of something more beautiful, purposeful, passionate, and true. Instead, we have been left with an aimless, bloodless, timid culture. People fear getting married—for good reason, as the ideal of self-expression has trumped that of faithfulness—and too many marriages don’t last. Children fit uncomfortably into a transactional, self-obsessed world. Love, even for one’s children, is largely stripped of its selfless qualities.
There are alternatives, to which Bellah nods when he sketches the influence of biblical religion in American life or points to Tocqueville’s public-spirited New England townships. It’s hard to enunciate a moral system in the West without reference to the Bible’s straightforward directive in Deuteronomy: “do that which is right and good.” The idea of doing good or being good, rather than being kind or cooperative or communicative, sounds almost anachronistic. There’s something unseemly about suggesting that people simply strive for goodness; it falls outside the therapeutic vocabulary. And goodness entails a host of innate obligations to others, including one’s elders.
Religion cuts against the grain in other ways. In the Talmudic tract known as Ethics of the Fathers, the sage Hillel concisely contradicts expressive individualism with the following injunction (2:4): “Do not separate yourself from the community, and do not trust in yourself until the day of your death.” Hillel is not urging self-loathing, but rather humility about one’s own virtue and wisdom. In warning against cutting off one’s community—even the draining or boring among them—he reminds us that we are relational beings, and often not our own best guides.