The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 2, Chapter 5: "Quit playing with your oatmeal and eat it."

How should we live?

It’s an important theological and ethical question, but notoriously difficult to answer. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt, in his book The Reasons of Love, suggests that the question “How should I live?” is difficult because we need to answer a more basic question first. The more fundamental question is not “How should I live?” but “What do I care about?”

The point for Frankfurt is that normative questions (How should or ought I to live?) can’t be answered until the issue of caring is addressed. What is it that we care about? Once we have those answers then we can proceed to questions about how we should live or structure society to reach the goals we care about.

In short, caring creates our reasons for doing things. At root, justification for actions or ways of living ground out in what we care about. If we cared for nothing no reasons for action or normative justification come to us. As Frankfurt writes, “It is by caring about things that we infuse the world with importance. This provides us with stable ambitions and concerns; it marks our interests and our goals. The importance that our caring creates for us defines the framework of standards and aims in terms of which we endeavor to conduct our lives...The totality of the various things that a person cares about—together with his ordering of how important to him they are—effectively specifies his answer to the question of how to live.” (1)

Once we value something, care about it, this psychic investment provides us reasons. If you are asked, “Why do you help your wife around the house?” Your reason is “I love her.” We might also be asked, “Why help the poor?” Our response, at root, is an appeal to care about the poor. If you don’t care you’ll be fundamentally unmoved by my arguments. More specifically, you’ll not recognize my arguments as motivating reasons for action. Reasons make appeals to what we care about.

And yet, we don’t get to choose what we care about. We find ourselves volitionally committed in certain ways, ways we discover and stumble over rather than select after careful deliberation. As Frankfurt notes, “What people cannot help caring about…is not mandated by logic. It is not primarily a constraint upon belief. It is a volitional necessity, which consists essentially in a limitation of the will.” (2) Our will doesn’t come to us radically unattached. We begin life invested.

One of the running stories in Calvin and Hobbes is how Calvin just cannot bring himself to like what his mother has prepared for dinner:

Often, Calvin’s dislike of his food spins into the surreal where, in classic Wattersonian fashion, Calvin’s subjective experience becomes blurred with objective reality:

Calvin’s food episodes provide a nice commentary upon human volition. As noted in the last post, Calvin and Hobbes doesn’t posit a radically free will. Rather, the view of the will found in Calvin and Hobbes has a distinctively Frankfurtian feel. Specifically, Calvin comes to us (and to himself) volitionally committed in various ways. Liking or disliking something isn’t really up to him. As Frankfurt notes,

There are some things that people cannot do, despite possessing the relevant natural capacities or skills, because they cannot muster the will to do them. Loving is circumscribed by a necessity of that kind: what we love and what we fail to love is not up to us. Now the necessity of that characteristic of love does not constrain the movements of the will through and imperious surge of passion or compulsion by which the will is defeated or subdued. On the contrary, the constraint operates from within our own will itself. It is by our own will, and not by any external or alien force, that we are constrained. (2)
What comes across most strongly in Calvin and Hobbes is the personality of Calvin. Which is to say that Calvin comes to us as volitionally invested agent. Whatever Calvin is he is not a blank slate. Calvin is Calvin, and his likes and dislikes, what he cares about, are already well in play. In short, Calvin and Hobbes is as clear a rejection of John Locke’s tabla rasa view of childhood as you are likely to get.

This isn’t a rejection of human freedom per se, just a full recognition that humans, to be human, care about things. We come volitionally committed. Like the wagon rides from the last post, we start life already moving downhill. Fast. And importantly like the wagon rides, we don’t usually choose what we care about (i.e., where the wagon is going). As Frankfurt says, “What we love is not up to us.” (3)

Obviously, this creates problems when people come together caring and loving different things. Particularly when those investments might impinge upon the rights, wellbeing, and freedoms of other people. Frankfurt isn’t suggesting that this isn’t an important issue to be confronted. He is only suggesting that we can’t get to those ethical and political conversations and solutions until we know what the bargaining partners truly care about. This is because political and ethical solutions have no traction if not grounded in the volitional commitments of those concerned. In short, what Calvin and Hobbes allows us to see is the need to confront and appeal to persons as persons, as persons who come to us with likes and dislikes. Humans, like Calvin, are not bland abstractions. We are particular and peculiar. Pastors, theologians, ethicists and politicians, like Calvin’s mother, can’t make us eat what we fundamentally don’t want to eat:

This isn’t, however, to be read as a capitulation to human nature. It is, rather, simply recognizing a vital starting location of all ethical, political, and spiritual conversation.

(1) p. 23 The Reasons of Love
(2) p. 46 Ibid
(3) p. 49 Ibid

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3 thoughts on “The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 2, Chapter 5: "Quit playing with your oatmeal and eat it."

  1. I've been reading this series over the weekend and this section brought up an interesting question for me-- is it reasonable to expect people to 'do it anyway'? Even if Calvin hates his oatmeal, isn't there a sense that he should 'eat it anyway'? I know my own parents would have smacked me if I ever threw the kind of fit over the dinner table that Calvin does and I was indoctrinated from a very early age that whether or not I like it is irrelevant. Eat it anyway because it's polite.

    Extrapolating on that theme, is it an acceptable 'excuse' that 'I just don't like someone' or, worse in my opinion, 'I just don't like that demographic of the population.'

    Quite true, I can't control the fact that I don't like broccoli, and I suspect that racist people didn't make a conscious decision to be racist. But does not liking broccoli excuse me from ever eating it? If I believe my mother, no. I'm supposed to at least take a small helping and give the impression that I'm eating it and tell the cook how wonderful it is. And I might even 'learn to like it' (which I haven't, but I've learned to tolerate it). By the same token, I tend to feel that even if someone harbors deeply ingrained prejudices, they ought to endeavor to overcome their disdain and treat people well. Who knows? If we treat each other well enough, it might become a habit and we might find the ingrained humanity within all of us. We may learn to like each other, or at the very least tolerate each other.

    And there is the crux of the issue for me-- is that reasonable?

    I have a very firmly internal locus of control. I believe with every neuron in my brain that I, personally, am in control of my actions. I may not be in control of my motivations, and I'm certainly not in control of all my emotions, but I can choose what I do and what I say.

    I have practical arguments against predestination, which likely speaks to the fact that my own motivations are rooted firmly in the here and now. If humans have no free will, that gives us an excuse to not do anything we don't want to do. If we trust in luck or god to make the world a better place, then we have no personal obligation or responsibility, except to do what god has commanded. Thus, if we get in the wagon and start it down the same hill every day, and it ends up going off the same cliff every day, it isn't because we were stupid enough to get in the wagon again, it's because our bad luck is still holding out. And if we wait for god to inspire us to love our neighbor and that inspiration never strikes, we are excused from treating that neighbor civilly.

    I find it very frustrating to listen to people who insist that they must have the appropriate motivation for their actions. There are things we should do and not do, things we should say and not say, regardless of how we feel about them.

    So Calvin, it doesn't really matter if you like your oatmeal. Eat it anyway and don't pitch a fit about it. It's impolite. And everyone else in the world (me included), it doesn't really matter if you like blacks or gays or women or conservatives or muslims or jews or mathmeticians or vegetarians or rednecks or CEOs. Treat them well anyway, because it's the right thing to do.


  2. Hi Jen,
    I agree with the thrust of what you are saying here. The fact that we come into life or a given situation volitionally committed doesn't take us off the hook. It doesn't necessarily imply: "That is just the way I am, take it or leave it."

    So, ultimately, this tends to boil down to political arrangements and social contracts. That is, given where we all stand how can we coordinate our efforts (collectively and individually) to get the best benifits for all?

    I think the argument from volitional contraints actually helps jump-start that political conversation. As humans our shared biology means we all want, at root, the same things. We all want respect and dignity and room to thrive. Those shared committments are the starting places to push back on things like racism. In short, the Golden Rule only makes sense if we share the same volitional commitments (i.e., want the same things).

  3. It still comes back to caring about something.
    If you don't care about being polite, you still won't eat your brocolli.
    Overcoming your distaste or lack of desire to do something is dependent on your ability to sublimate that into an area you do care about- like Social Convention or Eternal Consequences.

    Unfortunately, some people don't care about those things either. And some people are incapable of gasping the larger, more abstract issues. And some people don't believe they exist.

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