Monday, June 20, 2005

Samuel's Argument

I believe that many in the United States are quite convinced of their own moral rectitude. I doubt that this belief is justified.Of course many exemplify a measure of virtue. They love their families and try to do what is best for them. They take their professions with at least a measure of seriousness. They think their communities important and, at times, help them to flourish. These and the other common virtues are commendable. But they mask, I think, a deep moral flaw that mars the souls of most.

I was convinced of this some time ago by a student of mine. He name is 'Samuel' and I call his argument 'Samuel's argument'. (The idea is his. The details are mine.)

Assume that you and I sit for a cup of coffee and a bite to eat.
A small child wonders into the room in which we sit. She is obviously malnourished. Indeed such is her plight that it seems she will soon die if we do not help her now.
What is our obligation? Assume that we have more than enough money to feed her both today and months into the future. Assume as well that we know that, very likely, if we do not help her, no one will and she will die.
Our obligation is clear. We must feed her. If we were to simply turn away from her and continue our conversation, we'd be, for lack of a better term, moral monsters. We would be as depraved as a human being can be.
Now let us assume that the child did not wonder into our room but simply wondered by it, and we saw her and recognized her plight.
Again our obligation is clear. We must feed her.
Assume now that we did not see the girl but were simply told that she had collapsed on a sidewalk outside.
Our obligation has not changed. We must feed her.
What if she were not near to us but in the next town? We must feed her. In the next state? We must feed her. Half a world away? We must feed her.
The point of this is clear. Mere physical distance by itself cannot diminish strength of moral obligation.
Thus this conclusion seems unavoidable: if (i) we know of someone anywhere who is in such dire straits that, if we do not step in to help them, they will likely die, (ii) we have the ability to give the help that is needed, and yet (iii) we choose not to give that help, we are deeply morally depraved.
But we all do know that some people are now in such great need that if help is not given to them they will die. Starvation is very much a reality in some places. Moreover, the need is so great that almost certainly it will not be met; thus we can be certain that if we do not help, some of those in need will die.
Of course almost all of us have the resources to help; and we know of NGOs that have the ability to funnel money quite quickly to those places where it is needed most. Thus we really do have the ability to help.
And yet many of us do not help; and of those who do, most give much less help than they might.

Thus I say that most of us are wicked. We are wealthy and yet knowingly let others starve or otherwise die needlessly. We are, from the moral point of view, no better than the monster who momentarily pauses to stare at the starving girl and then turns and goes back to his meal.

What follows are the responses to Samuel's argument that I've encountered.

I. Do you mean to say then that we should give until we ourselves are impoverished and so end up no better off than those we wish to help?

I do not mean to say this. Rather I mean to say that almost all of us can give much more and suffer little hardship as a result. This is surely true.

II. But if we simply feed those who are hungry, they will be hungry tomorrow and will have to be fed again; and they will likely propogate and create more mouths to feed. Thus to simply feed them is no real solution to the problem.

I did not say that to merely feed those who are hungry is itself a complete solution to the problem of hunger. Of course it is not. We must find a way for help those who are hungry find a way to feed themselves. But this insight in no way undermines the claim that we have an obligation to those who will starve today, or tomorrow, to make sure they are fed. Part at least of our resources must be devoted to this.

III. Those who are hungry are so through some fault of their own and thus we have no obligation to help them.

Many who are hungry are children and they bear no responsibility for their plight. Moreover, even if the adults around them are at fault (a claim that in general is surely false) still we must help, for if the adults in a place die the children there will inevitably suffer horribly.

IV. Where starvation is epidemic, so too is overpopulation. Harsh though it might seem, starvation is the natural way in which populations are kept in check. We should not attempt to step in and change this process by which balance in achieved.

Here is introduced a certain kind of holistic ethic. It elevates the community over the individual, and says of the individual that she can be treated in any way so long as this is necessary for the community of which she is part to flourish.

One form of this ethic, the form on which the primary community is the nation-state, is fascism. (I am quite aware of that fallacy wherein one simply labels a view and thereby takes it as refuted. I have no intent to do such a thing. Rather all I mean to do is give the view its proper name. English has a name for this kind of ethic, and it is 'fascism'.) Another form, the form on which the primary community is this or that ecosystem, or perhaps the whole of the biosphere, is what Tom Regan has called 'ecological fascism'.

I do not think that I can covince the commited fascist that he is wrong. But I still think it an impossible view. Would you let your child starve to advance some community ideal? Would you let her be tortured? Would you let her be killed? If not, you are not really a fascist.

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