Saturday, July 30, 2005

How responsible are we?

Sitting here contemplating a few decisions regarding my life and my plans and wondering: We are all bound by personal moral issues, and I'm sure we all consider one issue to be our personal crusade, but how far does, or must, a moral issue go before we feel like we need to take action?

What I mean by that is... At what point do we consider ourselves personally involved? Are we morally involved in an international "moral scandal," if you will, like say, African genocide? Or must it be more on the homefront, like dealing with the pound that puts stray animals to sleep five blocks behind your home?

Moreover, does the saying hold true?: If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

At what point do we get involved and try to set things on the "right" path? Or maybe, at what point should we get involved?


Blogger CSC said...

Well, one position is here: Basically, Singer argues (with some very good examples) if you can help at less cost to you than benefit that your aid would bring, you should help others. This implies, for example, that any money you spend on luxuries should be donated to famine relief. The lives saved are more important than the cost to you. Like all of Singer’s arguments, the conclusion is surprising but his arguments are very compelling.

I’d argue for something weaker, and I some terms might help us think about this. We could talk about obligatory and supererogatory aid. You must give obligatory aid. If you don’t, you are breaking an obligation and that is, at least, wrong. Supererogatory aid is ‘above and beyond.’ Its good, but it isn’t necessary.

Distinguishing between obligatory and supererogatory acts is tough. I’m not sure I’ve got the answer, but I’ll venture this:

It is obligatory to offer aid to others if they are, (1) near to one either physically or if you are intimate with them and (2) if you can help with little cost to yourself. Anything else is supererogatory. Add to this an obligation, something like Kant’s imperfect duty, to do some supererogatory stuff, and go get the following position. If someone near to you is suffering and you can help, you must. Beyond that, you need to do some good works but you can choose which cause to help based on whatever you want. (Usually, you’ll base this on opportunity and the people involved. You help where your friends help, on greater political causes or relief efforts.)

Does that help?

10:45 AM  
Blogger Rachel said...

Helps, yes, but it doesn't settle well with me at all.

I tend to agree with Singer in that we should be ashamed of our luxuries if we do not help others, and I am at a crossroad emotionally because I'm finding some things hard to part with. (Like when I gave vegetarianism a serious attempt but eventually gave in because of certain Italian goodies.)

Plus, I am beginning to get angry with people who don't help out because "other people are already taking care of it" or "it just doesn't affect" them. Yet while I'm doing as much as (I argue) I can, how can I get so angry if I'm not willing to give the ultimate ultimate sacrifice?

I don't know quite what I'm looking for here (or is it that I know exactly what I'm looking for?) but I am at least hoping that some thoughts will be bounced around that will lead me to some answer.

1:24 PM  
Blogger CSC said...

Rachel said: we should be ashamed of our luxuries if we do not help others

Ah, being your picky philosophy professor, I’m going to point out that this isn’t quite what Singer says. You’ve put forward here a principle that only requires us to help others, not to help others until either there is no more need or giving would hurt us more than it would help others. Singer is proposing a very stringent demand. He admits that he doesn’t even meet it, though he gives away a considerable portion of his own income.

But let me go at this another way. Consider, Raymond, a white born in a deeply racist environment. He is taught that blacks are dirty and that whites should never touch blacks, drink from the same water fountain, or swim in the same pool. Raymond eventually comes to reject his racist beliefs, but many of his gut reactions remain. The thought of a black touching him creeps him out even though he knows this is an irrational reaction. So he tries. He goes swimming in public pools with blacks. He drinks from public water fountains. When physical contact would be normal, he allows it. His reactions might persist, maybe some of them would never go away, but he is working to be better.

What should we say about Raymond?

I’d say that we shouldn’t be angry with Raymond. We should support him, encourage him, and help him. If he flinches and one day just cannot get in a public pool where blacks swim, I still wouldn’t be upset with him. As long as he has the genuine project of being a better person, I’m not angry with Raymond.

Does that mean there is nothing wrong with being a racist? No. Raymond would be a better person if he could get rid of these reactions. In a sense, life isn’t fair to Raymond. Due to his upbringing, he started out a worse person than many of us. He’s got farther to go. Nonetheless, I’d be angry with someone who is born with some slight racist tendencies, she knows it, but she just doesn’t care. I’d be frustrated with someone who refuses to examine herself for racist tendencies, and maybe even angry.

What does all this mean? There are two issues involved and things might be clearer if you separated them. The first is what we are obligated to do. Would we be better people if we never ate meat? I’d say yes, though I’m in the minority on that one. The second is whether we, as individuals, actively care about morality. Are we cultivating a better world? Are we cultivating ourselves as better people? Or, simply put, are we caring for morality? I tend to get angry, to really blame people, when they don’t actively care for morality. Plenty of flawed people care about morality.

(And, yes Rachel, when it comes to going veg I think you are like Raymond. You grew up in a deeply speciesist society and have some basic reactions that you might never get over. As long as you actively care, I wouldn’t blame you. For what it is worth, I think I’d be a better person if I could go vegan but, well, no luck so far.)

4:04 PM  
Blogger Rachel said...

I think that Raymond example really helped. Perhaps the issue at heart is standards. Perhaps all I am asking from others is that they care (they don't), while I'm asking more of myself than I am willing or able. Thank you, though.

7:41 PM  
Blogger LD said...

Tough stuff indeed.

Necessities: Is it necessary for me to buy new clothes even though the ones I have are worn out and faded? I would say no. They get the job done, and luckily, I like the faded look; however, there are plenty of occasions in which tattered blue jeans and a T-shirt won't do. Even though I think new clothes are unnecessary, my boss would say otherwise and even demand that I buy new clothes.

My immediate social obligations demand I buy new *nice* clothes, but should I say no and buy the skinny 40 year old woman with bad teeth who is asking me for change dinner, instead of buying new clothes for myself or putting gas in my car to get to work? It's a tough call.

It's not life or death whether or not that woman gets something to eat at that point when she is asking me for change, but should I depend on the rest of society to give her what she needs to survive?

I'm a student dependent on my parents for health, dental, and car insurance, but I still have other expenses that I have to take care of. Sure, I go to the movies and spend money on road trips to make my life more colorful, but my existence is by no means posh.

But let's break it down. My tuition, room and board are paid for with a scholarship. What right do I have to that outrageous sum of money? Why was I awarded that particular scholarship, and why wasn't the money put directly into the community that could benefit from it more readily. Why do I get a quality education when most kids do not get a quality meal, either because their parents cannot afford it or because they are too ignorant to know that McDonald's hamburgers are unhealthy. Maybe if I learn something at school I will be better able to help my fellow man, but giving me a scholarship is a huge gamble. I'm a bit of a wild card...

There is a lot to discuss with this topic.

Buying a Coke is immoral for a number of reasons, but I like Coke, so I drink it. It's simple, cheap, and keeps me happy. Simple pleasures are good and they keep me on the path of attaining a college degree. Should I give up all of my small pleasures because the money could be used to purchase food? Maybe, but if I stay in school, I could be making more money in order to donate. Unfortunately, my wants and pleasures may grow along with the pay increases. Maybe that trip to the Bahamas is what I need to keep me focused on earning my Masters degree. Lord knows how much money I could dish out to the charities with the bling$bling I'll be making after I earn my masters degree. Is wanting a personal Japanese Garden immoral when the neighbor boy is eating doughnuts for breakfast? Is feeding and paying for routine check-ups for family pets immoral when my neighbor is eating doughnuts for breakfast every single morning because his parents are lazy and ignorant?

9:06 PM  
Blogger CSC said...

Wow. You’ve got some very strong ideas of what morality requires. I get two things from your examples. (Correct me if I’m wrong.) First, you define a luxury as anything you can live without. Second, you think that it is immoral to use any resource to benefit yourself when it could be used to help others more.

I want to say something about the second point. I think you are defining luxury too broadly and need to narrowly. Comfortable slaves might illustrate why. Defenses of American slavery often claimed that blacks were better off enslaved than they were free. Often American slavery was justified as a temporary state where the savage Africans would learn civilization (Christianity, to tame their sexual desires, to learn to follow laws and care for property), though some still claim that slavery benefited blacks on material grounds. The conditions slaves were kept in, they claim, were more comfortable and safe than their life in Africa would have been. (Robert E. Lee even argued that slavery was more of burden for whites than blacks. See for on Lee’s particular views.)

Ok, I doubt that it is true that slavery actually benefited blacks, but we could imagine such a case. We could imagine poverty so bad and slavers so benevolent that slaves lived in better material conditions, were safer from disease and violence as slaves. (Really, my dogs live in something like this condition. Freedom would mean death for them.) Would we want to say that such (normal human) slaves lived in luxury? Would we want to say that they aren’t missing anything that they need?

I wouldn’t. I think that a good life surely requires some worthwhile projects, and (taking a phrase from Philip Pettit) requires living in relations of non-domination. What does this have to do with giving away material goods? Except in extraordinary circumstances, I’d say that you aren’t obligated to help others with resources that you need to live a good life by this standard. These goods aren’t luxuries. An education, then, is a priority. Clothes can be, but aren’t necessarily. You need to be able to go in public and take part in activities with dignity. Should your clothes be so ratty that you cannot go in public without shame, then you cannot live this good life. Should your poverty make you utterly dependent on others, then, again, you have a right to keep those resources that would help you get out of your dependence.

Anyway, that’s a thought for understanding what morality requires in a way that isn’t quite so demanding.

1:13 PM  
Blogger LD said...

I was blown away by the idea of a person or family who pulls in $50,000 a year giving $30,000 to charitable organizations. What is included in the $20,000? Food, clothes, Rent?

7:29 AM  
Blogger Rachel said...

"You need to be able to go in public and take part in activities with dignity. Should your clothes be so ratty that you cannot go in public without shame, then you cannot live this good life."

But what if... what if the pride you got from helping others instead of buying new clothes outweighed the shame you felt in public? Or even depleted the shame completely? This would then make your theory unusable, yes?

11:26 AM  
Blogger CSC said...

LD: What Singer has done is take a generous calculation of the poverty line, $30,000, and claim that people should donate anything they make over that. The US government set the poverty line for a family of four in 2004 at $19,000. There is pretty clear politics going on here. The Government looks better if there are fewer poor people, so they define a livable life pretty minimally. Also, there are many different ways to calculate these. One of the most common (I think) is to say that the cost of housing should take no more than 1/3 of your income. So, for a family of four, that would be the cost of a two-bedroom house or apartment. It’s not entirely accurate. It’s a guestimate, but for Singer’s purposes I think it tells us all we need to know. I mean, you can double his number and I’d bet very few people donate everything they make over $60,000. (If you are interested, Amatrya Sen has worked extensively on how to measure standards of living and what poverty is. He won a Nobel prize for it.)

Rachel: Very nice point, and I think spelling out what it takes to live a decent life with any precision is going to be very difficult and it will vary in all kinds of ways. . . but I think we can do it well enough to guide us. I’ll steal a page from Sen to do this. He proposes that we look at capabilities rather than just rights. We’d care less whether people had the freedom of speech and more about whether they were capable of participating in public discourse. (Laws against participating would be one kind of barrier; lack of objective news could be another; lack of an appropriate forum is another; etc . . .).

Does this make your case a bit easier to handle? I’ll give it a shot. If she is able to participate, really participate, in public life, then she is fine without the clothes. But if she cannot—whether due to her feelings or how others treat her—then she needs better clothes. Surely, people vary along these lines and a good person would want some detachment from others’ opinions, but expecting us to care nothing for what others think of us is wrong. We care and we should care. A good life is lived with others. Perhaps we could say that a better culture is one that doesn’t require ostentatious displays of wealth to interact with others, but if you live in a wealth-focused culture and you have no wealth, you are poor. (Put more simply: standards of living are relative. Greeks weren’t shamed by only having sheets to wear. Minimal Native American dress didn’t shame them then, though it might in some situations now.) A better culture uses fewer resources to live well, but you cannot pretend that you don’t live in the culture that you do.

What we cannot do is trade one capability off against another. That is, you cannot say she should sacrifice her capacity to participate in public life so that others may live. It might be nice of her, but sacrificing her ability to live a good life for others is too much to require.

2:55 PM  
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12:41 AM  

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