locore (locore) wrote,

Am I My Brother's and My Sister's Keeper?

I listen to CBC podcasts regularly. I recently listened to a 2 part series about moral philosophy, titled My Brother's - And My Sister's - Keeper. Links follow; be aware that if you click on the link, the (audio) podcast will start playing, making these not work safe for shared office space, unless you have your speakers muted.
  • Part 1, on individual responsibility
  • Part 2, on collective responsibility

    The first of these annoyed me to the point where I nearly didn't finish it, so I'm well over my threshold for wanting to talk back. But perhaps it's better to approach the same topic myself, without any footnotes to philosophers, and minimal jargon. And instead of surveying the field, I'm going to talk about what I believe, and why. Perhaps I'll make no more sense than the average undergraduate in Philosophy 101, but I have hopes to do a bit better than that.

    As is perhaps obvious from the title, the topic was the degree to which humans have a moral responsibility to assist other humans, in particular to alleviate suffering.

    This is a thorny mess. I think we can take the following as given:
  • Silly-season solutions don't count, such as those which address the letter of the problem but not the spirit. E.g. while it may be true that the extinction of the human species would prevent all future human suffering, that's not a valid way to address such a problem.
  • Suffering is infinite. It's not possible to alleviate all of it. This is most obvious when considering emotional suffering, such as that provoked by envy - but IMNSHO the same applies to physical issues, if only because life is a tradeoff, and comes with an ending.
  • The Buddhist solution is irrelevant - whether or not universal non-attachment would reduce human suffering, it's irrelevant to moral philosophy.

    So, the thesis of part one of this podcast series was basically that each of us individually has a responsibility to help anyone who needs it, with only practicality as a limit. This reminds me rather a lot of the role assigned to females in my birth culture, which is perhaps why I got so angry. Or maybe the anger was due to dysfunctional acquaintances, the kind that are perpetually needy, whether or not legitimately. Or maybe it was due to growing up undiagnosed Aspie, and learning that most of what seemed like needs to me (quietness, down time, etc.) were in fact merely "wants", and "selfish" wants at that ... just as the predictable meltdowns resulting from not having those needs met were themselves the results of "selfishness," "inconsiderateness," "lack of self control," etc. etc. (My life got so much better when I became old enough that I was allowed to control its rhythms, and expected to spend time being quiet and attentive :-()

    Whatever the cause, I react really badly to the general idea of being responsible for addressing whatever problems anyone in the world may be having. At the same time, life really sucks for a lot of people. And there are emergencies, where I'm inclined to feel that any bystander who notices ought to intervene. It seems to me that turning a blind eye on major suffering is wrong. But at the same time, I don't accept that we all have a duty to devote our lives to relieving it.

    And that's where we get to part 2 of the series. From where I sit, the responsibility for righting major inequities, etc. is collective. We're doing it very badly these days, both within nations and within the world. "Austerity" is such a great reason to cut benefits of all kinds, locally, not to mention foreign aid. We weren't doing it very well even before the recent problems, mind you. And even when we tried, aid wasn't always useful or relevant, and didn't always reach those needing it. Sometimes it wound up enriching those who definitely didn't need it.

    Part 2, IIRC, basically agreed with this - and then kind of wandered around in circles, describing problems but not concluding much of anything. Of course that's how this radio show intends to work - it's called "Ideas" for a reason ;-)

    So where do I weigh in?
  • First of all, I'm mistrustful of anyone who decides what others need, and particularly what they don't need. Adults may require assistance, but they don't require "keepers."
  • Second, I suspect that in the case of developed countries at least, the costs of attempts to restrict benefits to the "truly needy" exceeds the savings gained by excluding those who are merely greedy, particularly if this exclusion is done in a fair and accurate manner. (Frequently it's instead done by inserting so many hurdles in the path to benefits that many needy people give up - in the case of some medical benefits in the US, I suspect some may simply die before receiving benefits.)
  • Third of all, I suspect that not making health care, education etc. generally available leads to a massive waste of human resources, i.e. the economy would be better off, in the long run (20 years or so) because more people would live up to their full potential, and thus contribute more economically.
  • Fourth, while I regard inequality of outcomes as inevitable, I'm pretty much disgusted by the degree of inequality in e.g. the United States, never mind the world. In particular, I'm disgusted on a moral level with leaders who act to increase this inequality, regardless of their reasons.
  • Fifth, I'm not walking the talk. I insist on earning "what I am worth," i.e. the going rate for software engineers of my experience and ability, and that puts me in the top 5% in the USA, and doubtless the top 1% in the world. And while I'd be happy to see a general restructuring of income inequalities, e.g. via progressive taxation, I'd at the same time be unhappy if the result was a bite into my own lifestyle. (I'd nonetheless support it, if I believed it were fair - and NOT if I believed it was e.g. cutting down the 5% but not affecting the 0.5% :-))

    This mini-essay needs a conclusion, but I think I've said most of what I'm clear about. I could go into the problems of helping people who are victimized by others, particularly those living in kleptocratic or warlord states. But the only thing I can see to do in those cases is to allow more or less unlimited immigration - while at the same time somehow enforcing enough acculturation that the immigrants don't perpetrate similar polities in their new homes. (The same applies to people victimized as a class, such as women, only more so.) Sending in troops to overthrow the warlords, remove the kleptocrats, etc. is pretty much certain to create even worse problems than those they are intended to solve. Though I suppose if 90% of a country managed to abandon its leaders through emigration, a case could be made for neighbours forcibly claiming 90% of its land area for immigrant resettlement :-( (I think that's tongue-in-cheek.)

    I could also go into the "tragedy of the commons" phenomenon, particularly with regard to global warming. Or I could go into the question of moral responsibilties to non-humans; I think it's pretty clear that there's a level of ill treatment of animals that's immoral for similar reasons to ill treatment of humans, and similar moral responsbility to do something about it. But I don't think these will illuminate the basic question, just muddy it.

    So here it is. Locore's beliefs about assistance to the needy and prevention/remediation of human suffering. Enjoy :-)

    This entry was originally posted at http://locore.dreamwidth.org/2604.html.
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