Monday, March 21, 2005

Ethics and Emotional Distance

So this is one of those posts where I solicit my three readers, none of whom know anything about the given field and of whom at least one (the wolf fashioned from straw, for anyone wondering) is unlikely to remotely support the view being presupposed, to give me input on something bothering me recently: to what extent can I ignore the problems of the far away and still be a more or less "good" person? That is to say, if a friend appears in front of me and needs taking care of in some way I feel like I would be a bad person if I failed to supply that care; if my buddy needs a hand, I think I would be remiss in some way if I didn't supply my buddy with it. On the other hand, it's not as though there aren't many many people all over the world requiring of equal hands, so why shouldn't I help them too? While sometimes convenience is a factor, money certainly moves fast, so it's not as though I couldn't offer comparable assistance to anybody out there. At the same time, I feel (in my horrible, flawed, moral intuition kind of way) like it's okay to neglect at least minor needs of people "farther" from me in some emotional sense; equivalently, I think it's not a problem that I'm more inclined to be helpful to people I know/am closer to, at least not in a way that imperils my standing as a decent human being. Then there ought to be some criterion capturing people it's okay to not help -- but I have no idea what it could possibly be.

Anybody with insight on this?

In a life update, it looks like I'll be participating in my first picket line on Thursday. Time to take part in the labor negotiations process for a job I'm not yet (but will soon be) doing!


Blogger Rousseau said...

So Neil may be his own type of straw man, but so am I. I really can't work out how we don't have just as much responsiblity for those others. Even Rawls says we are limited by our lack of economic connection to them, and even Singer says we don't need to go so far in donation as to debase ourselves. If you're really going to rigorous, I don't know why not.

The next question for me is "does this mean our overwhelming moral value is [money given to oxfam*]"? It's very convenient because a) we are likely to give so little that they can't possibly be concave along the money we give b) other economic-moral decisions come along the lines of "do I save enough money by buying China made shoes that the money then given to oxfam outweighs the money saved" and c) like many quantitative aspects, it hinders rationalization "shit I didn't give money to oxfam this month because I wanted a PS2" is harder to ignore than most ways people try to morally justify themselves.

But it also doesn't seem very helpful vis-a-vis getting us to follow rules and show affection in society, which is one of the practical reasons we have such morals. But there's no way we can have "helping distant people" as a moderate ethical consideration - only a trivial or a dominating one.

*oxfam being stand in for "favorite third world charity".

11:31 AM  
Blogger Mycroft said...

There's an interesting distinction that can be made between a "social" obligation, which somebody has to fulfill, and a "personal" obligation, which every single person has to fulfill.

If you like, helping a friend is a personal obligation. Somebody who doesn't help a friend when they can and it wouldn't really hurt them to do so is a sad being indeed. On the other hand, extending the same kind of aid to the world at large is unbearably costly on any individual, and it's the sort of thing you should only do to the extent you feel comfortable, and usually by proxy.

9:58 PM  

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