Featured Philosop-her: Judith Lichtenberg

I am happy to welcome Judith Lichtenberg as the next featured philosop-her.  She is a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University. Until 2007 she taught at the University of Maryland in the Department of Philosophy and the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. She is the author of articles about ethical theory, international and domestic justice, nationalism, war, higher education, and the mass media; the coauthor (with Robert K. Fullinwider) of Leveling the Playing Field: Justice, Politics, and College Admissions (2004); and the editor of Democracy and the Mass Media (1990). Her book Distant Strangers: Ethics, Psychology, and Global Poverty has just been published by Cambridge University Press.

Her post follows.


Paltry Misfortunes and the Ruin of Millions

When Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines two weeks ago, I thought of Adam Smith. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Part III, III.1.46), he imagines a Chinese earthquake that swallows up all the inhabitants of the empire. Smith asks how a European “man of humanity” would be affected on hearing of the calamity. He would “express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune” and “make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment.” But “when all this fine philosophy was over,” Smith continues, the man would go on “with the same ease and tranquility as if no such accident had happened”:

If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he would snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred million of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him than this paltry misfortune of his own.

Smith doesn’t mean that the “man of humanity” actually believes losing his finger matters more than the deaths of millions—nor even that if he could stop the deaths of millions by contributing his finger he would refuse. Smith’s point is about the disconnect between our moral convictions and our emotions.

It’s difficult to imagine things being otherwise. We could barely endure life if we felt every stranger’s suffering the way we feel our own and that of our intimates. Our immunity to the pain of distant strangers does not signify deep flaws in our character.

But this seemingly inevitable feature of our wiring, and others, must be reckoned with if we want people to act to lessen the suffering of nameless and faceless strangers. My new book, Distant Strangers: Ethics, Psychology, and Global Poverty (available now in the U.K., and in the U.S. in December), wrestles with such questions: how to reconcile what seem to be enduring features of our psychology with the need to address pressing moral concerns like global poverty.

Peter Singer’s 1972 article “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” argued strikingly for a moral obligation to give unto others until giving more would make the donor as badly off as the recipients. Two years later, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick effectively denied any obligation to aid others. These positions set off the familiar debate among philosophers over whether and how much comfortable individuals are morally obligated to act to alleviate poverty, global or local. Despite the important contributions Singer and others have made and their influence on my own thinking, at a certain point I tired of this debate and the epicycles it induced.

One reason is that I don’t believe the concepts of duty and obligation—so central in contemporary moral philosophy—are very helpful in describing or fixing our responsibilities in this realm. That’s in part because of their yes/no, on/off character, suggesting a bright line where none is available. And the going moral approaches—utilitarianism, Kantian deontology, virtue ethics—are so open to interpretation as to be compatible with a very demanding morality, a pretty lax one, and everything in between. (Act-utilitarianism, implausible for a variety of reasons, may be the exception here.) A pluralistic mix-and-match doesn’t help solve the problem either.

Maybe, therefore, the familiar debate is asking the wrong question. Maybe we don’t need a theory to become convinced that the current distribution of wealth is for a variety of reasons repellent and indefensible. In that case, the question changes from how demanding morality is to how we can make poverty alleviation less demanding. I began to think about how to channel human tendencies in the right direction rather than determining precise individual duties. There’s a thread in this thinking that some will find objectionable. I argue that it’s not only unrealistic but unreasonable to expect too much of ordinary mortals. Some maintain, by contrast, that (as Samuel Scheffler puts it) Morality Demands What It Demands—and if we don’t live up to its demands that just shows our deficiencies. I argue that when we have reason to think these “deficiencies” are nearly impossible to eradicate, we need to work around them.

So we should think about how to make it easier for people to act in ways that would benefit others. One crucial part of the solution is to change the focus from individual duties to the behavior of groups. Acting together with others turns out to be less demanding on individuals psychically and materially, even if under some description each individual performs the same action.

We do and feel what others around us do and feel, and we judge our own level of well-being and deprivation by looking around us. You need a car when most others in your community drive cars, thereby undermining the public transportation system. You want shiny new gadgets because you see them and they’re pretty. You feel cramped in a two-bedroom apartment because you’ve always lived in a big house. Another central reason concerns status. Many people wrongly think only of status-seeking when considering why we do as others do—and they usually disapprove. As Smith famously explained, however (this time in The Wealth of Nations), concerns about status should not always be condemned as vanity: it is self-respect, not vanity, that requires that we have certain things others around us have. In Smith’s day the bare minimum was leather shoes and linen shirts for anyone who would be seen in public.

Deprivation, in other words, is often relative. From the significance of relative deprivation, captured in these examples, it follows that if we can induce collective change we can avoid making excessive demands on individual human will and character. Economists such as Richard Easterlin have shown that ratcheting consumption up does not increase happiness (see, e.g., here and here). Robert Frank has made these ideas popular in works like Choosing the Right Pond and Luxury Fever. A corollary is that ratcheting collective consumption down in rich countries—important at the very least for slowing climate change, which hurts the poor in developing countries most—need not make a significant dent in people’s well-being.

Conceiving the locus of responsibility for alleviating poverty as residing in the group rather than the individual makes sense on many grounds. Global poverty cannot be disentangled from deep-seated structural features of institutions in the contemporary world. Comfortable people participate in these institutions as minute elements in a complex web. Acting alone, they can rarely make significant differences—which can fallaciously make individual action feel futile.

Some will be surprised to learn that it was Peter Singer who insisted that “An ethic for human beings must take them as they are, or as they have some chance of becoming.” I’ve taken his advice to heart.

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