Monday, February 20, 2012

Love Thy Neighbor

Peter Singer is gaining a near monopoly on posts thus far. I'll be sure to spread my attention around more fully. But... I've been thinking lately about some of the comments my students have made about our moral obligations to help those that are close to us--both in terms of proximity and in terms relationship (i.e., family, friends, etc.). Singer famously argued that proximity is not something that is morally significant. As he puts it, "It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor's child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away." It seems to me that he is right about proximity. My moral obligations to help those in need are not modified by distance. It's not as if the closer a person is to me, the more moral obligation I have to help them. But what about those that are close to me in the sense that I love them? Do I have a grater obligation to save loved ones than I do strangers? Some clarification is in order. I suppose the issue that my students worry about is one of comparative moral worth. The person starving in a far-off land, whom I do not know, is seen as somehow less deserving of my aid than is my friend Kent, whose friendship I cherish. But what's the argument for this view? Why think that Kent is more deserving of my help than someone else?

Further, things are much more complicated than I'm making them out here. We have to also consider the relative needs of individuals. Suppose Kent loses his job and he needs some money to cover his rent; and suppose that a stranger in some other country lives in a village that has an inadequate supply of potable water. Does the fact that the villager is in more dire need than Kent matter? It seems clear to me that it does. This is part of Singer's point. We have an obligation to help those in dire need--wherever they are--and giving aid to someone that needs our help less is to spend resources in a way that's not morally ideal. According to Singer, it would be good, of course, to help Kent; but it would be better to help the villager.

I know that some of you do not agree with Singer on this point and I wonder why exactly? Why do you think our loved ones are more deserving of help than strangers?

One thing that I have to stress is that there's a difference between what you would do and what you ought to do. This is something that students often get confused by. I'm not asking something about my psychology--whether I would help Kent and not the villager. I'm asking about morality. It's a question about what one ought to do in this kind of situation. I might be overcome by sympathy for my friend and thus help Kent. Of course, this doesn't mean that I am doing the right thing.

17 comments:

Nicki Kellogg said...

This is a very interesting dilemna that I started thinking about when the question was posed about where to send money. So, its already stated that we morally ought to help people that are in need. Comparing helping family or a third world country, it seems as if we should bring in a utilitarian approach. example- Im debating whether to give money to my sister who needs to get on her feet and get a job so she can get a car and a house etc. But I also wish to help a third world country get water for their village. A utilatarian would weigh the happiness. IF I help my sister then I am happy, my family is happy and stress relieved. Thus the people around my sister will be happy because she will not be depressed anymore etc. this seems very plausible. If I give to a third world country i would be happy but i would be a little insecure not seeing first hand what my money did. Also the villagers do not know me so they wouldnt directly thank me so how happy would it really make me. SO morally when in the moral pickle of debating to help thy neighbor down the road or a global neighbor,, weigh the happiness and do the one that maaixmizes happiness! :)

KelseyMilliron said...

I understand what Nicki is saying but I feel like she is not thinking about everything fully. If you wanted to think like a utilitarian then you need to make sure you weigh out the happiness of everyone. Yes, you and your family may be happier if you were to help out your sister but did you think that if you send money to feed a village in a third world country that would be bringing happiness to tons of families. Yes it seems more plausible for someone to help out his or her family or someone else that they know but I don't think it is the right thing to do. As Singer says proximity does not matter it is a matter of what you ought to do. And in this situation what you ought to do is give your money to the village of people before your sister. They are in more of a dyer need and more happiness will be present for more people than if you were to give it to your sister. You may not personally experience more happiness nor would your family but the people in the 3rd world village would. I guess this is something that is very hard to do because obviously those people in the 3rd world village have not done anything for you so one may feel morally obligated to help those who have helped them before those who have not but in Singer's thoughts that should not mater. I understand where he is coming from and to a certain extent I agree, but with that said I would help my neighbor or family before someone I do not know. Honestly I see that helping the village is far more important than helping Kent but my question is what kind of a morally sound person would leave their friend hanging? This is so confusing because I see both sides strongly, both what Singer says we ought to do to be the best moral person we can but I don't think I could support a person that I did not know before my own friend... even if the stranger was in a greater need than my friend. I guess its kind of "what you don't know won't hurt you" things, This sounds terrible but I am going to sleep perfectly fine at night if someone I do not know is suffering, but if my best friend or family member is suffering I would feel awful and feel obligated to take care of them, even if that is not necessarily what I ought to do.

Andrea Cunningham said...

I think this is a very hard situation. Because like kelsey said you obvious want to help your friend because you see them all of the time. And you are directly affected by them, unlike those in other countries that you have no emotional connection to. Like Singer said "it would be good, of course, to help Kent; but it would be better to help the villager." This is so true and I think that this is what one should do. But Kelsey makes a good point on not being able to sleep at night because you know that your friend needs you. This all just plays a role in the emotional attachment. I personaly think that we should help both. If your friend needs some moeny you should give it to them, but on the other hand you should always help out those in other countries in need no matter if you have an emotional attachment to them or not. Its just the right thing to do.
Andrea Cunningham

Kelcey Schaum said...

I believe that we should help people no matter what the distance is. Americans are very selfish and feel the need to only help themselves. If each American took one dollar out of their paycheck to donate to someone far away, the world would be a much happier place. And if the whole world were to be happy, that would therefore in return make us all happier as well. Although, I am not sure where I stand on the Kent versus the villager for many reasons. Obviously I would help my friend Kent, because he's my friend. I ought to save the villager because they are most likely in more of a need than Kent would be. I would do this because I have a relationship with Kent and a strong friendship with him. I have no relationship with the starving villager. It would be much better to save the villager though even if I am not close in relationship with him/her it would be the right and moral thing to do.

Kelly D said...

When it comes to questions of what I "ought to do" I often find myself resorting to biologically based answers. I don't necessarily think morals are outside of the biological realm either. In social groups, even in the animal kingdom, there are "right" and "wrong" actions so to speak. I feel like morals are a really great set of rules to keep social construct alive and stable. This decision of helping your close friend or someone far away seems an easy one. Even if the person farther away is in more need of assistance its a cost benefit analysis. Helping someone close to you or in your family is essentially kin selection and it only makes sense to commit your acts of altruism on those individuals because you will receive a greater probably more tangible reward from helping your kin or those similar to kin. I know this takes away the warm gushy feeling of helping others but do we really commit any action without some sort of reward? Are there ever really any truly altruistic acts??

Shannell Wise said...

I completely agree with Kelsey. Nicki brought up a good argument by bringing in the Utilitarian way of weighing out the options but Kelsey's argument, I believe, is more accurate. Just sending fifty dollars to a third world country can help save so many people! And after those people get on their feet, they can help others. Especially if we are aiding the people in a way that promotes education as well. The education that we fund can be spread very quickly and help many third world countries in learning about new technologies or even new methods of supplying food. Overall, it seems that helping people that are starving is the moral thing to do. But as Jesse said, that doesn't mean that is what I WOULD do. It does seem, however, that helping a friend in need could be considered the moral thing to do if you were looking at the situation from a deontologists's point of view. If we Universalize the maxim of helping a friend or neighbor in need, the world could be a much better place. And the intentions of helping your friend are good ones. However, for me as a Utilitarian, I believe that helping third world countries and starving people would be the moral choice.

Anonymous said...

Great topic! As you probably have discussed, a particular problem for Utilitarianism has to do with justice or fairness. That is, you can imagine a situation (e.g., slavery) where the utilitarian calculation would allow it. But, in addition to our utilitarian intuitions about right and wrong, we also have intuitions about what is just and fair, and these may conflict with the "overall best for most people" outcome criterion.

The same thing might be in play in the case of helping someone we don't know. What's in play is not that we might be disposed by "human nature cultivated over eons of evolution" to want to help someone we know over someone we don't know, what's sticking in our collective craw is that "fairness" is not being satisfied. It is simply not fair to decide who gets help my the criterion of who I am most familiar with.

Anonymous said...

Is there any moral obligation to spend money in an efficient manner? (e.g. not waste it?)

I would think that helping someone locally reduces overhead and leads to the money more directly reaching the person in need (and less risk of it being abused since I can see how the money is being spent). (In the age of instant electronic transfer maybe there won't be much loss as it moves from here to Africa?)

This is off-subject (not utilitarian), but it interests me that many seem to be sure that we will want to give to the local person, but isn't it just the opposite. I see so much disdain for the poor of Bradford. I think it is easier and more romantic to give your money to a village far away, but at some level, I see it as an abdigation of our responsibiilty as citizens.

The poor person displayed on a picture for a charity organization is highly romanticized. Giving to international organizations is very detached. I think (but I'm not expert) that Wendell Berry would argue that detachment (& specialization) is dangerous. I don't know if he would apply it to giving money to a charity though. If we give our money to a specialized international organization, has our money become just a proxy for life?

Jacob Shepherd said...

Funny how the title of this blog entry is a reference to the King James Bible. The phrase "love thy neighbor" is a quote coined by Christ, translated from the Greek. I think this is relevant because Christ had some things to say about these kinds of situations, too. And regardless of what you believe about Christ, there isn't much doubt that he was a pretty good moral teacher. I tend to side with Christ, and, if I'm correct, Singer also. I think that we ought to be extending help to people who won't ever know our names. From my reading of Singer and scriptures, this seems to be the most morally praiseworthy thing one can possibly do.

The strangers out there are probably suffering (in most cases) more than we could probably ever bare for long. Having clean water seems to be a more serious problem to take care of than being able to pay rent this month. Obviously, both are pretty serious. But here there is generally pretty decent help available from the government, etc. The governments elsewhere, though, are just a bit sub-par in some respects (putting it very nicely)

Should I help someone like my brother, though, because he got fired and can't keep up his mortgage (or whatever)? Yes, as much as I reasonably can. But from his vantage point, I feel like it would be pretty hard to hold a grudge against me for helping the orphan in the Philippines out. The priority should be the greater poor and the ones suffering more. In fact, I ought to be doing that right now, so as to not sound like a hypocrite.

Casey Hoffman said...

Singer has a great point and there is never a reason to refuse helping people in third world countries. However, my opinion would be that if my brother needed financial help in a tough spot and I know for sure that the money would be used in that way, I would be more likely to help him out than a villager because I actually have a relationship with him and he actually asked me for help. The same is not true for the villager. I would feel worse about not helping someone who asked me than not helping someone who I have never met and did not ask for my help. I'm sure many disagree with me but that's how I see it

Natoya Barnes said...

I read this and I think it is a very hard situation. First, I want to say that I do not think that giving money equals happiness. I do agree with Singer because I do think that we should do more to help those in third world countries who are struggling.
In the example of helping my friend Kent or someone far away, how to decide who I should help? Is it moral to say that just because Kent is struggling, but not in more dire need than the person far away, that I should help the person far away?
What you ought to do is help who you can. I would help my friend because I would want to help the person who it will benefit at the moment. Also, I know that if I were to send my money to overseas, that it is a possibility that it will never reach the person.

Joe Burns said...

Lately I have been studying some biblical scripture with respect to morality. Because we have been discussing moral issues in class, I have had the desire to know what the Bible says about the issues. Although many individuals do not follow the Christian faith, I do, so I have had the opportunity to turn to the Bible to see what it says about these moral issues. Some may say that the bible is false, or what is says about morality is not universally true, but that is not what I am here to discuss at this time. What I would like to do is state my point of view on this moral issue: helping thy neighbor. Previously in this discussion, some light has been shed on the religious side of this issue and I wish to add onto that topic of discussion. What I have found within the realm of this issue is this: "We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves" which can be found in the book of Romans, 15:1.
It is interesting to me how this scripture uses the term "ought" which is used so frequently in philosophy. With respect to other people’s arguments, such as Singer’s, I must say that this is quite similar. This specific scripture may not address priorities but makes very clear that we "ought" to help those that are weak. It seems to me that maybe we are not to judge who is more "deserving" of help whether it be your best friend or someone from an entire different country that you may never know. This gets me thinking that we should help all of those that are in need regardless of the severity. If a situation arises where your help will benefit someone in need, and you are capable, you ought to. In the situation where "kent" needs help and "a villager" needs help, who is to say you cannot help both? That question stumps me. It seems that all discussion on this issue assumes that you have to help one or the other. Whether it is money, food, supplies, volunteering, or whatever it may be, it can be distributed. I do not see why one should be deprived of help, and the other should get full assistance. Take for example the poll on the blog page about which organization is most deserving of donation. I feel that they are all deserving of a donation. Who are we to judge who is most deserving? Why shouldn’t a donation be offered to all of them? At this time I have offered my argument. I feel that I have made my point and I am open to other opinions and comments. I would like to reiterate that my argument was that help should be distributed to all that are in need, to all that are weak. I repeat myself because I want to make clear that I am not addressing the morality of the distribution of wealth or anything like that. That is an entirely separate issue.
Joe Burns

Erica Lathrop said...

i think kelsey makes a good argument also with the fact that the people in the third world countries are in a dyer need of resources and supplies than any loved one. we have places around here to help us with food if we need it, the people over in the third world countries dont have those types of places to help them out. sure i am going to help a friend that is in need of some money to help with gas or food, but if i had to choose who to send money to i would choose a third world country because the people in the villages over there need more help than most of my friends.
i would feel happier helping out someone that is dying because they dont have food or water, than help out a friend or family member who can get help from other places than me.

Sherry Troutman said...

I see the moral responsiblity to helping kent. I see the moral responsibility to helping the unknown village. I also see the need to help both. In my opinion, I have spare boxes of mac and cheese that my mom gave to me--that I buy a different kind and don't ever intend to use--I'm going to give it to my friend who eats cheese and crackers and drinks soda--because she lost her job, her husband is disabled and barely can make ends meet. That maccaroni and cheese despite being the white product that it is--is much healthier than cream cheese and crackers and soda. So I'm going to give those boxes to my friend--which would in turn make her happier--and also give money to someone unknown at the same time--tons of people throw out food every day--they either buy multiples of stuff they never had before--to save money on gas--and end up hating them and not knowing what to do with them afterward. Give the stuff that you do not want or no longer need to your friend like kent who is struggling--but donate money to that starving villager who will never know your name--solving both issues at the same time--that's how I feel about helping people in need--spread it between the two and help both. =)

Sherry Troutman

Christopher Salerno said...

This to me is a very hard thing to grasp because a lot of people want to help out as many people as they can. The fact that it comes to a choice makes it very difficult to put yourself through. Of course right now just sitting here we can say what we would do but in the actual situation who knows what might happen. If in a situation like this I think because of the stress of the situation any emotional tie will most likely play a role in who one will decide to pick for the rescue. You might not even know the person but if you like children more than anyone else one might go for the child but say one did know the person that person is most likely going to try to rescue the person that is know. It can be seen as selfish so that way you don't go through the pain of losing someone but in reality this is most likely what will happen.

Michael Spong said...

In an ideal situation we would be able to help both, our friend or family member plus the person in another country. But things don't usually work out that way. I believe that it would be morraly correct to help out people in other countries, but at the same time I feel more obligated to help the ones that I am closer to emotionally. We have to look at the big picture! How would we feel if we needed help and our friend or family member decided to help a stranger in another country instead of helping us? so, I guess what I am saying is that; just because something is considered the right thing to do, doesn't mean that it is the right thing to do.

Anonymous said...

Analytically, it would seem that negative utility is more in line with Singer's efforts. Hedonism connotates pleasure and the imagination easily transitions to the self-concept; rather, negative utility has the polar effect. Sensibly, the passions with the self-concept at their center are entrenched and re-inforced by the media. I think, rather than eschew close proximity love, think of it more in terms like 'every happy ending needs to have a start.'