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the self’s compromising of moral aims

I had an earlier draft of this post where I spoke of “others” and their propensity to moralize issues, and after testing the reaction of a dairy product I decided to explore the same idea but through my own experience. The title of the post, while changed, unfortunately remains terrible.

A political philosophy professor at BC gave a talk a week ago related to foreign policy, and brought up that people are naturally hawks or doves, and that they should keep this in mind when they think about policies, always being sure to question themselves when they tend towards this instinct — don’t trust it. It is an emotional tendency that blinds your intellectual exploration.


That doesn’t mean I try to suppress my morality, it means I try to better serve the moral maxims that I think should be lived by.

One example that I’ve struggled with is how to alleviate human suffering. To this end, I want to alleviate as much suffering as I can, doing as large a part as possible to elevate the human condition. Intellectually, I understand this aim and I respect it as worthwhile. Yet there is a related emotional tie I have to this aim, which causes me to be upset when I see suffering on even the smallest scale. This emotional trigger cannot be trusted to serve the intellectually tested greater purpose.

Straightforward example, I will get unbelievably angry or upset when seeing a child mistreated, yet not bat an eye when seeing a headline about the number of murders in a year in a faraway city.

Proximity and presentation matter, and my emotional response will be biased. I cannot rely on this emotional response as a mechanism to serve the end.

When I was younger, my response to this moral imperative was indeed shockingly local. The population I targeted for assistance was American, mainly in urban areas.

The policies or ideas I supported can be best characterized as the most direct attempt to alleviate the suffering of those most close to me.

Guided by my emotional response, my beautiful purpose of alleviating the suffering of mankind was transformed into the support of doing whatever plan was most popular to directly and immediately provide assistance to those whose suffering best plays on my emotions.

Since then, I think I’ve come a ways in keeping my emotional response in check, and ensuring my practical ideas for advancing my theoretical morals are guided by measured intellectual thought. I’ve become a lot more skeptical about any plans that assume all suffering is within our control as a nation to alleviate, as well as more skeptical of direct intervention as leading to an immediate positive response.

Yet, I’ve noticed I’m still very local in my thinking.

People are eating dirt sandwiches in Haiti, and I’m concerned with fat Americans, or kids not getting the best education? American poverty does not register on my intellectual “to-do” list.

The common response is you can be concerned about both. You can, but that doesn’t deny there are tradeoffs. When you are learning about fixing US health care you are not learning about new methods of combating preventable disease that is killing hundreds of thousands (more?) a year in the developing world. When you are spending political capital on welfare reform, you are not spending it on aid packages.

Would there be less human suffering if the US scrapped the welfare system in its entirety and flung open its borders? I don’t know for sure, but I do know that it’s an uncomfortable question to ask. The idea of having more suffering in my neighborhood, but less worldwide is an uncomfortable proposition – yet with much of the debate about globalization, immigration, and the welfare state, it is a very relevant question.

My natural response to this question was, “Well, maybe we can’t actually help to alleviate suffering abroad very much, they have to do it on their own, but we can do it here, so we should.”

That’s possible, but the fact that was my response demonstrates my tendency to avoid seriously weighing these uncomfortable questions.

For an unrelated example, the idea of a market for organ donors sounds terrible. It doesn’t sound fair, and the idea of a poor person in dire need of a donor being “outbid” is gut-wrenching. But what if more people, including poor people, will receive organ donations because of a market like they have in Iran?

It’s another question that’s uncomfortable for the same reason that killing horses sounds a lot worse than killing fish.

I write this post because I think a lot of people who try to look past their own needs or desires and vote for the greater good are led into a trap which provides a great deal of self-satisfaction, but fails to best serve their moral end.

That doesn’t mean I’m advocating the end of helping thy neighbor. Your actions and your support of greater policies must find where the greatest suffering and your ability to alleviate it intersect. So you might end up helping someone locally, but only after you judge your ability to help those suffering more further away — if I have the opportunity to help kids in Sudan or kids in Baltimore, Sudan is the selfless choice that best serves my end.

So perhaps your political support should back assistance to help the people in the world’s more hellish places to either leave or improve their lot where they are (taking away support from assistance programs at home), while your personal attention should be very local, where it will have the most effect. Of course, to be fully selfless, you might have to move to that hellish place to directly help them. That might not be practical for most people, but at least you’ll be honest with yourself about what you are being truly selfless about and what you’re making a conscious decision to not do.

This blog post has been a bit all over the place, but alas, that’s the nature of the beast. I do think it is significant and worth debate, as it has major implications for domestic assistance programs, possibly implying that assistance programs should be judged solely on their personal utility to each taxpayer (which might be tricky…).

If you’re passionate about human suffering, where should your limited resources be put to use? What should you be doing for work? What should you be studying/reading about? What policies should you be fighting for? All this becomes much more complex and requires much more thought if you are going by your brain rather than your emotional reaction.

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Filed under: Cognition

One Response

  1. Andrew Cheesman says:

    a dairy product?!

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