The Ethics of Human Rights (22): Caring for What Happens in the World vs Moral Indifference or Moral Apathy

I guess we all have, now and again, the feeling that it’s strange that we go about our business as usual, being content or even happy, when at exactly the same time in countless other places in the world, someone is suffering, being tortured, killed, raped or whatever. Normally, we don’t think about these facts, because that would make our lives impossible. Thinking about it causes feelings of guilt and unease. Even though we’re often not directly responsible for what happens to these people, there’s always the lingering thought that there may be something we can do to help. And probably there is something we can do, especially if we invested some more effort in associating with others. (Individually we may indeed be powerless).

And there’s an even more unsettling thought lurking deeper in the backs of our minds, namely that we are responsible to some extent, even for the suffering of people thousands of miles away, people we don’t know and will never know. Thomas Pogge for instance has claimed – correctly in my view – that in our globalized world we all contribute, to some extent,  to institutions, rules and processes that violate human rights. For example, we buy clothes from companies that use child labor or ban trade unions; we still profit from colonial exploitation that happened more than a century ago; we acquiesce in democratically enacted laws that exclude poor producers from our markets etc.

The existing global trading regime contributes to the perpetuation of poverty through the asymmetrical market opening that took place in the 1990s. Poor countries still do not enjoy unfettered access to our markets and are still hampered by anti-dumping duties, quotas and very high subsidies, for instance on agricultural products and textiles. Not only do these subsidies make poor countries’ products uncompetitive on rich countries’ markets. They also hamper poor countries’ products in other markets because they allow the rich countries to undersell these products everywhere. By upholding a global economic order that grandfathers the rich countries’ right to impose such protectionist measures into the global trading system, the rich countries greatly contribute to the persistence of the world poverty problem. Thomas Pogge (source)

By the way, Pogge’s argument can be used to counter the claim that “poverty human rights” are substantially different from “normal human rights” such as the right to free speech etc. (are perhaps not even “real human rights” at all), because they impose positive duties instead of merely negative duties, duties to help instead of merely duties not to interfere. For Pogge, poverty is a negative duty: people aren’t poor because we fail to help them but because we actively – albeit often unconsciously – contribute to their poverty. Rather than focusing our efforts on how we can help the poor, we should focus on how we hurt them. This is reminiscent of recent debates on the continued usefulness of development aid.

OK, back to the main point. It’s all very well to encourage “caring”, and possibly also “helping”, but thinking about what we could call the “synchronicity of heaven and hell” makes it very difficult to get on with our lives. Hence we tend to suppress such thoughts. It’s a survival strategy, and quite understandable as such, but the consequence of not thinking is not helping. We know in the back of our minds that while we’re doing fine, elsewhere it’s hell, but we just don’t think about it too much. Only when we watch the news, donate something, or sit in the park and have nothing else to do. And then we’re amazed at how cold-hearted we can be. But at the same time and unconsciously, we continue to function in structures, institutions and sets of rules that underpin the problems that occasionally make us angry. And then we return to our normal mode of moral indifference. Much like the people in the “Fall of Icarus” by Breughel, a painting commented upon in a poem by WH Auden:

… In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on. (full text here)

Also like the father figure in the “Elf King” poem by Goethe, ignoring the suffering and anxiety of his own sun until it’s too late. We can try to rationalize our moral indifference in several ways. First, we may reject the claim that we have any part in the problems that occur far away. We may believe that poverty and dictatorship are home-grown, and not supported by globalization or our own countries’ involvement. Perhaps we believe that individuals failures are the only cause of their problems. Instead of being a bleeding heart Atlas supporting the misery of the world (as in the poem by Heinrich Heine below), we should simply “shrug“.

Ich unglücksel’ger Atlas! Eine Welt,
Die ganze Welt der Schmerzen muß ich tragen,
Ich trage Unerträgliches, und brechen
Will mir das Herz im Leibe.
Du stolzes Herz, du hast es ja gewollt!
Du wolltest glücklich sein, unendlich glücklich,
Oder unendlich elend, stolzes Herz,
Und jetzo bist du elend.

We also rationalize our inaction and moral indifference by pointing to the distance between us and those who suffer. This distance makes action on our part difficult, we believe, and makes it more likely that actions by others who are closer and more familiar with what’s happening will be more successful. While it’s generally correct to state that closeness is a factor in the ability to help, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, the causes of problems are very distant indeed, and hence the solutions have to be distant as well.

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