Should some people matter more than others?
Posted on February 2, 2013
In the past couple decades, prominent philosophers and social critics such as Peter Singer and Jeremy Rifkin have forcefully argued that humans must work to discard traditionally narrow, tribal thinking and extend their moral concerns to humans beyond just family, friends, and neighbors (as well as non-human animals).
For example, Singer writes in his book “The Expanding Circle”:
“If I have seen … that from an ethical point of view I am just one person among the many in my society, and my interests are no more important, from the point of view of the whole, than the similar interests of others within my society, I am ready to see that, from a still larger point of view, my society is just one among other societies, and the interests of members of my society are no more important, from that larger perspective, than the similar interests of members of other societies.”
But author Stephan Asma says there are serious problems with this position. As he wrote recently on the philosophy blog of the New York Times:
All this sounds nice at first — indeed, I would like it to be true — but let me throw a little cold water on the idea. … All people are not equally entitled to my time, affection, resources or moral duties — and only conjectural assumption can make them appear so. (For many of us, family members are more entitled than friends, and friends more entitled than acquaintances, and acquaintances more than strangers, and so on.) It seems dubious to say that we should transcend tribe and be utilitarian because all people are equal, when the equal status of strangers and kin is an unproven and counterintuitive assumption.
Singer’s abstract “ethical point of view” is not wrong so much as irrelevant. Our actual lives are punctuated by moral gravity, which makes some people (kith and kin) much more central and forceful in our daily orbit of values. (Gravity is actually an apt metaphor. Some people in our lives take on great “affection mass” and bend our continuum of values into a solar-system of biases. Family members usually have more moral gravity —what Robert Nozick calls “ethical pull.”
You might have noticed that Asma is simply appealing to the fact that humans do value certain people over others. The real question is, “should we?” Asma answers with a firm “yes,” and defends what he refers to as “favoritism” on the grounds that it is beneficial to individual human flourishing.
… my case for small-circle care dovetails nicely with the commonly agreed upon crucial ingredient in human happiness, namely, strong social bonds. A recent Niagara of longitudinal happiness studies all confirm that the most important element in a good life (eudaimonia) is close family and friendship ties — ties that bind. These are not digital Facebook friends nor are they needy faraway strangers, but robust proximate relationships that you can count on one or two hands — and these bonds are created and sustained by the very finite resource of emotional care that I’ve outlined.
Here’s the thing: I accept the notion that close relationships are integral to leading a good life — but that does not mean I reject the arguments put forth by Singer and Rifkin.
As I see it, we should readily accept that humans are bound to practice some form of “favoritism,” and cherish our relationships with those who we deem as favorites. However, I believe we should also recognize that while a couple of people might provide us with great meaning and happiness, there exist many people outside of one’s favorites who are capable of experiencing happiness and suffering, and these people are deserving of our moral concern. Of course, the question “How much moral concern should we give to such people?” is a very tough one to answer, but for the moment, I think it’s fair to say “more than they have received throughout history.”
More simply put: there is no reason why a person cannot have his or her favorite people, and also feel significant amounts of empathy for, and do their part to help, starving and disease-ridden children around the world.
After all, isn’t another “important element in a good life” basic health?