Human Responsibility

To those who follow this blog closely, this might sound like a broken record.  I feel like the most important messages, and those hardest to internalize and live by, sometimes have to be repeated time and again until the message sinks in.  This iteration of this message was prompted by Pardes’ trip to Hevron on Sunday.

As you go about your daily, privileged, life, when you pass a poor person on the street, it probably leaves a roshem, an impression, on you, it probably makes you feel something.  This is true regardless of your reaction to that situation: whether you share nothing, a kind word, some coins, a meal, or even a job (a la the Rambam’s 8 levels of tzedakka), seeing human suffering in such a direct way is troubling, especially as people who, in the grand scheme of things, want for nothing.  But yet, even without seeing people begging for any scrap of money or food they can, we all know that there are hundreds of millions (a number that is literally too big for the human brain to comprehend) of people in this condition all over the world.  And despite this, most of us go about our lives, working for self, family, and often larger groups of people, but within our own comfort zone, aspiring to accrue both concrete (salary) and symbolic (degrees, awards, etc.) symbols of societal clout.  How is this remotely acceptable when there is even one person (in the morally significant sense) who cannot even feed, clothe or wash themselves?

The reason the answer to this question is that it is not remotely acceptable for me derives from a sense of the responsibilities we have, qua persons, simply by being born, but especially by being born into the privileged class of people living on this planet right now.  The universalist ethic that I align myself with in this regard holds all persons responsible for helping all other persons attain a level of ‘basic human sustenance’ (for lack of a better term).  The details of what that means are largely irrelevant given how widespread extreme suffering is in the world — i.e. it is pointless trying to figure out if the level is $100 a month or $500 a month is millions of people do not even have $1 a month.  And so the focus should not be trying to construct an ideal theory that captures just what all people ought to have provided for them as basic human rights when it would be far more efficient, and more conducive to the big picture goal of alleviating the suffering all around us, to simply go out and each try our best to eliminate all the suffering that we can.

This, again, is particularly striking for me now, because I am privileged to get to spend my days honing my mind and debating points of theology and philosophy with some of the most engaging, talented, and intelligent people I have come across in my life.  I will grant that I would not have come to the realizations that I have had it not been for the education I have received — especially Peter Singer’s most eloquent argument for a much more radical version of fighting to end human suffering than that outlined above, but one that I find to be extremely philosophically compelling.  But the question remains as to why there isn’t more of an emphasis put on thinking universally in that very education across the board.  Harnessing the combined human energy of the privileged classes of people is the most tremendous source of energy imaginable, and if we were able to harness even a fraction of it, the inequality that is so rampant in the world today would not be the insurmountable problem it is when only a handful of people (relatively speaking) truly devote themselves to solving the problem.

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