Not My Problem!

I wrote this more than six years ago, but my readership today, while still small, is quite different, and the point seems to me to be worth repeating. 

Some have said that it is the tendency of conservatives to embrace only those causes that affect them directly, to smile and pretend that everything is hunky-dory until events are so rude as to slap them in the face. As it happens, this is not necessarily a conservative tendency: we all share it. But the case in point is that of Ohio Senator Rob Portman who has recently come out in defense of gay marriage — after discovering that his son is gay. Matthew Yglesias notes that Sarah Palin also embraced the cause of disabled children because she happens to have one. In sports Ernie Els the golfer promotes aid for autism because he has an autistic son and Phil Mickelson began to raise money for cancer research after his wife came down with the dreaded disease. Congress and the wealthy who support this Congress ignore the plight of the poor because as Yglesias says “Congress does not have poor children.” In a word: when it is about us we take notice. Otherwise, it’s not MY problem!

In this regard, I read on Yahoo News about the terrible drought affecting Somalia where we are told that:

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Global warming may have contributed to low rain levels in Somalia in 2011 where tens of thousands died in a famine, research by British climate scientists suggests.

Scientists with Britain’s weather service studied weather patterns in East Africa in 2010 and 2011 and found that yearly precipitation known as the short rains failed in late 2010 because of the natural effects of the weather pattern La Nina.

But the lack of the long rains in early 2011 was an effect of “the systematic warming due to influence on greenhouse gas concentrations,” said Peter Scott of Britain’s Met Office, speaking to The Associated Press in a phone interview.

People are dying in that part of the world, but it isn’t us and therefore we really don’t care. And those deaths can almost certainly be connected to global warming. So many people in our part of the world, including the president and many of those in Congress,  go about their business denying the obvious and embracing fossil fuels as the solution to all of our energy problems and will continue to do so until the drought that is also affecting large portions of this country starts to drive the food prices upwards and makes some foods unaffordable or even unavailable to us. When it is about us we will start to pay attention.

We thus have a complex moral issue here. To begin with there is the convenient attitude that ignores the plight of those in need until someone close to us suddenly becomes one of those in need. Closely related is the moral failure to make ourselves aware of human suffering that requires our attention. Jean Paul Sartre insisted that we are defined by our freedom and since freedom implies responsibility that implies a moral responsibility for everything that happens anywhere on the planet. If we are not aware of a problem, we have a responsibility to find out. While this may seem a bit extreme, he makes an interesting point. And many of these problems are so severe we must make an effort to continue to ignore them, though our electronic devices are a big help in keeping our attention elsewhere (how many “likes” do I have??). Some of the problems we ignore are right next door. Or in the air and water around us.

We are clearly caught up in love of self and the determination to deal only with those problems that affect us directly, forgetting that we are part of a human community and as such have obligations to all who suffer, obligations which require — at the very least — that we not ignore the plight of others.  The moral imperative that seems to weaken as time rolls on is the one that directs us to take action to prevent evil whenever and wherever we see it and also demands that we take notice even when it doesn’t happen to affect us directly. Awareness of a problem coupled with the ability to address it, if not remedy it, implies a responsibility to act. It all begins by opening our eyes to what is going on around us.  Our active concern shouldn’t have to wait until the problem is in our back yard.