The Morality of Selective Context in Resource ConsumptionIn an increasingly interconnected world, we can no longer make decisions as if we are an island.
Bruce Burk6 min
The Morality of Selective Context in Resource Consumption

Everyday people make decisions about how to spend their time, their resources, what to eat, and how to best take care of their families. These decisions are made based on societal norms, necessity, and information. One of those norms is that of an individualist self-preservation mechanism. The average man takes care of himself, his wife, his kids and his blood relatives with the understanding that he is not responsible for other people; that they will or should take care of themselves. In the alternative, the government or other private entities will help those in need. In other words, the man builds barriers around him and others and limits the context of his responsibility to certain things or certain people. As previously mentioned, the man has numerous justifications for limiting the scope of his responsibility. But are they valid? Are they justified or are the things he relies upon in limiting the scope of his responsibility based on traditional notions that have become outdated?

Consider, if you will, a man who lives alone in a house in the middle of the woods. Let's call him Tom. Everyday he makes himself a lasagna which he cuts into small pieces and eats them. He can justify this because he has no dependents and lives in a remote area where there is no one else. The next day Tom makes another lasagna but this time, a homeless man shows up starving at his door. Now, Tom should give some of the lasagna to the homeless man because of the exigent circumstances of his starving and the fact that he has plenty more. As a general notion, most people would agree that if you have food you should always help someone who is starving. But humans are a visual creatures and we tend to only care about problems when they are right at their doorstep.

Let's change the facts a little. Lets say that instead of the homeless man coming to his door, the homeless man is a mile away and still starving. A note is delivered to the man when he makes the lasagna that the man is starving and he is a mile away. Now, Tom's proximity to the starving man makes his possible duty seem weaker. Must he really drive a mile to save the starving mans life? Perhaps Tom could think about this in one of two ways. First, he has no relationship to the homeless man and thus why would he have some sort of duty to him. Second, in regards to proximity, perhaps Tom would subconsciously create a theoretical circle of a certain diameter around his house. If the man is within that circle, then he feels obligated to help him. If he does not, then he assumes he does not have a duty because someone else, the state, or some other entity will help him. It is this knowledge of a person with need that I want to explore. Tom has been given notice that there is someone else who is in greater need of his resources than he is. Whether Tom is a religious man, and regardless of Good Samaritan laws, it is undebatable that in this case the man has a moral duty to save the starving man, everything else equal.

Let's change the facts yet again. Lets suppose now that Tom has two kids, Andy and Mary. Tom, as always makes a lasagna and this time he cuts it into three equal sections, one for him, one for Mary and one for Andy. They sit down to eat and they hear a knock on the door. Tom is informed that there is a starving man that is starving a mile away. Assume further that the amounts of lasagna are just enough for them to have dinner and if they do not all eat they will go hungry for a day. It was easy for Tom to be generous when the pie was bigger, but now that it is not, his sense of duty may wain. If Tom is of the highest quality of moral man, he would likely not take food from the mouths of his children and split his portion of the lasagna with the homeless man.

Let's change the facts again. This time, what if the man gets a letter in his mailbox once a day. Thirty percent of the time there will be a note that there is a starving man nearby. Does he have a duty to check the mailbox before he cuts the lasagna? Here, the detached nature of the information is so great, it is just a chance that he will be informed of a starving man and this could cause him to just choose to check the mailbox after eating or not at all. At some point, he may grow tired of receiving so many notes and isolate himself from them so he can carry on with his life. No one is there to check on him. Is it really that harmful for him to draw that circle around his children and himself and say to himself that he has to look out for his own? After all, he can't feed the world. Inability to feed all the starving man is one thing. But the selective ignorance of the need for them is the real issue. If he were to ignore the notes that would be really wrong. It is important for him to check the letters because he needs to know all the information necessary to adequately spend his resources.

Now to change things one more time, what happens if Tom looks into the mirror and he looks like you? What information do you use when you decide how spend resources that belong to you? Maybe you do not get letters in the mail like Tom does, but you are aware of needs in your community. Do you check them before you make decisions regarding how to spend your money, what to eat, where to go or do you consider yourself an island - just using resources with regard to your own narrow needs? The truth is, we have information flying in our faces everyday about people with needs and for a long time, we have ignored them. Even as early as fifty years ago, the average person was not really aware of global events, especially in the real-time way that we do now. The justifications for our selfishness are reinforced by the economic paradigm that we have. But this does not dismiss our moral duty to take care of others. The lines we draw between ourselves and others are arbitrary. The truth is we are all one big human family and should have more empathy toward our fellow man.

The last change in the facts I would have you do, is to do it on the level of country. What if Tom was a country, constantly making decisions about how spend resources? Does he account for the needs of other countries before he consumes, or does he only care about the needs of a group within a circle that he draws - perhaps the circle would be drawn by things such as nationality, race, religion, or ideology. But Tom knows that this line drawing is arbitrary and just a form of institutional selfishness. Maybe the context and the knowledge we use in making decisions about how to spend our time, energy, and resources should be broadened and we should account for the needs of those who have less. Does it really matter if they are far away? On the other side of the world? The whole world is Tom's house. The letters coming about starving men are overflowing everyday. The context by which we make decisions must change based on the realization that we are all in this together. If one of us is hungry, we are all hungry. 

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