Thursday, September 01, 2005


Suffering strangers

All of us who can, ought to give. All of us who can, ought to give.

In the late 1980s, as part of a now famous historiographical debate about the rise of the antislavery movement, historian Thomas Haskell argued that our ideas about moral responsibility are tied up with our conventional ideas about causation. Haskell pointed out that "ought" implies "can," but that our ideas about what we "can" do are contingent and conventional. To illustrate his point, Haskell used what he called "the case of the starving stranger." All of us know that at this very moment, there are people in distant--and not so distant--parts of our world who are literally starving. We also know that we could get on an airplane, fly to these starving strangers, and save their lives with only a fraction of the food that molds and sours in our cupboards and refigerators. Should we do this?

Answering that question, said Haskell, would depend on our understandings about what we reasonably can do. If the starving stranger were across the street, rather than across an ocean, that would naturally seem to raise my moral culpability for his death, if I allow him to go on without food. And our sense of moral responsibility for the starving stranger in Africa is probably higher than it used to be, Haskell argued, for abolitionists. At least in their case, going to the stranger's aid was more onerous than boarding an airplane. Surely we now can do more, and so surely we feel that we ought to do more. But this suggests, according to Haskell, that "new technology," which he defines as any instrumental means for accomplishing ends, "can change the moral universe in which we live. Technological innovation can perform this startling feat, because it supplies us with new ways of acting at a distance and new ways of influencing future events and thereby imposes on us new occasions for the attribution of responsibility and guilt."

Writing in 1987, before the World Wide Web, Haskell mused about some "as yet uninvented technology, far more advanced than the airplane, that will enable us to save the starving stranger with minimal expenditure of time and energy, no disruption of our ordinary routine. If we could save him by just reaching out to press a button, then a failure to act would become indefensible."

Here's a button. Why not press it?

Haskell went on to argue that the rise of humanitarian sentiment that accompanied the antislavery movement was spurred on partly by changes in technology--not just new machines or methods of transportation, but new social mechanisms, like expansive overseas trade and imperial apparatuses, that made suffering strangers seem closer to Europeans than before.

As a specific explanation of abolitionism, Haskell's argument (which I've grossly simplified here) can be faulted. But the basic premise--that our sense about what we are capable of affects our sense about what we are culpable for, and vice versa--is difficult to dispute. And undoubtedly, we can do more today to help distant, suffering strangers, without even getting up from our chairs or opening a new browser window, than previous generations could. So we ought to do at least some of what we can. Sure, you can point out that your dollars might not go directly to the person you just saw on CNN, that waste or greed or ineptitude might waylay your alms. But are we really prepared to argue that this absolves us of giving, considering how little twenty dollars costs us compared to how much it could do? (If you are prepared to argue that, read this and get back to me.)

The weight of these arguments all bear heavily on my mind and heart. But there's another side of Haskell's argument about the ability of technology to change our "moral universe." The fact is that the same technology that shrinks that moral universe, and makes it possible for us to do more, literally at the click of a button, also makes us more aware of all the suffering strangers there are to help. So much suffering in so many places at the same time. So much suffering. So much suffering. So much suffering. The technology that makes it possible for us to care for more distant strangers does not necessarily leave us feeling empowered; it can, at the same time, make us feel more powerless.

That was true for the abolitionists as well, who were seized with moments of doubt all the time. On the one hand, they sensed they could do more than generations before them, as steamships began to cross the Atlantic, as public opinion became first a national and then international force to be reckoned with, as lines of communication became freer and faster.

But they too wondered whether all of this really meant they could do more. As the Boston abolitionist Wendell Phillips wrote to a British friend in 1842, "When you think of all the oppressions that are done under the sun from the Emperor Nicholas with 14 million serfs to the domestic [servant] in the outer room under an (equally?) false social system, does it ever seem [to be] idle to attempt laboring to leave the world better than we found it?" In another letter written the same day, Phillips expanded the point: was not "the work ... greater than what we can attempt, & so hopeless"?

"New technology" may have impacted the abolitionists' "moral universe," but it brought with it as many questions as emphatic answers. Abolitionists like Phillips often answered those questions with religious hopes. The important point is that they did not give up hope. They too struggled with the overwhelming sense that there were millions of starving strangers, seemingly within reach and yet constantly proliferating just out of their reach, like the detritus of the past that Walter Benjamin imagined always receding beyond the wingtips of the Angel of History. Yet in so many cases, they were not overwhelmed. Technology did not make it a cinch to save the starving stranger; the old question of "what can I do" remained, as persistent as ever. But so many of them persisted too.

I don't mean to make the abolitionists out to be angelic heroes. On the contrary, what moves me about letters like Phillips' is the palpable message that abolitionists were human--flawed, limited humans who sensed their limitation, who wrestled with "ought" and "can" just like we continue do, even in an age of one-button technology.

All of us who can, ought to give.

* * *

The famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison welcomed new technologies like the steamship, mostly for its potential to draw the moral universe closer together, but also because he never found his sea legs. The faster he could cross the Atlantic, the better, because the longer it took, the more time he usually spent leaning over the side of his ship. The ocean was simply not Garrison's friend. “Though I am fond of agitation,” he punned to a friend after crossing the ocean in 1846, “it does not run in that line.”

Garrison was also fond of quoting the biblical prophecy that in a new heaven and a new earth, there would be "no more sea." Partly this was a matter of "personal accommodation," Garrison often joked, given his dislike of seafaring. But that prophecy was also part of his hope that one day, the distance between human beings, with all the pain that attended it, would be obliterated. For Garrison and other reformers like him, to hope that the sea would be no more was to hope that there would be no more suffering, and no such thing as a stranger. Dear God please, no more sea.

Collective Improvisation:
Beautiful, Caleb. I'll be sending this out to my grad student listserv. 

Posted by Evan

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 9/03/2005 01:58:00 AM : Permalink  

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