Sunday, October 05, 2014

Choices V: Good Arguments

In this blog I have been trying to provide a sound ethical basis for humane decision making. I won't review all the arguments I have been making because you can easily look back on this blog and I provide a brief summary in my last entry. What I want to say is that I have been trying to suggest that many of the reasons people use for *not* making humane decisions just don't hold up to ethical or empirical, for that matter, analysis. One might not be a humanist but in that case ... well ... that is another problem. But, if you find yourself quickly saying "well, I don't want to be a humanist, then, if I have to make humane decisions ..." you might want to think again and about the company you keep.

Most people, I think, want to be considered humane.  They make wrong decisions -- that is decisions that are not really humane -- because they make mistakes. They logic and ethics are faulty; not their intentions. After all, we laud humanism in our culture all the time. We congratulate those who make big donations to charities, applaud those who coach the minor sports team or run the youth group, admire those who work in soup kitchens. In other words, most people both admire humanism and want to be considered humanistic (sports figures start charities, political leaders join international relief efforts, celebrities have their causes).  If you don't want to be humanistic, pause and consider those ideologies that are not. Fascism and Soviet Communism spring to mind. Part of the reason I am writing this series of blogs is not simply to propagate my perspective but because I believe my perspective is widely shared but runs into problems because people don't think through the decisions that they are making and so end up making the wrong ones.

To close off this line of argument, let me suggest, too, that my arguments are not saying "we should all be soft bleeding-heart liberals." I am not even certain what that means, but I am not trying to say that one needs to help everyone who asks. There are good reasons -- as I said in my last entry -- to not help someone. For instance, we don't have to crowd fund a new TV for someone who is filthy rich. They can afford the new TV themselves. So, to close off, let me suggest some other things we might want to bear in mind as we make decisions.

First, context is important (filthy rich-TV example above). You might give your lunch to a homeless person and that is the right decision because (a) you can afford another lunch and (b) they cannot. But, you are not bound to give your lunch to anyone who walks up to you and asks for it.

Second, we do need to prioritize. I rejected the slippery slope argument in my last entry but I should expand upon it. The argument "because I cannot help everyone, I should help no one" is an ethical a fallacy for the reasons I enumerated in my last entry but that does not mean that we cannot establish priorities. Those priorities should, I would argue, relate (a) to our abilities and (b) to needs.

Abilities: I can help more people than my students. Hence, I should because I have more ability to do so. You could look at the matter this way: should we raise money for new hospital equipment from the poorest members of society? I'd answer yes, but I would then quickly add that the richer members of society should contribute more because they have the ability to do so. Abilities need not just be money. It could be time. Years ago, when I was on a previous sabbatical, my church asked if I could help someone. It required several afternoons working around their house  because they were ill and could not get the normal things done that they wanted to get done. I complained about this: who are these people wasting my sabbatical. But, they were not. They knew I had more time -- or, what I might call more flexible time -- and so called on me. I would not have made sense to call on my wife who was in her work in the afternoons.  She could not come. I could.

Abilities can also involve skills. As much as many of us might hate to admit this, there are simply things we cannot do. The person I was helping on my last sabbatical eventually got to a point where they were asking me to do things I could not do, or could do only if I took a great deal of time to do them. I soldiered through for one afternoon but told the secretary at the church ... you should get another person (I had an example) because they can do this quickly. What times me several hours, will take them 15 minutes. Abilities should not be used as an excuse to not do something ("oh, I am no good at cooking and so I waited for my wife/husband to come home from work and cook me supper even though they worked ten hours and I was watching TV"), but it is an important consideration. If a decision involves you doing something you cannot do or would just make worse ... that is something you should bear in mind. I can coach certain sports, but not others, for example. Thus, I have coached those sports I could and not those about which I know nothing.

Needs: I don't in any way mean to sound neo-con here. I know that the opponents of the welfare state frequently underestimate the level of need in society and I am not trying to do that. What I am saying is that we might have to prioritize and that there is nothing wrong with that. Let me use some examples I've previously used to illustrate this point. My house needs repairs: the roof and plumbing. I only have so much money. I might, therefore, start with my roof (because without it ... nothing else much matters for my house) and then, after I have saved more money, I address my plumbing. I have two cars that need repairs. I get one repaired while I save money for the other recognizing that this might mean I need to drive family members around some evenings because we only have one car and they each have things they do at night to which they need a drive.

In assessing needs we don't want to become prisoners of fad. Some charities, I am sure you have noticed, jump into the spotlight. There might be good reasons to disregard some of these charities (particularly if you have not checked them out). The latest fad is not the most pressing need.

Third, don't lose track of the human being. In other words, don't use shaky ethical foundations to allow you to avoid doing something good for someone. It is those ethics that I've tried to look at and illustrate their fallacies in the last several entries. Think about how you would like someone to treat you. Sometimes people say to me "I don't want to do X but I don't want to feel guilty." No one does, but if you feel guilty, about something you might want to think about why. In other words, if you are asked to do something and you say "no" and you feel bad about saying no, reconsider, using sound ethics. You might still end up saying "no" but you likely will not feel guilty. If you feel guilty all the time about everything ... well ... that is something about which we should talk. But, if you feel guilty when someone has a request of you and you've turned them down, that just might be a sign that you are, in fact, doing the wrong thing and some part of you knows it (hence, the guilt).

Fourth, think about what you would tell your children. Would you say "it is good to be greedy," "yes, fighting is fine as long as you win," or "I break the law when I know I won't be caught so you should do the same."

Finally, remember that most of the things we do where decisions are needed are collective actions. You are not being asked, for instance, to solve world hunger by yourself so don't pretend that you are to avoid contributing to the local food bank. You are not being asked to run the new school library by yourself so don't use that as a rationale to *not* contribute some books to it. Because we do things collectively, we can also call on others to help us out. Let me return to the Bob and Mary example I used in my previous entry. Bob and Mary are both hungry and need good. You only have enough food for one person. Do you spend your time trying to figure out to whom you should give the food or do you call a friend and ask "got any extra food?" Most of us do the former whereas we should do the latter. The fact that you need to make decisions does not mean that the decision you make cannot or should not include efforts to change others minds to get them making the right decision. The fiver you book in the kids hospital charity rubber boot (at least it is a rubber boot at Mont A) does not solve children's health problems but a whole bunch of loose change from a whole bunch of other people does.

To conclude: the decisions we make, make a different to other people. Rather than just making them, we should make them in an intentional way and with sound ethics. If we start making better decisions, our society will be better. And, surely that should be our goal.
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