A few weeks ago, I was on break with a fellow co-worker. He brought up the subject of politics, a subject I tend to stay away from in polite discussion. However, he wanted to present his philosophy to me. Simply put, he stated that he doesn’t feel any need to criticize the current political establishment, as “they’ve done nothing” to him. He’s well off, doing well, so why should he complain if others are impacted?
But let’s digest his ideas, and not from some agenda ridden emotional reaction. Let’s really dig into these views. Before getting too deep into this, I would like to clear the air. I’m not going to focus on any political or administrative issues. I’m going to assume there is some policy that adversely affects someone, and the question is, “why should I care about people I know are adversely affected by X, if it doesn’t affect me? When it affects me, then I’ll care.”
My co-worker’s view is honest. He’s not hiding anything here. He simply doesn’t know why he should care about the issues and plights of others.
The question as to, “why should I care about others,” is a challenging one as this is a social construct that we are taught from an early age. Either in religious institutions, or in educational organizations, we are taught to share and help others. Evidently this was not impressed upon my friend. Is there a logical reason he should care?
It Will Happen To You
One argument might be in regards to one’s own selfish interest, we often hear this argument as the classic quote, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” 1
This argument proposes that if one stands by while harm is done to one group of people, ultimately that harm will come around full circle to us, and by then no one will be left to help us in our time of need.
The Stress of Non-Involvement
Some have said that negative events that we witness are registered within us. If we choose to not get involved, then our inaction is internalized and a stress develops. The idea here is that we have some internal moral or ethical compass, and by ignoring it, we suffer.
For such individuals, the very witnessing of an act demands one’s involvement. Otherwise the lack of involvement creates a guilt that sits in the subconscious mind, eating away at at us… “why didn’t I help?”
The Golden Rule
Similar to Niemöller’s quote, we have this idea that all of us share something in common. We all have a humanity at our core. If we wouldn’t want something negative to impact our life, shouldn’t we strive to make sure another isn’t equally impacted?
For some, they may say, “the situation here is a product of the person’s actions. I say let them take the penalty.” This might be an argument in regards to illegal immigration, or people harmed by gang violence.
Yet I wonder what such a person would feel if in their 90’s, with little income, they are forced to hire an illegal immigrant to take care of their elderly needs.
This idea of the golden rule implies imagination. For this to work, we must be able to imagine a case where we might be in a situation similar to others. This is hard if someone’s view is hardened already. If hardened, they may not be able to open up to the idea of helping someone else, especially if they consider the other person’s plight as something they brought upon themselves.
Buddhist philosophy employs an idea early on, of helping others out of enlightened self-interest. This concept is based on the Buddhist views of karma (what you sow, is what you reap.). From this perspective, if one wished to get out of their own financial prison, they would do so by giving away the money they have, to those less fortunate.
Out of self interest, one helps others, which in turn seeds the result of future gain. Other beliefs have similar ideas, that in expressing something into the world, it enables their greater good.
Obviously this is a belief, and one may not share in this belief.
What constants does one believe in? What about ideas like Liberty, Freedom, Personal Responsibility? I happen to know that my co-worker values those ideals greatly.
Such a person, who believes in those values (as they apply to themselves), could perhaps recognize that those values are not personal. These values are objective concepts. They exist as their own nature, not determined to exist only to one segment of society.
Therefore, if one values Freedom, and an issue of the freedom of others is being infringed upon, then the concern should be valid. Even if one doesn’t have a connection to such people, the idea of freedom as an ethical constant, should guide a decision to help actualize freedom for someone else.
Concept of Self
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”2
Examining the idea of self is of paramount importance. One person may have the life experience that the “self,” is simply their body. Another might believe it is the consciousness that resides out of body.
By approaching life situations with different ideas of who they are, their choices will drastically differ.
For example: my life experiences have shown me that I am not the body. If I’m something greater and more expansive, then my true existence connects with the true existence of other beings. From this vantage point, I am connected to everyone else. Just as I would care about my child suffering, I might care about someone else’s child (whom I don’t know on a mundane level) suffering.
One example related to this, is that of the Church of Satan, vs. the offshoot organization, the Temple of Set. The founder of the Church of Satan (Anton LaVey) wrote a doctrine that could be characterized as social darwinistic. It exemplified self interest, to the degree of one’s physical self and those a person chooses to accept as loved ones. An example of this, is his 4th Satanic Statement:
“Satan represents kindness to those who deserve it instead of love wasted on ingrates!”3
This quote doesn’t outright embody selfishness, but it does remove the idea of helping others who don’t deserve it. That “deserve it,” concept is a variable dependent upon the individual. Should you care about those in Flint Michigan without clean drinking water? In this ideology, the answer to that question depends if one thinks the people of Flint Michigan deserve clean water.
The splinter group, Temple of Set4 had a different view entirely. Unlike LaVey (who didn’t have a view of an expanded self, or a soul), the Temple of Set believed in the individual soul. This soul had various levels, including a most expansive level.
Accepting the idea of a soul or an expansive level of self… and mixing that with the themes of Liberty, then it is logical for a Setian (a member of the Temple of Set) to care and offer assistance to those without clean drinking water in Flint Michigan.
Where the idea of Self is infinite and godlike, the reaction to others shifts accordingly. However, if one’s idea of self is finite (body identification) then one’s decisions regarding others will be determined by their ability to relate to them – or in one’s ability to determine if someone deserves help.
Why Not to Care
These ideas I’ve toyed with above, they are mostly ideologies that can’t be proven. I can’t prove to someone that karma is real, nor can I determine if one group of people is subjected then you will be similarly subjected int time. Nor can I show any evidence of gain in applying the Golden Rule. As for hidden stress of seeing people suffer (and not caring), well that might not apply to everyone.
Possibly the best argument to get involved is in ethical constants. Ideologies of Freedom, Fairness, and the like, these are important to us as they relate to us. But the ideologies were not written about me specifically (nor you, nor my co-worker.). They are generalized ideologies. If we value such ideologies, then it follows, we should care when those ideologies are at risk.
What about the arguments to not get involved?
There are some who apply the concept that the strong should survive, and the weak should perish. Often, such as these, self-identify as “the strong,” and the weak are identified as those asking for help or assistance.
I always found this ideology a bit illogical. Children are a prime example of weakness. They can’t “lift themselves up by their bootstraps,” so should we allow them to die? If we did, the we simply would incur extinction.
Bread of Shame
In some religious traditions (such as Judaism) there is an idea of shame incurred on those who receive a gift not earned. In such paradigms the individual must earn their reward, otherwise they will not respect it.
But in a case when even this factor of pleasing another is absent, and he receives a totally gratuitous handout, purely as a donation — this is “bread of shame” that does not satisfy, but distresses.– Chabad.org
In such a mindset, one might consider handouts to be detrimental. This isn’t to say, they don’t help or offer aid, but they might prefer to see someone accomplish the task on their own. Certainly welfare and social programs are contrary to this ideal. However, helping someone have the freedom to make decisions to escape their problem, would fit within this paradigm.
If I could do it…
“If I could do it, why can’t they?” A question asked from someone who feels they accomplished much in life without asking for aid. While some might argue that such a person had hidden assistance, in the form of good living conditions, or a lack of prejudice, this isn’t the case in all circumstances.
This sentiment relates to the fine self… a self of the body, which (if all things are equal) should be able to lift itself off the ground, just like they did.
A variation of this philosophy is, “well who’s going to help me?” Here we inverse this same idea, but instead of looking at ourselves as the success, this time we see ourselves miserable as well. Simply the individual is asking, “why should I help them, if no one will likewise help me?”
“On a long enough timeline, everyone’s life expectancy reaches zero.”5
The idea that either the earth won’t be around much longer, or the individual will die shortly, resonates with this ideology. Found often in religions that believe in a Second Coming or a last judgement upon the earth, such people are not really invested in helping something like climate change. This is a moot point, as the earth is going to be refactored by a deity of some sort anyway.
If a person chooses to operate at a finite sense of self (the body), then the reasons to get involved in a situation will be limited. After all, we could make arguments agains the ideas of “it will happen to you,” the stress of non-involvement, the golden rule, enlightened self interest and so on.
We could also make arguments against not caring at all. After all, if one really was a social darwinist, they’d be hard pressed to find a reason to let children live. A baby can’t feed itself, by comparison to an adult it’s weak… and hence have no requirement to continue on.
Is there a middle ground? A philosophical space where one gets involved, but also has the freedom to say “no” when pertinent?
While Social Darwinism and Buddhism are polar opposites, there are ideas mentioned above that fall in the middle.
One such ethic was that of Anton LaVey…. and no, I’m not trying to push Satanism on the reader. Simply put, it is an idea that you get involved when YOU feel the need to get involved. It’s up to the witness of the event to determine if this event is worthy of helping out or not. This still leaves my co-worker shrugging at the needs of others (those they don’t deem worthy).
Ethical constants seem to warrant another look. In this case, if we are dealing with personal freedom or liberty (such as having clean drinking water, or being allowed an education) and we have a view of an ethical constant (liberty, freedom, justice…) then involvement is quite logical.
Outside of the ethical constant, I think someone would have to really self-examine and decide who and what they are. Are they just the body? Could they be more? If so, does our actions upon the world around us, relate to who we are? Can we become greater by interacting with the world around us?