I trust it will be granted that there are things that matter to no one, that there’s nothing that matters to everyone, and that there are things that matter to some people but not to others. What may not be so readily granted is that there are things that shouldn’t matter to anyone, or things that should matter to everyone, or things that should matter to those to whom as a matter of fact they don’t.
For example, some people think that what Satan wants shouldn’t matter to any of us, whereas what God wants out of His creation should matter to all of us. The latter and I are like ships passing in the night. Whenever I’ve asked them why it should matter to me what God wants out of us, all I get is that, “Well, because He created us.” Obviously what I don’t get is the connection between the explanans and explanandum. And obviously what they don’t get is why I don’t get it. At points like this the Serenity Prayer counsels us to just walk away.
But that’s not so easy when one’s interlocutors have an answer to why we should care about what they’d have us care about. Notwithstanding that I don’t, why should I care about anthropogenic climate change? Because even if, touch wood, I’m too old to be affected by it, future generations will be. And only a philosopher pretending to be a total psychopath would say he doesn’t care about future generations.
Okay, so I do care about anthropogenic climate change. But only in the sense that I care about nuclear warfare. It may or may not happen. There’s nothing I can do about it. So put it on the back burner and think about what’s in the fridge for lunch.
But these proselytizers won’t let it go at that. They want me to treat it like a planet-killer asteroid just twenty minutes from impact. All right, I tell them, but first I have to pee. The end of the world may have more cosmic import than my having to pee, but even if it’s only twenty minutes away, it’s still not as urgent as my having to pee. I have to pee now, dammit! And if I had to pee twenty minutes from now as desperately as I have to pee now, then I guess I’m just going to meet my Maker with my schlong hanging out.
But putting the question of urgency aside, there are far too many things I should care about for me to care about all of them. So I have to prioritize. And this is where a little live and let live wouldn’t go amiss. You care about anthropogenic climate change and I’ll care about Guantanamo Bay. Deal?
Of course when I say “care about” I don’t mean “take care of”. Neither of us is in any position to take care of what we care about. We’re just going to care about it, not unlike, according to the medieval theologian, God is sustaining the world by holding it in His consciousness. Well, thank you, God, for that. And thank you, Tom and Dick and Harry – not their real names – and all the rest of you. Thanks for caring. And at your rallies – not to mention the save-the-world conferences you fly to in places like San Francisco but never Cleveland – thanks for showing up. And I’d like to stay and chat about anthropogenic climate change. Really I would. But you’ll forgive me, I hope, if I have to run. I think I have to pee.
Well, I guess I’m no better. Would that I could just let it go at that. But I can’t. I can’t because two hours down the coast from our summer digs in south Italy, at this very minute lungs are filling up with salt water. And they’re filling up by the thousands! In fact this will be the seventh year in a row that they’re filling up by the thousands. And those who do make it to Lampedusa have little more to look forward to than an indefinite sentence in a tent city by the tracks in Ventimiglia or in the ‘Jungle’ just outside Calais.
A friend of ours, when asked rhetorically whether anthropogenic climate change should be for those whose lungs are filling up with salt water the most urgent problem facing their world, she answered, “Yes, even for them!” To be fair, she said this in the heat of debate. But there are people who actually believe this shite. It’s global warming, they say, that’s driving these desperate people into those dinghies. Not, apparently, tyranny, nor civil war, nor the absence of the fossil fuels required to manufacture and run a modern agricultural infrastructure. It’s anthropocentric climate change, without which all of Africa, the Middle East, and south Asia would be as until recently it was, the Garden of Eden God intended.
All right, I’ve taken my shots. So time to cut and run. But I can’t. I can’t because much as my own moral intuitions tell me that Tom and Dick and Harry – and oh yes, now Jane – have the moral maturity of five year olds, I’m unsure that I can defend that intuition. Other than the vagaries of one’s personal exposure to some of the atrocities of human life, is there a principled way one can lexically order the moral demands being made on us, be they on our pocketbooks or even just our epiphenomenal caring?
Some people crusade against capital punishment, notwithstanding that more die in the crossing from Tripoli to Lampadusa in a day than by lethal injection in America in a decade. Some worry about a sarin gas attack in Syria that killed a dozen, notwithstanding that even a localized nuclear war would incinerate millions. So is it the numbers game we should be playing, like kids playing War with a split deck of cards?
I have a colleague who’s been suspended for exercising his academic freedom, and many of us are fighting to have him reinstated, notwithstanding he’s continuing to draw a six-figure salary, while in Turkey hundreds of thousands of civil servants have been sacked on suspicion of being less than fully sympathetic to the Erdogan regime. Women in Afghanistan are still chattel, but Canadians were obsessed by the Jian Ghomeshi trial. Should we have given the Ghomeshi affair a pass and railed instead about the Afghan women, or does Think Globally Act Locally have a say here?
Some people think that since ought implies can, likewise does concern. We should concern ourselves with what we can do something about. Otherwise we’re just hobbying. But that’s obviously too restrictive. We need to rehearse what we would do if we could do it in the event that some day we can do it, even if that day may or may not be over the horizon. Human beings anticipate, and make plans accordingly. Crossing that bridge when we come to it saves on mental resources, but it hasn’t always served us well.
So say I – and I suppose this is all that can be said – let each of us tend to his own moral garden. I’m out of line carping at Tom and Dick and Harry and Jane for being oblivious to what’s happening two hours down the coast from me. But then again, they’re out of line for carping at me for not tending to their garden. I understand that Jane just got carried away. But I can’t say the same of Tom and Dick and Harry. They should know better. One’s passion is no more license today for them than it was five hundred years ago for Torquemada.