ON MORAL URGENCY COMPARISONS

Wherever and whenever one group of people is doing better than another, there’s going to be resentment. The Europeans shipped slaves from Africa to the Americas to cut cane and pick cotton. A mere century and a half later, should we be surprised that we’re not entirely just one big happy family?

The British invited people from one part of their Empire to another to run businesses there. They flourished in much the way the native East Africans didn’t. And so a century later Idi Amin expelled them from Uganda.

Sri Lanka has only recently emerged from a decades-long civil war. But Christians there, by virtue of being Christians, have had support from outside the country, and so have economically dominated the Sinhalese, Tamil, and Moslem populations alike. Hence the recent spate of church bombings.

We’re shocked, we don’t get it, because we’re privy only to our own internal squabbles. Brown people resent white people, we grant, but surely not each other.

Wrong. Resentment knows no colour barrier. Carving the world up by skin colour is essential only for the cosmetic industry. For the rest of us colour and coalition cut only orthogonally.

The social justice warrior would do well to keep this in mind. Every time she seeks to ameliorate the disadvantage of one group she exacerbates that of another. Here’s a white man, a black woman, and a white man in a wheel chair. Hire the black woman and you leave the man in the wheel chair still waiting. Whose disadvantage commands the greater moral urgency?

Interpersonal utility comparisons have always been the Achilles heel of utilitarianism. But the social justice warrior avoids the problem of interpersonal moral urgency comparisons by rightly putting on blinders to everything peripheral to her particular cause. Why rightly? Because otherwise she’d be frozen in stasis. She could do nothing. None of us could. So strange as it may seem, a healthy dose of moral myopia is a prerequisite to making the world a better place. That the man in the wheel chair has to wait yet again is no reason to just go ahead and hire the ambulatory white man.

And what’s just been said about warring for social justice can be said a fortiori about saving the world from which pending disaster should be our top priority. What’s going to get us first? Will it be global warming, nuclear proliferation, or falling below herd immunity? And who’s this ‘us’? Certainly not the woman whose lungs are filling up with salt water because her fare on that dinghy from Tripoli to LampEdusa didn’t cover the cost of a lifejacket.

That something is morally urgent is not a well-formed-formula. It requires both a for-whom and a more-than-what. For some people, because they’re trans, topping the chart is which bathroom they can use. For me it’s whether I’ll be able to do anything there. For some people it’s who was the second gunman on the grassy knoll. For others it’s who killed JR. For some people it’s whether it was Mossad or the Americans themselves who framed nineteen innocent young Moslems for 9/11. For others it’s whether the Holy Spirit proceedeth from the Father and the Son (in Latin filioque) or from the Father alone. For neither of them does global warming even make it into the top twenty.

Are there facts-of-the-matter to be discovered here? Maybe not about JR and the filioque, but the others? Certainly. Is there a fact-of-the-matter about the discovery of which of these facts-of-the-matter is the most morally urgent? Not one that’s independent of these indexicals.

Is there some way one of us can convince the other to reorder her moral priorities? One would certainly hope so. Otherwise we’d all still be fixated on where our favorite song is sitting on the top forty charts. But is there some way one of us can convince the other to reorder her epistemic priorities? That is, is there some way she can learn enough about each of these issues to responsibly order her moral priorities? No there is not.

And so we’re left with the radical contingency of whose concerns get to us first. We don’t know why what matters to us matters to us, other than that it does. But so what? Why do you love the child that happens to be yours rather than the one that happens to be mine? Is there anything more lovable about the one over the other? Some people are happy to be told “Jesus loves you.” They probably wouldn’t be so happy if they were told why. So they don’t ask. And so neither should you.

It’s not a why, it’s a who. Who are you? You’re the person who loves that child. You’re the person who deems this your most urgent moral issue. But here’s the kicker. You and I will get along just fine once you understand that I’m someone else.

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