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Ethics: Emergencies and Obligations - Part 1 - Inappropriate Universalization

The Indian Ocean tsunami has lead to an enormous and worldwide outpouring of generosity. People desire to "do the right thing" — but what is the "right thing", and how do you know? What should you do personally? What should people do as groups? It is worthwhile to step back and examine the ethical fundamentals of emergencies and obligations.

There is an unfortunate tendency in politics. I do not know if there is a formal term for this, but I would describe it as inappropriate universalization. When one person makes an ethical conclusion, it is common for them to expect others to make the same conclusion. Those other people might not share that conclusion, and if they're vocal about their disagreement, it's very easy for tension and emotion to flare.

For example, if Alice donates to tsunami relief but Bob does not, Alice may feel holier-than-thou and look upon Bob with scorn. This reaction can be automatic, even if there isn't a genuine ethical disagreement — perhaps Bob desired to donate, but could not afford it because his wife was ill and the treatments were expensive. If Alice knew this, her scorn would evaporate and quite rightly be replaced with embarrassment. Why does this occur? Alice recognizes that in this instance, Bob's ethical system was congruent with hers, but due to circumstances one of Bob's most important values was in peril, and this outweighs considerations of the tsunami.

People do not value all things equally. The value of one's spouse is much higher than the value of helping an anonymous person. People apply their resources (including financial resources) in the pursuit and maintenance of their values according to how strongly they value those various things. If a person has few resources, they will pursue things of greater value but will be unable to pursue things of lesser value.

This example is not controversial. In this case, the ordering of values and matching of resources to values is recognized and accepted and ordinary.

The problem of inappropriate universalization enters because people think — for whatever reason — that other people are like themselves, or ought to be like themselves. "I've concluded that I should donate to tsunami relief" becomes "everyone should donate to tsunami relief." In politics, this is the justification for public funds to be used for tsunami relief. Alice would be embarrassed to make this demand of Bob in person and understanding Bob's circumstances, but making the demand of the general faceless public can be and is made with an air of moral superiority.

Inappropriate universalization also occurs on another level. In the above example, the error was in assuming that others' resources were similar to one's own. The other level of error is in assuming that others' values are similar to one's own. Attainment of a value requires both that the object actually be considered a value, and resources sufficient to get it. If a person's values are different, they may pursue different things than you would, even if they are not constrained by resources.

Here the temptation to moralize is strongest. Not contributing to tsunami relief because you don't have the money is one thing, but not contributing because you don't think it's important is vicious! and evil! and you're a bad person! Step back a minute. Why should everyone have the same values?

Ethical philosophers have grappled with the issue of creating moral codes for thousands of years and have yet to come anywhere near a consensus. Indeed, some schools of thought have concluded that there is no single correct universalizable moral system. And those systems that are put forth as objective and universalizable provide principles and guidance, but not thoroughly detailed rules. Nonphilosophers in particular should avoid the trap of thinking they've got everything figured out and that everyone's values should be just like their own. Ethics is hard. People will differ. Not everyone who disagrees is an evil heartless monster. Ask them how they arrived at their values and they might surprise you with a sophisticated and reasonable argument (even if you ultimately don't agree).

In politics, this form of inappropriate universalization leads to the value systems of particular people (or groups) being codified into law, forcing those who disagree to submit. To put it mildly, this is arrogant.

To concretize this, let's say Alice believes tsunami relief is important in order to lessen the impact of sudden devastation. Bob may believe the number of individual lives saved is more important than the circumstances that created the need, and therefore prefers to fund efforts for the relief of slow, steady killers like malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS whose death toll is much greater. If Alice and Bob talked about their preferences, in person, it is very likely that they would talk amicably and agree that each should contribute to the cause they consider more important. They wouldn't seek to steal the other's money for one's favored cause. But in politics, the arrogance of inappropriate universalization will lead to one cause to be funded over the other. Alice and Bob wouldn't do that to each other in person. (It's certainly no solution to say that government should fund both; that requires more resources and puts us back in the original example of taking resources from someone who has more urgent uses for them.)


This is a reasonable point to pause. I'll continue to post on this subject (this was titled "part one") over the next several days. If this has stirred anything in your mind that you'd like me to say more about, write me and I'll try to incorporate it in the subsequent posts.

Tiny Island