Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Indifference Revisited

- Before, when we were talking about why people are indifferent to the suffering of others,* you said that the cause was making a society in our minds and determining our and others' place in it. If someone didn't have a place in that picture there was no obligation of response. No rules, because no roles. Is that correct?
- Yes.
- Can we say now, after talking about political correctness,** that the reason this happens is the power relation that always comes with roles?
- Yes.
- Literally anything can be done with someone with no place in society. Sometimes we have one role dedicated to handling these people without roles, the so-called "forces of order." They watch them, imprison them, torture them, kill them. In the absence of rules violence is called upon. Right?
- Right.
- You know, sometimes you have nothing to say like now, other times you overwhelm me with one assertion after another and when it's all over I feel like I've been tricked. That's how I feel on the subject of indifference. I discovered that maybe the most influential philosopher of our times has based his career on saying exactly the opposite of what you do. Know who I mean?
- Peter Singer.
- Yes! He argues that because we can make a rule about what makes living things worth caring about, we ought to care about all that can play the role and satisfy that rule. Worth caring about are living things that suffer. Therefore, he argued, we ought to care about equally animals and human beings. More recently he extended the argument to near and distant human beings, claiming that distance, and particular knowledge were irrelevant to satisfying the conditions of the rule, allow to suffer or not? We ought to help all who suffer, close or near. You see what I mean? He constructs a picture of a future society, defines the society by a role all in it should play: end suffering. Many people were inspired by reading his books to become vegetarians and to dedicate a large part of their wealth to charity. But you argue this is not good, that somehow all this caring is going to lead to indifference. This because of the relation between roles, and the rules governing them, will produce destructive power relations. Show me how that works in the example of Peter Singer.
- Singer's argument is a bit tricky. He assumes that we all, if given the opportunity, would want to end each other's suffering.
- Don't you think that is true?
- I do. But, assuming that we all want to end suffering, he argues we must make choices based on calculations of who is first and who gets more of our help. First there is the assumption, we all want to help, then the calculation, we have to help some first and some more. But what if we also have, in addition to an inherent desire as individuals to end suffering, also, we when we join together to form a society, an inherent tendency to establish power relations with each on the basis of our roles?
- And we have been arguing that.
- In the case of what Singer called "animal liberation", it turns out that an unborn child, the infirm, the aged, have less claim to our concern for their suffering than healthy animals do, because they satisfy the description of role of animals: they use memory independently to make choices that determine the future. If it allows healthy animals to live some of our unborn children, sick and aged might have to die.
- Because the relation of those with roles to those without is violence.
- Yes. In the case of giving help to those near and far from us equally, it turns out that again power relations in the realms of economics and politics are in operation against those at a distance or those near but unknown.
- You're referring to Neo-liberal or colonial politics where, as in Africa, we try to control diseases and starvation with our money while at the same time our politics and business create the conditions that lead to disease and starvation.
- Yes.
- The relation of violence to those outside is expressed economically and politically while we believe we are acting universally to end suffering. I think you've convinced me this time. But that is only half the problem I have with this idea of a society defined by rules and roles being unacceptable. The other problem I have is if we don't do that, what do we do? We don't want people to be indifferent, so how do we make a society in which that is true?
- Al Farabi, one of the Arab transmitters of Greek philosophy through the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and our times, said that if we imagined god had an idea of the best society, our actual society, made in accord with that plan, would never be any more than an imitation, shadow of that world, with all the limitations and weakness of an imitation in comparison with reality. Take the Delphic prescriptions: "know yourself" and "nothing too much". They require of us we pay attention not to rules (following them leads you to extremes) but our own experience (know yourself).
- Rules that rather than define roles keep you from defining yourself in role.
- Exactly.
- Then how is society constructed? Religiously? What does that mean in practice?
- It means it is defective in not telling us what to do, is a mere shadow or imitation, but nevertheless is in accord with the truth sufficiently to warn us*** from becoming trapped in roles and indifferent to those without role. The rest is left up to individuals.

Further Reading:
Evil & The Corporate Executive
The Atrophy Of Good
** Political Correctness
*** Gypsy Kings & The Cheat Of Religion