Our Moral Obligation to Others

Our Moral Obligation to Others

The world is filled with all kinds of people.  Some are more cynical than others.  Some loved to be surrounded by other people, others like to keep to themselves.  A rare few are completely selfish, but most, including myself, find both value and pleasure in helping out others, at least from time to time.


            There’s science behind this: humans are by nature social animals.[1]  We have evolved in such a way that we are designed to help each other for the best chances of all of our survival.  We feel empathy and concern for others, and that translates into action to help where we can; when we fail to do so, our brains punish us in the form of guilt.


            But even more than that, assisting those who cannot survive on their own is, in my opinion, a hallmark of civilized society.  We have both the empathy to recognize distress in others and the capability to alleviate that distress; if we do not make moves to help our fellow man, how are we any better than animals?  A society totally devoid of moral obligation is a lawless one, and in turn, unsustainable.


Human Nature: Desire vs Empathy


            The nature of humanity is one that is constantly at odds with itself.  The reason we feel empathy and a desire to aid others is also why we act selfishly at other times: it all comes down to the DNA.[2]  When we feel first the desire to fulfill our own needs but then also the obligation to focus on the needs of others, where do we end up?


            The key is to acknowledge that our sense of a moral obligation to others is all part of the same system of self-interest.  Thanks to our genes, the drive to help other people is as much a need as eating or sleeping.[3]  The difference is simply what the act fulfills for us; while eating and sleeping fulfill physical needs, helping others fulfills an emotional one.


            To alleviate the guilt of not doing so, we undertake selfless acts--and in doing so, act in our own self-interest.  Doing good makes us feel good, and for a reason.  Again, it all comes back to genes.  Altruism is usually a selfish act, and not only is that okay, it’s a good thing!


            We are built so that doing right by our fellow man improves things for everyone.  The receiver of the gift, whether it be money, time, or something else, is literally richer for it.  The donor is happier.  Everybody wins.

How Far is Too Far?


            Without realizing it, most people--even the most Scrooge-like amongst us--commit acts of moral obligation every day.  It’s what keeps us from stealing clothes we like from a store, or from murdering our neighbors when we have a disagreement with them.  Whereas other animals will fight to death over food or mates, we have the wherewithal to know that human life is more important than petty, momentary needs and desires.


            Beyond the basics of simply not killing people just because we don’t like them, most people are also quite happy to help out friends and family--anyone with a close relationship.  We lend friends money, celebrate Mothers’ and Fathers’ Day, and generally take care of our loved ones.


            So what about everyone else?


            Do we have a moral obligation to strangers?  Is it our duty to help the sick, feed the poor, defend the weak?  I think we do, and more than that, we must.  


            There are many houses of thought as to how far that moral obligation extends.  Culture has a lot to do with it.  A 2000 study, for example, found that participants in India were more likely to consider it a duty to donate bone marrow to a dying stranger than American participants, who saw it as beyond the scope of what should be expected of them.[4]


            An examination of different world governments is a great way to demonstrate the way values shift between cultures.  According to the Declaration of Human Rights, every person has the right to food, shelter, and medicine.  Keeping in line with that, many countries in Western Europe have socialized healthcare and robust welfare programs.  In the United States, on the other hand, the idea of truly socialized healthcare is nigh unthinkable; in fact, anything related to socialism is thought of as anti-American, to make no mention of communism.


            Personally, I think we should all strive to give as much as possible to those who have less than ourselves, while also recognizing that that is an unrealistic expectation of anyone--myself included.  That’s just part of the consequence of living in a modern society that has so much focus on capital.  We hoard wealth, even when we have more than enough to spare, because what if, what if, what if?  There’s no real safety net for poverty.  I know I should leave money in the cups of the homeless, but what if I really need that dollar later?


            It’s an absurd thought, of course, but a paralyzing one all the same.  And there’s always the easy way to argue yourself out of the situation and the subsequent guilt: why should it fall on me?  After all, the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, has enough money to end world hunger five times; shouldn’t he take responsibility for this?  The reality is that although those who have more have a larger obligation to help out, everyone with any privilege should be obligated to use that privilege to benefit the most disenfranchised populations possible.


            Are there any limits to what we can do in our search to fulfill our moral obligation to others, or do the ends always justify the means?  Can I steal food from a Whole Foods (also owned by Amazon and therefore by Jeff Bezos) to feed a hungry child on my street?  Is engaging in human trafficking a moral act if it means getting refugees safely across borders?  Is following the law always the ethical choice?  These are the harder questions that we must wrangle with.


The Rule of Law


            Fulfilling moral obligations isn’t an option; it’s an absolute necessity to any form of society.  Unless you live on your own in the woods with no contact with other people, you must behave in ways that fulfill moral obligations to others, or else face immediate societal collapse.


            When we follow the law, we engage in what is known as a social contract.[5]  This is the basis of the most basic of moral obligations.  Most people don’t go around spending their days committing crimes, but legal systems exist so that those who go outside the bond of the social contract face consequences for disturbing the equilibrium.


            It’s important to note, though, that the law is not always a moral institution.  Slavery was legal once, as was the Holocaust.  The law exists to maintain social contracts, which in turn represent the current status quo, but the status quo may not be perfect.  Indeed, I would argue that our current status quo, with the high rates of poverty, hunger, and disease around the world, has much to be improved on.


The Power of the Individual


            It’s easy to blame those with more power or wealth than ourselves for the world’s ills (and to be honest, I truly do believe that with cooperation and partnership of maybe a hundred of the most powerful and wealthiest individuals around the globe, we could end the vast majority of the most pressing issues we face today--from climate change to world hunger--but that’s another conversation).  However, we cannot allow ourselves to get complacent just because we’re not all billionaires.


            You may feel like performing a moral act is just a drop in a very dirty, unjust pond, but individual actions add up together.  Affecting real change might ultimately be in the hands of the rich and powerful, but individuals acting together can create a united front that influences policy makers and generates tangible results.  Again, in the end, even this kind of work is often communal, due to the nature of how we bring about change in our modern society, but it takes an individual to start a movement.  There’s no reason that individual can’t be you.


Doing Better


            Evil exists in this world, but it doesn’t have to.  No war, no famine, no plague is inevitable.  It may take six billion people working together, but humanity has the capacity to lift itself up to unimaginable heights.  And while I acknowledge that this is an impossible ask, I also know that we are all morally obligated to try.

[1] Dautenhahn, Kerstin. “The Narrative Intelligence Hypothesis: In Search of the Transactional Format of Narratives in Humans and Other Social Animals.” Lecture Notes in Computer Science Cognitive Technology: Instruments of Mind, 2001, pp. 248–266., doi:10.1007/3-540-44617-6_25.

[2] Buck, Ross. “Communicative Genes in the Evolution of Empathy and Altruism.” Behavior Genetics, vol. 41, no. 6, 2011, pp. 876–888., doi:10.1007/s10519-011-9456-3.

[3] Kohn, Alfie. The Brighter Side of Human Nature: Altruism and Empathy in Everyday Life. Basic Books, 1990.

[4] Baron, Jonathan, and Joan G. Miller. “Limiting the Scope of Moral Obligations to Help.” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, vol. 31, no. 6, 2000, pp. 703–725., doi:10.1177/0022022100031006003.

[5] Lepard, Brian D. Rethinking Humanitarian Intervention: a Fresh Legal Approach Based on Fundamental Ethical Principles in International Law and World Religions. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003.

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