Social Injustice and the Individual’s Moral Obligations
Abdul Sattar Edhi was a great man. He was selfless, generous, and along with his wife managed to build the Edhi Foundation, one of the largest charities in the country. The foundation provides welfare homes, ambulances, orphanages, morgues, and adoption services free of cost to whoever needs it. In a country like Pakistan where social welfare is in wanting, the foundation serves as a blessing to many. But how far does an individual’s efforts go in trying to alleviate the social injustices seen and experienced by millions in places where welfare systems are next to none?
There is a very well known problem in ethics known as the fat man problem. It is a variation of the trolley problem and goes somewhat like this:
A trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?
Problems like these aren’t supposed to have absolute answers, but they are a good measure of the discomfort people feel when faced with morally ambiguous situations. Some people (utilitarians) have argued that individuals have the moral obligation to increase the ‘utility’ resulting from their actions. This means that one should choose the course of action where the net benefit should be more (pushing the fat man in this case). This, however, only exists inside scenarios discussed in classrooms.
Recent research shows that spatial proximity plays a very important role in moral decisions – individuals feel more obligated to help out others if they are physically nearer than when not. This phenomenon has been known to exist for quite some time – probably a result of our evolutionary tribal instinct to protect our own tribe. The research also shows that physical distance only matters when increased proximity also means better efficacy of their actions to help others. For example, if person A is some distance away from person B who is being mugged, A will only feel an increased sense of obligation by being closer in distance to save B if being closer to him also means that there is a better chance of saving B. In this case, an armed mugging would not bring any increased sense of obligation since A’s being closer to B doesn’t mean his actions will help B more, but an unarmed mugging could potentially see A having a higher sense of moral obligation to save B since by being closer to B A can act to save him with better efficacy.
This has several implications – people do feel a sense of obligation which is related to how much they think they can help. Because physical proximity is usually a factor in the efficacy of their help, people suffering in far away places don’t get the same sympathy as those suffering closer. This does assume that everyone has the same sense of morals – the sense of ‘ought to’ do something. This is an optimistic assumption at best, since empirical evidence provides for a very inconsistent moral compass across individuals.
Social Inequality and Role of the State
This brings me back to my original question: how far does an individual’s efforts go in trying to alleviate the social injustices seen and experienced by millions in places where welfare systems are next to none? I would argue that they have very minimal long-term impact. Since individuals react to proximate suffering they see, their actions are usually limited to a small area. The proximate part has indeed been helped a lot in our day and age of modern social media, where people can see suffering even from far away and feel obligated to help out. This shows in donation trends – people are consistently donating more and more each year. But this still doesn’t mean that things are getting a lot better on the ground. Even as Edhi’s foundation tackles the suffering of thousands of people and it gets more and more in donations, it is still a far cry from what is really needed to improve social welfare for the society as a whole.
Instead of a reactionary approach used by most charities to social problems, countries like Pakistan are in urgent need of a comprehensive social welfare system which resolve issues like access to health care through policy. In the long term, individual moral obligations will never be able to sustain the welfare of the society. Individual contributions are noble, and are indeed needed for keeping social cohesion at local levels. The existence of large charities does not, however, absolve the government of the responsibility of making sure that citizens have a minimum standard of living. I would even argue that a social welfare system should be one of the most important roles of the government. Individuals in third-world countries are preoccupied with concerns like feeding themselves, providing shelter for their families and so on and so forth. Freeing them of such concerns will allow the citizenry to expend their time and thoughts in better, more innovative ideas which grow the economy. Of course, this discourse is limited to the third world where even basic amenities are lacking.
What Edhi did and achieved is unprecedented. He institutionalised his foundation into a large organisation which was able to tackle problems on a far larger scale than usual. This, however, was never Edhi’s responsiblity in the first place. Charitable organisations are not meant to replace state welfare systems, but rather to supplement it. Edhi’s contribution to Pakistani society will be always remembered, but the state owes it to his memory and vision to create a society where the need for such large scale organisations ceases to exist. And as far as individual responsibility holds, the golden rule is a good place to start: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.