Here’s a proposition I’m experimenting with: Morality must begin at home. At the moment, I’m not sure if this is a Jewish proposition or a philosophical proposition or both. I’m not even sure if it’s true or not but I’m going to explore it a little bit and see if it begins to grow on me.
The reason I’m going to explore this proposition is, first of all, that it makes me really uncomfortable. On the face of it, it would seem to be an argument in favor of a tribal ethic, one that assigns moral priority based on proximity. “This person is closer to me, and therefore more valuable,” it would seem to say. But at this point a whole host of buzzers and lights begin to go off in my mind. I’ve caught myself, red-handed. The crime? Consideration of a point of view that is insufficiently universal.
There’s something to be said for a universalistic ethics. Indeed, it has been said, quite a lot and in a lot of different ways. There’s a reason that nearly every ethical thinker in the history of Western philosophy has adopted a universalistic point of view–it’s a hell of a lot easier to justify from an abstract standpoint. Consider: The two great branches of modern ethical thought, duty-based on one side, utilitarian on the other. Both, in their own way, argue for an ethics grounded in that great principle of liberal society, that all human beings are to be treated as equally. From the utilitarian’s point of view, this equality is thought of in terms of the individual as the subject of pleasure and pain. Duty ethics chooses to consider ethical subjects in their abstract universality as the bearers of rational subjectivity. In either case, the interchangeability of ethical subjects is taken, not for granted, but as an explicit axiom on which the whole edifice is based.
And yet… A universalistic ethics, as useful as it may be in thinking in negative terms about the justice and injustice, for example, of laws enacted by a State, doesn’t do me a whole lot of good in making sense of the positive ethical obligations I feel in my own life. It can help me decide what’s fair, but it doesn’t do me a lick of good in prioritizing in fundamentally unfair situations, where there’s a limited amount of good to be spread around and I have to decide how to parcel it out. And this kind of unfair situation isn’t a rare, extreme limit case. No, it in fact represents the status quo, the normal, inescapable predicament which every one of us is forced to deal with every day of our lives, because our time and moral attention are limited resources which we must ultimately decide how to allocate!
There’s a peculiar problem experienced only by those who’ve spent a large amount of time thinking in terms of “social justice,” one that can occasionally seem rather counterintuitive and even inhuman to people who don’t spend so much time worrying about global issues. This problem is the paralysis that grips you when you become so focused on the universal that you lose sight of the particular. How can it be moral, a person like this asks themself, to devote the majority of my care to those closest to me? Is this not a form of bias, a kind of tribalism? Shouldn’t I rather devote my time to fixing the world at large, to addressing the problems of people who are certainly suffering more than anyone close to me?
The problem with this point of view is that, seductive as it can be, it is ultimately destructive in its one-sidedness. Of course we’re all obligated to speak out against injustice in the world wherever we find it. And of course we should spend at least some of our time concerned with, and helping to fix, large-scale problems. We should always be sensitive to the plight of communities other than our own. And yet, in the same way that no-one can be as sensitive to the needs of a particular child as that child’s own parents, no one can be as sensitive to the needs of a particular community as a member of that community. This, as I see it, may be the most convincing argument for a certain kind of limited tribalism: When it comes to genuinely helping people, it is absolutely necessary to have an understanding of who they are and what they need. We very much require understanding in order to be make the jump from ineffectual worry to genuine care, and the only place to begin to understand others is with the others who are closest to us.
For this reason, I hesitantly advance the principle that morality must begin at home. A sensitivity to global issues, as well as to the suffering of people in communities outside our own, is absolutely necessary to living morally in the larger world. But when it comes to actually helping people, we need to be unafraid to look to those nearby.