Friday, September 7, 2007

The ethicist

I know a man named Richard. He has one lung and is receiving chemotherapy, intermittently, from what I can gather. Whether this is due to his own availability or that of his doctors, I cannot say. But he did show me his empty inhaler. Today was humid and it was getting to him. He'd picked up 14 of the 26 dollars he needed for a refill before I found him and I left him a few bucks closer.

This assuaged neither his need nor my conscience. I had more than $20 in my wallet when I found him and more than $20 when I walked away. Why? I often think about Richard and look for him whenever I pass that corner. I am disappointed when I don't see him, and sometimes worried. But today, I was in a hurry. I have plans this evening and didn't think I'd have time to get to the bank, to replenish taxi fare; I've overspent already this month and my remaining dollars are committed. And so on.

Do I really value the birthday dinner I'm buying a friend tonight, the cab fare, the sake on sale just through next week, the shoe shine, the cut and color, the holiday tips for building staff (already dreading my deficit there), the dog grooming, the tailoring, the subscription to the New Yorker, the NYPL membership, the flowers I buy once a week-- above the extra 10 bucks it would cost to relieve a dying man of a few more hot hours of discomfort and discouragement on the corner of 38th and 3d?


Do you think this is a fair equation?

I lived in downtown LA for a few years at the end of the last and beginning of this decade. My neighborhood housed the largest concentration of homeless people in the US. My apartment, first on the fifth and then on the 12th floor of a newly converted loft building (I moved to the other coast but came back), afforded a prime view of the cardboard roofs lining the streets. The neon sign on the adjacent building still advertised it as a flop house. It was a nice flop house, and the smell of bleach reached the streets in the morning, and a couple characters who lived there would still show up at the old bar they'd frequented from 10 am every day for the past 20, 30 years, indulged in their other preferences by espresso artists whose tatoos were far more literary and expensive than those of their customers. My landlord employed security guards from the newly released inmates enrolled in a job placement program at the halfway house across the street. I tutored homeless children at a local shelter, conveniently located three blocks away, and let my dog introduce me to anyone she fancied. She fancied the pungent.

Life was good.

But there was a down side. In my neighborhood, trash bins had become a contested terrain. For some scavengers, they were a source of income (I don't know actually know the going price for bottles and cans); for others, a source of sustenance (discarded food). I was one of the few newcomers--city dwelling, law-abiding, dog-walking neighbors-- who looked at the bins and saw trash.

None of us (I hope) was so deluded as to think that we were welcomed by longer-term residents with unmitigated delight. More often than not, I found myself standing in line behind a neighbor perusing the trash for another purpose, and frequently ended up running from corner to corner to corner with my leash in one hand and baggy in another as I sought a free bin at which to discharge both legal and civic duties with the least conflict between these occasionally incoincident imperatives.

Nor did I seek conflict with my neighbors. It was no different from seething in line behind some damned tourist who didn't know a grande from a venti. You just focussed on the paper and got your own request in order, so as not to hold up the process in turn. Only in this case, you knew, or think you knew, that the connoisseur before you was weighing the finer points of something that might actually make a real difference. Maybe because deciding whether to pick up a spent cigarette butt is the most significant independent choice she might be privileged to make all day.

After one too many mornings late for work on account of pondering these imponderables, longing for garbage just to be garbage, I emailed the New York Times columnist Randy Cohen, 'The Ethicist', for his expert guidance.

Should I feel justified in tossing my bag into a receptacle that might already contain some one else's breakfast? should I wait my turn (and just spoil some one else's breakfast)? should I leave the offending mess on the sidewalk, on the ground that my fellow 'urban pioneers' and I should just suck it up as part of the local color (and in the process, add to the misery of those we were --let's be honest-- further displacing), to hell with city ordinances? Should I persist until I could locate an unoccupied bin and thereby elude the multipurpose dilemma? Was it my ethical duty to bring the matter to the city council or take other measures?

I wish I had his response still but I don't. Basically, it was an excoriation for my frivolity. It was disgusting that I should pit my convenience (as he put it) against another's basic human needs. There was apparently no ethical framework that could accommodate such an offense.

I was trying to figure out how to act ethically in an unjust situation. If ethics can't offer any guidance then, when?

Are those of us who are privileged to choose whether to ask questions such as those I posed to 'The Ethicist' not obliged to do so? The Ethicist suggests that those of us who are contaminated by our positions should contemplate our shame. And I think most of us do. It's called liberal guilt.

But an 'ethics' that doesn't provide a rationale and strategy to propel its interlocutors beyond that acute point of recognition is nothing more than censure.

Which I believe belongs to the domain of morality.


Rami Zurayk said...

As much as we would like to, we cannot bring about social justice one little act of kindness at a time. If the act of charity takes place without keeping one's eye on the global picture, then its true aim is to make the donor feel better, not the recipient. The response to poverty and social injustice in NOT charity or relief aid or development aid. The response is organizing and acting against the causes of poverty and of social injustice. Aid action is only important because it keeps activists in touch with reality and prevent them from becoming theorists.

Liberal guilt? What's that?

PS said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PS said...

Thanks for the swipe, but theory taught me a lot, including the useful phrase: necessary but insufficient. Am I absolved from trying to behave in an ethically consistent manner just because the decision before me will not in itself alter the economic and political conditions that gave rise to the obscene choice, any more than giving an inhaler to a dying man with one lung could absolve me from the obligation to use my privilege to work against the political and economic, and (although I didn't introduce this before) racial conditions that introduced us in the first place?

Liberal guilt is the conscience that is appeased by charity. But you knew that.