Thursday, January 04, 2007

Luck and Responsibility

One thing I learned in my "Religion Culture and Knowledge of Morality" class that I never forget is Hz. Muhammed's following Hadis: "On doomsday, everybody will be given their due rights. Even the revenge of the sheep without horns will be taken from the sheep with horns."

What do you feel when you see someone less fortunate than yourself? I feel guilt, and even more so, fear. In my post about the Third Way and Post-Emotionalism, I described the wide-spread belief that those who are unfortunate can improve their situation. Put another way, we believe that those who are unfortunate are responsible for the misfortunes that befall them. Probably this is true in some situations, and not true in others. What concerns me is how our assumptions about the reasons behind inequality shape our emotions and reactions.

Let's say we see a poor, uneducated person. It is easy to soothe our conscience then: We tell ourselves that if this person works hard enough, he can climb to an upper social class. We all have fathers and grandfathers who did just that. We do not feel guilty of our relative richness, which we see deserved, and thus we do not feel any responsibility towards improving that person's welfare. (This perception is true on a wider scale, too. For a long time, it was believed that African countries were poor out of choice: They were lazy and corrupt. This perception freed developed nations from guilt, and the obligation to help Africans. As Jeffrey Sachs showed in the End of Poverty, though, Africans are in a poverty trap because of their bad luck - they simply cannot improve their situation on their own.)

Let's say we see a person with HIV. Easy again, they must have had unprotected sex or are a drug addict. It was their choice to be negligent, so we don't need to pity them. We are not afraid of catching HIV, because if we are careful enough, we can prevent it from happening. Everything is under control.

Let's say we hear about a person who was mugged or raped. If they were walking in a sketchy neighborhood, if they were wearing a mini skirt, we feel better. We prefer simple stories with clear cause-effect relationships. They put themselves in trouble. If we avoid reckless behaviour like that, we won't get mugged or nobody will rape us. If we wear our seat-belts, we won't fly out of the car, and if we don't smoke, we will reduce our risk of getting lung cancer. Everything is under control.

But what if a friend gets mugged and shut in our neighbourhood? What if a conservatively-dressed woman gets kidnapped and raped? What if a young boy gets shut on a crowded street on New Year's Eve? What if a young girl in our apartment building dies of cancer? It wasn't their fault. Then, how can we justify us being here, alive and well? Who can guarantee that we will remain so?

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