Bob Fischer

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Bob Fischer is an assistant professor of philosophy at Texas State University, where he writes about issues in ethics and epistemology. You can find his work here.

Friendship by Andreas Klodt CC BY 2.0

This post originally appeared on May 28, 2015.

I’ve got a friend who’s suffering from depression. He’s been holed up in his house for the last two years; living first on sick pay, then savings; venturing out only for fish and canned vegetables. (“They’re healthy.”) I visit him from time to time, which isn’t often enough, and I excuse the infrequency with a lame thought: it doesn’t matter whether I go.

The problem is not that I’m wrong. He doesn’t want visitors, we have the same conversation each time, and he isn’t getting any closer to the man he once was, all bright and bounding. If I’m showing up to make a difference, I’m probably wasting my time.

This defense of inaction is psychologically powerful. We know how the election will play out, so we don’t vote. We know that having tofu won’t save a cow from slaughter, so we have the burger. We know that Old Navy isn’t going to notice whether we shop elsewhere, so we may as well save some money. When we can’t make a difference, why bother?

Sometimes, because we’re wrong. It only seems like we can’t make a difference because so many people contribute to the effect. This tends to be the story in consumer ethics: industries don’t care about what any one person does, but they certainly care about what lots of people do, and “lots of people” don’t do anything if we don’t do something.

In other cases, we really can’t accomplish what we’d like—too few are willing to take up the cause—but we can do something else worthwhile. Consider, for example, participating in Adjunct Walkout Day. My university isn’t going to start paying adjuncts a living wage, so canceling class for their sake feels pointless. By joining in, though, we stand in solidarity with those who aren’t being treated fairly, insisting that wrongdoers be held accountable. That’s a far cry from achieving securing fair wages, but it still isn’t trivial to encourage and criticize, respectively, those who deserve encouragement and criticism.

All that said, my friend’s depression isn’t a collective action problem; it isn’t as though a few more supporters will tip the scales. Protest won’t help either: depression may be a thief, but it can’t be shamed. And we could conclude, on this basis, that my excuse is a good one. But I remain unsatisfied by it. When I drive the twenty-two miles to his door, I’m his friend. When I pick up a book instead, I’m not. And that choice isn’t trivial.

It might sound like I’ve just made this about me. “I can’t make a difference in my friend’s life, but I can make a difference in mine: I can choose what sort of person I’ll become, the ideals that I’ll embody.” And although those things are true, they’re beside the point.

Which is this: sometimes, difference-making doesn’t matter. If I’m going to be a friend, I’m going to sit with him in his depression. Not at the expense of everything else in my life—that’s martyrdom. But at real expense, since that’s what friendship involves. Likewise, if I’m a citizen, I vote; if I’m compassionate, I don’t want anything to do with factory farms. That’s what it is to be a friend, or a citizen, or compassionate. And that’s why we aren’t bad friends or citizens if we fail, or a little less compassionate when we keep eating animals. Rather, we are “friends” and “citizens” and “compassionate.” We have different versions of these relationships and roles and virtues—the paltry, calculating ones where “This is my country” isn’t argument enough for voting, and “That creature suffered needlessly” isn’t argument enough for abstaining. Not so with the versions worth having: they settle how we ought to proceed. (Indeed, that’s much of why they’re worth having.)

Why act when it doesn’t make a difference? In some cases, because it does—though only with some help, or not how we’d hoped. But often enough, this is the wrong sort of question to ask, and the right kind is much simpler:

Are we friends?

Austin--evening by Kumar Appaiah (via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

This post originally appeared on July 20, 2015.

On my way to lunch the other day, about a week after the horrific shootings in Charleston, I found a noose suspended over an otherwise sunny sidewalk. I took it down and threw it away.

I spent the rest of the day distracted. I live outside of Austin, Texas—a liberal enclave if ever there were one. If I’d heard that this had happened elsewhere, I’d have been discouraged, though not surprised. But on one of the main streets in my town? A block from campus? On a breezy, beautiful summer afternoon?

Who would do such a thing?

I don’t know, of course. But if I had to guess, I’d say that it was someone who did it on a dare. Or someone who wanted to be shocking for being shocking’s sake. Or someone trying to get upvotes in some dark corner of reddit. Whoever it was, though, I doubt that I would be pleased to find out. It probably wasn’t the Platonic form of American racism: the Angry Southerner, complete with cut-off t-shirt and muddy boots. Given the demographics here, it was probably someone much like me: white, male, from a middle-class background, raised in a fairly segregated environment, and perfectly polite and pleasant—even to people of color—in various professional circumstances.

And yet this person hung a length of rope from a tree, in a town where you can still visit the slave’s section of the cemetery. How should we—how should I—respond to this act?

I’d like outrage to be sufficient. I’d like it to be enough that I denounce the perpetrator, that I share my anger with my friends, that we complain together about those people.

But it’s not enough. Outrage pushes racism underground; it doesn’t end it. More importantly, outrage doesn’t counteract the effects of racism. When, in the future, my sons encounter reminders that lynchings still happen, they won’t worry about their safety. They’ll never be concerned that someone is angry about their presence in a particular place, or that someone is so upset about “how things are changing” that he wants to place a symbol of death near city center. My sons will—I hope—mourn that this is how things are. Still, they won’t be mourning that this is how things are for them. If that isn’t an advantage, I don’t know what is.

In The Imperative of Integration, Elizabeth Anderson argues that racial segregation leads to three forms of racial injustice: it limits economic opportunity (good jobs tend to be in “white” areas), it enables racial stigmatization (it’s easy to form negative stereotypes about people of color when you rarely encounter them), and it undermines democracy (insofar as lawmakers can ignore the interests of a segment of society). Accordingly, she argues that integration must occur: first, formal integration, which involves repealing laws that lead to inequality; second, spatial integration, ending the de facto segregation of playgrounds and post offices; finally, social integration, where the institutions in which we learn and work are reconfigured to better serve the needs of a diverse populace.

We won’t hear many objections to formal integration. Spatial and social integration, on the other hand, can feel like radical proposals. But if justice is the first virtue of social institutions, then radical solutions are sometimes required. What should we do in a society where some children are—and others aren’t—disadvantaged by accidents of birth? We should actively support policies—at all levels—that reorganize society to counteract the effects of racism, whether that racism is explicit or implicit, conscious or structural, blatant or barely visible.

Frankly, the thought is overwhelming. It’s to our shame, however, that black children enter a world where nooses still hang from branches. It’s time to give direction to our outrage.