the case against guilt

Building off this Quillette piece, which questioned the popular notion that global poverty was caused by injustice, I got to think about whether there might be a more effective way to encourage people to want to help their fellow man.

In summary, the piece argued, quite convincingly in my mind, that if global poverty preceded many of the world’s great injustices (colonialism, imperialism, etc), then it can’t be named as the primary culprit in the inequality between nations. Of course, the piece doesn’t deny that these things caused great harm, it just questions whether the world is as it is today primarily due to injustice, rather than other factors. While I agree with the authors that it’s unlikely that injustice caused global poverty, I recognize that many people are emotionally tied to that narrative, and are sparked into action out of a sense of guilt for the sins of their ancestors.

So let’s assume that injustice did cause global poverty, such that in the absence of historical injustice, the world today would be generally well off. Even if that’s true, it implies that the best reason we have to want to help others is to pay them back. But not all wealthy countries would be equally on the hook, since some, like South Korea, are relative newcomers and have not had time to inflict harm upon others in any meaningful way. So if a sense of justice is the most important reason why we help others outside our own borders, then some countries would have no reason to make any contributions. If we wanted more action, we’d also need more corresponding injustice. Furthermore, assuming those nations that are guilty of past sins are not condemned to eternal punishment, then someday they too will have paid their debt, and presumably, at that point they would owe nothing to anyone but themselves. But what if there is still great amounts of poverty and suffering in the world?

To further complicate matters, a motive from justice requires proof of an actual injustice, and some people will inevitably have a higher bar than others. Such individuals will argue that we must first accurately determine how much harm was caused, and how much of that harm has extended into the present. Then, such individuals would argue that we weigh the harm against any restitution that may already have been paid. For example, in the case of colonialism, the guilty nations have also contributed many positive things to the world, from science and technology to international institutions that have contributed to global peace (not to mentioned Einstein & the internet). I believe this fairly accurately explains much of the rift between right and left in the west, on issues of international aid in particular (but also other things, like immigration).

In conclusion, the standard of proof that is required for a motive from justice is its biggest weakness. Perhaps then, might I propose compassion instead? There is no proof of obligation with compassion. Nobody has to be compassionate, but the average person will want to show compassion when it is demonstrated that compassion is necessary. All that’s needed for compassion is proof of suffering or a people in need. Of course, folks will still disagree about how much compassion is required (and whether other countries are pulling their weight), but because compassion is open ended, there won’t be squabbles about whether the debt has been paid. And countries who feel as though they owe the world nothing wouldn’t have any excuse, other than a lack of compassion (which doesn’t bode well for their image. Here’s looking at you @saudi arabia). Of course, there’s always a chance that people could lend more compassion, but most people won’t pay back more on a debt than is owed. Therefore, let’s try a new approach moving forward, the compassionate one.