Some people argue that proximity – how geographically close another person is to you – is not a morally relevant consideration. I wish to suggest that this is incorrect, that proximity is morally relevant.
Simone Weil writes: “the human beings around us exert just by their presence a power which belongs uniquely to themselves to stop, diminish, or modify, each movement which our bodies design. A person who crosses our path does not turn aside our steps in the same manner as a street sign, no one stands up, or moves about, or sits down again in quite the same fashion when he is alone in a room as when he has a visitor.”
Our behaviour demonstrates an inalienable attitude towards another person – how the presence of another person comprises a distinctive limit to our will. The recognition of the full reality of another person generates a sort of necessity, an expression of full responsiveness to the reality of another person in need.
If we encountered a child drowning in a pond, where all we had to do to save him was to pull him out of the water, our response would be something like “I can’t leave him there to drown.” It is not better expressed as “One ought not to leave him there to drown.” Contrast this with hearing about people dying every second on the other side of the world. All we have to do is pick up the phone and donate money to save a life. Our reaction here is best expressed as “One ought not to leave them to starve”. It does not make sense to describe our reaction here as “I can’t leave them to starve” – in part because we do.
With the drowning child, we are confronted with the reality of a person, a person in need. With the starving, we are not confronted immediately by a person; it is an idea, a proposition that reaches us. We do not and cannot respond in the same way to ideas as we do to people. Since ‘being confronted by a person’, in this sense, requires being in close proximity with the other person, proximity makes a moral difference.
To illustrate this point, if proximity is irrelevant then failure to donate to charity (which would save a life) is equal to failure to pull the drowning child out of the water (which would save a life). So, if you were on your way to make a donation – and for some reason this time is the only time can only donate – it would be acceptable to walk past the drowning child in order to keep your appointment. If they are equal, choosing to save either is acceptable. Choosing to pass the drowning child is not acceptable, therefore proximity is morally relevant.