Proximity Matters

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.

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One response to “Proximity Matters

  1. I take it you want to defend the following claim:

    (1) Geographical proximity is morally significant

    I read through your post and at the end I asked myself ‘what is the argument in support of (1)?’ I had trouble answering this question. I looked through the post again and noted various claims that might serve as premises. For example:

    “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.”

    “We do not and cannot respond in the same way to ideas as we do to people.”

    But I could not see how these various claims are meant to link together to support (1). So perhaps you could be more explicit in stating your argument. You might even consider presenting your argument formally with a set of premises and a conclusion.

    In the last paragraph you present a thought experiment that purports to support (1).
    There are several issues regarding whether using thought experiments to probe moral intuitions is a methodologically sound practice and whether such intuitions should be taken into consideration when we assess moral claims (in fact many moral philosophers who reject (1) also often downplay the relevance of moral intuitions). However, putting these issues aside, I don’t think your thought experiment adequately makes the contrast between accepting (1) and rejecting (1). A better version of the thought experiment would make the circumstances of the people you have to choose between helping, identical in all respects except distance.

    Thus we could say that there are two children drowning in ponds. One is three meters to your right, the other 1000km away and can be seen via a live video link. You can save either child by pressing a button which will drain the water from the pond (perhaps one of the buttons is linked by satellite to the pond 1000km away). But for some reason you are unable to press both buttons and thus must choose which child to save. Is there any reason to prefer one child over the other?

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