Story, photos, and slideshow by GEOFF DAVIES
Dr. Joe Mendola is a philosopher. But even philosophers have morning routines. Right?
Let’s say Dr. Joe shoots out of bed every morning as the cock crows. He puts on his nicest suit and tie, complete with designer elbow patches. He slides into his new shoes, which he treats like newborns even though their leather’s still so stiff they give him blisters. He drinks a coffee, eats a banana or two, and watches the talking heads on the morning news before heading off to work at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he works in the Philosophy department
Let’s say Dr. Joe’s morning route runs alongside a little pond. On this particular morning there’s a kid in the middle of the pond, struggling to keep his head above water. Now, Dr. Joe is faced with a moral dilemma, something which he is bound to take seriously given he teaches ethical philosophy to graduate students. He could save the kid no problem, but his leather shoes would be ruined and there’d be muck all over his Armani gear.
To do nothing would be wrong, morally speaking. Right? There were slightly more than a hundred people in the room when Dr. Mendola presented this dilemma during his Morality and Starvation lecture on Thursday night. A show of hands showed almost all agreed with Dr. Mendola on that point.
But when Dr. Joe goes through his hypothetical morning routine, he doesn’t mail a cheque to UNICEF between donning his suit and drinking his coffee. Instead, he throws out the pamphlet that came in the morning mail. Is this morally wrong? Most are inclined to say No.
But here’s the catch. When Dr. Joe encounters the drowning kid, he lands in moral hot water if he just keeps going along the merry way. He does nothing, and someone else suffers as a result. Same thing goes for the UNICEF example. A child somewhere starves, or dies of starvation, because Dr. Joe didn’t send a donation to get them fed. Both cases have non-action as the cause of harm, Dr. Mendola explained, yet only one seems morally reprehensible. At least, upon first glance.
Borrowing from author Peter Singer, Dr. Mendola used these scenarios to show a broader dispute in moral philosophy. Some say the individual is only responsible for their actions. Others maintain we ought to be held accountable for all the consequences of our actions, both for what we do and what we don’t do, such as failing to give to a cause. The peculiar thing about the two scenarios Dr. Mendola laid out – the drowning kid and the UNICEF cheque – is forces both camps to agree, at least on one particular case.
Dr. Mendola counts himself as consequentialist, one of those thinkers who think that non-actions can also be morally reprehensible because it’s the consequences that count. But, he says, he’s a weird kind of consequentialist. That’s because he thinks “group acts” work in the same way.
A “group act,” he says, happens when a group of people are all engaged in a single action. It can be a couple trying to work out their differences, or a department of university profs lobbying their bosses for something or other. Those are all group acts, and Dr. Mendola, being a consequentialist, says that their moral goodness or badness depends above all else on their consequences. So even if your impact on the group has only the slightest effect – like that of your drive to the grocery store on the polar ice caps – the moral weight is just as heavy. And same goes for what you do as much as for what you neglect to do.
And here’s how we get to the main issue of the CCEPA-sponsored lecture. According to Dr. Mendola, about a billion people living in the world do so in extreme poverty. Thousands of them die daily from the effects of starvation. All it would take, he says, is 1.25 per cent of the well-off world’s income to fix this for good.
But this, of course, hasn’t happened. Sin number one.
In fact, the way we live our lives in the developed world perpetuates a system that – in many ways and for many reasons – oppresses, hurts, and kills the poverty-stricken. It’s a group act of sorts in which we and our elected officials participate. Sin number two.
So what’s to be done? According to Dr. Mendola’s philosophical take, we have morally erred. We do it everyday. And world-wide systemic wrongs are righted in the same way as mundane, daily ones.
In his view, we owe the planet’s poor reparations.
How to do it? What to do? Those are questions a little too large for the St. Mary’s University lecture hall and the hour-and-a-half we had that night. Having a single night to reflect on poverty on starvation, like having a single blog post to explain a branch of ethical philosophy, is grossly inadequate. In both cases, we’re back at the shallow pond. And we’re just skimming the surface.