In our everyday lives we make ethical judgments resulting in ethical decisions all the time. So often in fact that we mostly don’t even realize that we are doing so. Often we don’t even think of these as ethical decisions but merely as practical routine judgments. These range from small personal decisions to collective national policy decisions.
In making these judgments we weigh and balance, largely subconsciously, a large number of different criteria across a number of different dimensions. One key criterion is the proximity of the individuals or organizational entities involved relative to ourselves and our own identity groups. In general, the closer the impacted group is to our own, the greater weight, priority, and consideration we give the issue.
This is perfectly understandable, natural, and sensible. For example, we give our spouse higher priority than our family which we give higher priority than our friends to whom we give higher priority than other people. Similarly, we give higher priority to our own neighborhood, followed by city, state, and country. We are more concerned over issues impacting our own gender or race or religion than others.
There is a great deal of sensible practicality in this kind of analysis. It’s fair that we organize into groups. It doesn’t say we should ONLY give consideration to groups closest to our own, but it’s fair that we give groups in close proximity to us greater consideration.
But there are a number of ways that this proximity calculation can fail us. The first is if our concern falls off too rapidly. While we should first look out for those close to us, too much emphasis on our own groups can lead us to be needlessly callous and insensitive to the needs of groups farther away. We demand the best school for our own kids, but completely ignore the needs of other kids in our own neighborhood. Orthodox Jews, as one example, might focus exclusively enriching their own enclave communities, regardless of the cost to society as a whole. We often maintain an extremely close proximity calculus even when helping those farther away from our own sphere would, in the long run, help ourselves as well.
The second problem that arises from our proximity calculation comes into play not when we are thinking about allocating benefits, but when we are assigning and assuming responsibility. In this case we often assign far too much weight to far groups and assume far too little for our own. How often do we hear “those Chinese should take action to stop climate change” or “I’m not responsible for US militarism.”
Of course we have to keep it in perspective. Of course the Chinese should do their part to alleviate climate change and we as individual citizens cannot bear the entire brunt of US aggression abroad. But we can and should affect change in our closest proximity groups first. Those are the groups we can and should make right first before we point fingers and deflect all blame and responsibility. We should step up and take every action we can on climate change first. We should appreciate that each of us are citizens with the right to vote and speak out. We all collectively share <some> blame and responsibility for American militarism and torture.
The bottom line is this. Be aware of the role of proximity assessments in your ethical decisions and judgments. Try to avoid giving unduly large or exclusive priority to your own narrow group. Likewise try to avoid assigning blame and responsibility disproportionately to groups farthest away from you.
How do you achieve a fair, just, and healthy balance of self-interest and social consciousness? Here’s a couple good rules of thumb:
- If you typically care about how others can share benefits that your group desires or enjoys, you’ve probably got it pretty right.
- If you first ask what your group can do to improve the world for everyone before you point fingers at other groups, you’ve probably got it pretty right.