Dan asked me to clarify what I meant by ‘the moral claim’, referred to an a recent post. The reference:
– a relative said to me, while back in Perth, ‘We’re so glad you are doing this work in Afghanistan on behalf of us, Phil.’
Me: ‘It’s not on behalf of you.’
Relative: ‘I think it is.’
Me: ‘It’s not. There is a moral claim on you too.’
Christina too, made a comment about not feeling able to respond to this claim, and as I understood her, feels bad about that. Not wanting to confuse or discourage my worldwide readership, here’s an expanded reflection on this issue.
I am white, male, English speaking, and am an Australian citizen. Those four attributes alone mean I am amongst the world’s elite, and never even remotely likely to experience anything like poverty or marginalisation, yet not one of these things did I work for or achieve through my own effort, merit or character. Nor did I choose these things. Add in that I have three degrees, (which though I worked for, I only really chose in a limited sense – given my family background, it was pretty much a given that I would go to university), and it is clear that I am enormously advantaged. (a note here: Christians often say, ‘blessed’ – as though God had bestowed these on me.)
Yet we often talk about poverty as though it were the result of bad choices, moral turpitude, ineptness. And conversely, we justify our own lifestyle as though our advantage was somehow the result of our character or efforts – or of God’s favour*. Plainly this is grossly wrong and if you spell it out, offensive enough that most people would deny that this is how their thinking runs. But it does. It is this thinking that allowed my relative to justify the trajectory of spending, consumption, self absorption and so on that typifies perhaps not only her life,but the life of many who are similarly advantaged.
Now I am no saint and no ascetic, but I understand that there is a moral claim on me to do something about the imbalances and unfairness of life. That’s what the moral claim is: not that we all come and work in Afghanistan, or the Horn of Africa, but that we recognise that our wealth and power is only fractionally the result of our efforts or goodness, and largely the result of being born in a developed country. That recognised, what flows from it is a responsibility to change and keep changing how you live and what your priorities are.
And what my relation did not understand is that this moral claim cannot be outsourced. It falls on you by virtue of your relative wealth, power and status. The claim is correspondingly reduced the less of these you have. So – Christina – if you are not physically capable, don’t berate yourself. The claim on you is met through solidarity and simplicity, through speaking out and challenging the injustice of inequalities and so on. For someone like me – and a good 90% of my peers – there are no such allowances.
*If God does bestow such advantages, each comes with an equal and irrevocable responsibility. In the end, it doesn’t really matter though, the origin of the advantage; what matters is its existence and the arising claim.