A person called Alamanach recently made a long comment about an older post, the one about a moral claim. It seemed worth making a substantial response, so here it is. The original comment is here: Moral Claim. Scroll down to see it.
1. “You’re poor and marginalized already, you just don’t know it. You haven’t seen the kind of wealth commanded by the average man of 500 years from now, but when his day comes, he’s going to look back at you and wonder how people ever survived living in such shocking poverty. You and everyone on this planet today is desperately poor, poorer than you can probably imagine.”
Well, I deal in the here and now and the immediate years ahead, not some fictive future 500 years from now. Who knows what things might be like by then, and I am 100% sure that any Afghan would not find any succour in the idea that he and I were comparative equals from a far future standpoint. I am also not sure what metric you are using to say we are all poor on this planet. That just doesn’t make sense, not by commonly held understandings.
2. “…we very quickly end up taking on a worldview in which we’re the elites, which by implication means that everybody else isn’t. The resulting impulse is to help the downtrodden, which is admirable so far as it goes, but when it’s done from a notion of “I’m better off than he is,” then with it comes the unconscious notion of “he’s less than me.” “
If you have read any or some of my posts, you will see that this is a view I do not hold, and I think most people are capable of more nuanced understandings than that. I do not think it wrongheaded to understand my own privilege. That does not mean I am better than any one else, and many of my posts are in fact about my own failings. But more broadly, one is a statement of wealth or power, the other a moral statement. I do not confuse the two. I would challenge you also to find too many Afghans who sees their livies as more enviable than mine. Or put it this way: will you trade your nationality for an Afghan one? I would guess not.
3. “You work in aid and development in Afghanistan, and so do I. Virtually all of our aid programs are built on the premise that the Afghans are poor and weak, and need our help in order to stand up. Like I say, that idea quickly gets taken way too far, and billions of dollars in debilitating handouts have been the result. After a decade of working here, this country is a mess precisely because we see ourselves as more advantaged then they are, and therefore obligated to help. We are wrong in that view, which is why so many aid programs here have been utter disasters.”
Actually, the aid and development programs I work in are premised on the idea that Afghans are resourceful, clever and industrious. That they are busy solving their problems long before we come along, and will be long after we go. As I said, I do see myself as more advantaged, and yes, that obligates me and the rest of the privileged world to help. ‘Help’ does not connote ‘poor miserable Afghan’. It connotes ‘get in there and get useful’. Finally, many of our projects have been somewhat successful. Not utter disasters. Not full successes. But not bad.
4. “What if their poverty is really not so different from ours? What if there’s only a hair’s breadth of difference between an Afghan’s wealth and mine? Compared to the average man of 500 years from now, that’s the state of things– my Afghan housekeeper and I are on almost equal footing. But if that’s the case, then why give things away? Why take on airs of being elites? Why not treat these guys as essentially equals, and try negotiating and bargaining with them, instead of giving them things?”
I don’t really know what you mean by ‘our poverty’. You need to be more specific in that. Again, I defy to you find any Afghan who equates, at a living standard level, your wealth and his. And again, this fictive 500 years from now? Go 500 years back, and you will see that enormous differentials exists in wealth, life expectancy, access, rights, etc etc, in common society. Why should now or the future be any different? Next sentence: I do not take on an ‘air of being an elite’. I am capable of more discernment than that, as are most people. I can recognise what I am, but not take on an air about it. Can’t you? And for your information, a tenant of our work is ‘never give anything for free’. You can see it in our operating principles.
Finally, I am not sure what you mean by ‘an objective moral order to the universe’. That sounds, sorry to say it, a bit like psycho-babble to me. Try placating an Afghan with that, or a Liberian, or someone whose family have just been butchered by the Janjaweed. Well, Alamanach, that’s my response. Feel welcome to continue the discussion, but I would challenge you to get a bit more hardheaded about some of your reasoning.