Mash's Musings

Moral culpability

Published May. 13, 2021

I was recently discussing the place of politics in the workforce with a friend and former colleague. In explaining the importance of pushing anti-racism initiatives at work, he stated, "If you're not a part of the solution, then you're a part of the problem."

I understood the sentiment, one heard frequently in the last year. I empathized with why he felt banning political activism was such a harmful policy and we moved on. But this left me wondering... Is this true? Are we morally culpable for the wrongs around us? This should, after all, have a great impact on our behavior and self-worth.

If we were to grant this as true, this would lead to some truly horrifying conclusions about our own lives. Around the world there are millions of people dying and suffering from easily preventable diseases. Diseases like measles which have been all but forgotten in North America still kill hundreds of children. How many of those deaths are on our hands? How many of the homeless that we walk by everyday do we take responsibility for?

The most compelling articulation for a moral imperative I've found is in Peter Singer's famous essay Famine, Affluence, and Morality, reiterated in his book The Life You Can Save:

On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather's cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep her head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don't wade in and pull her out, she seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for her, and change your clothes, you'll be late for work. What should you do?

Well?... The argument is powerful in the almost rhetorical question posed at the end. Singer states that by choosing not to donate or work on this problem, we are choosing to walk past the drowning child. Taking this line of reasong to its conclusion, every dollar spent in excess of a spartan life is a choice to walk past this child. Aware of this and true to form, Singer has pledged to donate all of his income above something like a $15k salary. And yet, even Singer does not assign culpability by omission.

The guilt by omission rhetoric is wielded at the breaking of every big news story. By flocking around today's solution, the wielders, by their own accord, become a part of yesterday's problem. Singer's point is that we ought to make a change, not because we're culpable, but because we can. Instead of assigning guilt or complicity unto others, we should consider how effectively we can make a difference. And given our limited resources, especially our generosity, we should strive to make the most of them. Real change, like investing, requires long-term compounding. Focusing on the latest cause is as likely to help society as investing in the latest meme coin is likely to make us rich. Focus on finding what is impactful and what is effective, and like Singer put your money where your mouth is.