Philosophy triumphs easily over past evils and future evils; but present evils triumph over it. Francois De La Rochefoucauld.
Katja Grace’s translation: We nobly analyse distant things, and in the present do whatever the hell we want.
If you stopped an articulate person who had just passed a homeless bum, and asked why she did not help, she’d probably explain this isn’t a simple question. She might mention ethics complexities, but she’d probably focus on the complex social context. Is the bum mentally ill, sick, stupid, lazy, or faking? Does the bum have family who should help first, did he arrive recently in this area, and who is best placed to know what he needs?
At my Georgetown lecture last night on our robot future, the smart econ students focused their questions almost entirely on ethics. They seemed to assume they understood enough about the social situation, and were obsessed with the ethical ways for humans to treat robots, robots to treat humans, etc. I’ll bet they’d also be quick to condemn Roman centurions’ ethics, also figuring they understood enough about their social situation. But I think they’d need to learn lots more about either of these worlds before they could begin to offer useful ethics advice.
Some of my young idealistic friends like to talk about figuring out what they could do to most help the world, and might go to Burma to see how the really poor live. I tell them one has to learn lots of details about a place to figure out how to improve it, and they’d do better to try this on a part of the world they understand better. But that doesn’t sound nearly as fun as saving the whole world all at once.
Humans overwhelmed by the social complexities of helping a bum nearby think they know enough about societies far away, so that ethics becomes the main concern there. I see the same thing in discussions of future biotech or nanotech – ethics becomes the main frame, even though we only have the faintest ideas of how future societies might integrate those techs. Beware the easy confidence of advising worlds far from your knowledge or consequence.
Added 29Oct: The obvious way to help poor folk far away without relying on your poor understanding of their world is to rely on the one thing you know best about their world: it is poor. Invite them to move to your rich world, to share in its riches. If your neighbors hinder you, use what you know about them to change that.