Monday, October 31, 2011

Societal Duties

As I’ve listened to some of the Republican debates and read various articles, one thing that has become clear to me is that the modern Republican Party, influenced strongly by the Tea Party, seems to willfully, if not joyously, abandoned the “compassion” which President George W. Bush tried to wrap around his brand of conservatism. Today, when I listen to candidates like Michele Bachmann or Ron Paul (in particular), some of the other candidates (more generally), or some of the right-wing talking heads, I see a brand of conservatism that is all about personal responsibility and success with almost no attention paid to benefits of a social safety net or even social responsibility.

This point of view has been manifested in many ways, from the situation a year or so ago (was it longer?) when a fire department wouldn’t put out a house fire because they family hadn’t paid for fire protection, to opposition to the DREAM Act to allow children of illegal immigrants to get an education and a path toward citizenship, to the “let him die” moment at a Republican debate (in response to what to do with a man without health insurance who suffered catastrophic injury), to suggestions that efforts to keep the auto industry and banks from failing were wrong, to Mitt Romney’s recent suggestion that we should let the mortgage crisis “bottom out” and let investors buy foreclosed homes, to arguments about tax policy.

So all of this got me thinking: What obligations do we, as members of a society, have to one another? I’m not talking about what the law says that we must do; rather, I’m talking about the general social compact that allows our civilization and society to function. I think most of us are pretty clear on what we should not do to one another; I can’t kill your or sell your child into slavery, I can’t burn your house down and claim your land as mine, and I can’t tell malicious lies about you (at least not without being expected to pay some kind of price for doing so). But what about the inverse? What are we expected to do to help one another, if anything?

I have my own ideas, but for the time being, I’m more interested in throwing out some scenarios and seeing what people think. And remember, my question is not what the law imposes on us, but rather, what we as a society think it appropriate to impose upon one another. So think about these questions (and I’m sure I could have come up with a far lengthier list than this, but hey, I do have to work sometime…) and post a comment with your thoughts:

  1. If I see my neighbor’s house on fire, do I have an obligation to call 911? Do I have an obligation to see if anyone is in the house and try to help them get out?
  2. If it’s raining or cold and I see my neighbor’s child apparently locked out, do I have an obligation to invite the child into my home? Do I have an obligation to try to call the child’s parents?
  3. If I look out my upstairs window and see that my neighbor’s gutter is full of leaves (and my vantage is different than what my neighbor can see when he walks around his house), do I have an obligation to tell him?
  4. If I see my neighbor’s car stuck in the snow in front of his driveway, do I have an obligation to help him dig it out or push it?
  5. If I see my neighbor’s child do something dangerous or I see him drinking or smoking, do I have an obligation to tell my neighbor?
  6. If I see my neighbor’s child doing something wrong, do I have an obligation to say something to the child?
  7. If I see my neighbor’s child throw a ball into my fenced yard, do I have an obligation to go get the ball? Do I have an obligation to let the neighbor’s child come into my yard to get his ball?
  8. If I know my neighbor is out of town and, late one night I see someone prowling around my neighbor’s house, do I have an obligation to call the police? Do I have an obligation to try to scare the prowler away?
  9. If I learn that my neighbor is having an affair, do I have an obligation to say something to his wife or do I have an obligation to keep silent?
  10. If I suspect that my neighbor cheated on his taxes, do I have an obligation to report him to the IRS?
  11. If I see my neighbor shoveling snow from his driveway and I have a snowblower, do I have an obligation to either let him borrow it or offer to help him with his driveway?
  12. And do your answers to any of the preceding questions change if you and your neighbor despise one another?
  13. When I see a panhandler by the side of the road, do I have an obligation to give the panhandler any money?
  14. If my parent or sibling is sick but can’t afford medical care, do I have an obligation to help them pay for the care that they need? What if, instead of my parent or sibling, it is my first cousin? What if it’s my third cousin? What if that cousin has parents or siblings who can help, but won’t? Does that absolve me of any obligation that I might have? What if it isn’t a family member at all, but just a friend or a neighbor?
  15. If I see a little old lady trying to put a spare tire on her car, do I have an obligation to stop and help? What if, instead of a little old lady, it is a big strapping dude? Where is the dividing line between which people I need to help with the tire and which people I can leave to solve the problem on their own?
  16. If a creditor calls me looking for information about my neighbor, do I have an obligation to provide information to the creditor, do I have an obligation to say nothing and thus help my neighbor, or are there no obligations at all?
  17. If a friend of my child makes a racist or discriminatory statement, do I have an obligation to say something to the child? Do I have an obligation to say something to the child’s parents?
  18. If I know that guy mowing my yard is an illegal immigrant, do I have an obligation to call the police or ICE? What if he is a citizen or legal immigrant, but I know that his parent is here illegally? What if I only suspect?
  19. If I suspect that my neighbor’s gardener is an illegal alien, do I have an obligation to report either the gardener and/or my neighbor?
  20. If I hear someone repeating something that I know to be a lie, do I have an obligation to speak up?

Now, with those sorts of questions, and your general answers in mind, ask the following question: Do any of the obligations that you think may exist, change if the neighbor or other person in question is an illegal immigrant? What if that person is of a religion that you don’t approve of? What if that person did something that you find morally objectionable in an unrelated incident (for example, do any obligations to a neighbor differ if he is a convicted sex offender, had an abortion in her teens, or was arrested for drunk driving)?

Finally, think back on your answers yet again and then ask yourself if people in other parts of the world would answer the same way. Would people of a different faith tradition answer differently? What about people from different socio-economic classes? Are your answers uniquely American, unique to your religion or culture or social class?

As I said at the outset, I have my own ideas on these questions, but I certainly don’t have the “right” answers. But I do think that it is important to temper the individualistic zeal so enthusiastically supported by the Tea Party and some GOP candidates by an examination of what it means to be part of a society in the first place. If we have no obligations to one another, then so be it; that will certainly inform when it comes to decisions about tax policy and the social safety net. But if we do have obligations, then we need to consider those obligations in their broader societal form rather than just in their application to our family, friends, and neighbors. And no, I don’t think that a society that believes it has an obligation to help not only family, friends, and neighbors, but also the “least among us” is either “socialist” or “Marxist”.

Republicans (primarily) want to have a discussion about where to cut the social safety net; I don’t think that we can have that discussion until we’ve had a discussion about the obligations that we owe to one another as part of what we think of when we think of American society and culture.

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