Equilibrium vs. Extremes: Rejecting the Premise

In my post yesterday I posed a question raised by Sándor Szathmári’s Voyage to Kazohinia: Is an ideal society one at equilibrium or one which embraces extremes?

In Kazohinia – as well as in some other social satires – these opposite choices are presented as mutually exclusive; a society can not have both. Both options seem to have pros and cons: the society at equilibrium is efficient and stable, but lacking in art, love, and life in its richest sense. The society with extremes has creativity, growth, and change but also has war, poverty, and injustice.

So which is better?

I was careful yesterday not to answer this question for myself: partly out of a interest in trying to define both sides of the argument, and partly because I’m not entirely satisfied with my answer.

I will also not answer that question today, instead exploring an alternate approach. Frankly, my instinct is to reject the premise of the question – why must we see these choices as exclusive? Surely there is some way to embrace the best of both models?

That is a tempting out of this debate, and would surely be the best option. This, however, quickly leads to a host of other questions: is a balance between these models possible? What would that look like?

A core argument for an equilibrium society is that so-called good things necessarily create so-called bad things: that the existence of love intrinsically means the existence of hate. Therefore, finding a proper mix of these two social models means finding a path that allows for some close relationships while preventing apathy towards the broader populace.

You’ll note that I’ve softened the contrast here: perhaps love does not necessitate hate, but favoring some people – through the simple realities of one’s energy and resources – does seem to necessitate not favoring others. In a wealthy country where the global populations we don’t favor are starving to death in poverty, this presents a real conundrum – even if you generously assume that not favoring these populations is completely separate from issues of hate and racism.

This is exactly the issue philosopher Peter Singer tackles in his book, One World. In lecturing to his students, Singer quotes Victorian philosopher Henry Sidgwick:

We should all agree that each of us in bound to show kindness to his parents and spouse and children, and to other kinsmen in a less degree: and to those who have rendered services to him, and any others whom he may have admitted to his intimacy and called friends: and to neighbors and to fellow-countrymen more than others…

Singer comments that his students nod their heads in agreement with these words. This is the existence of love. We should love our family more than our friends, and love our friends more than strangers. One might sense a nagging doubt at these circles of concern, but on the whole it seems reasonable: we might care for humanity at large, but it seems improper and unnatural to love a stranger as much as your own child.

But while this demarcation may seem reasonable and morally valid, Sedgwick quickly goes off the rails:

…and perhaps we may say [we are bound to show kindness] to those of our own race more than to black or yellow men, and generally to human beings in proportion to their affinity to ourselves.

Singer’s students “sit up in shock.” This completely reasonable moral perspective to which they found themselves agreeing suddenly turned into a racist manifesto. Good people certainly don’t endorse that last sentence!

Singer shares this story to challenge the notion that “it self-evident that we have special obligations to those nearer to us, including our children, our spouses, lovers and friends, and our compatriots.”

His work, then, centers around answering the question, “How can we decide whether we have special obligations to ‘our own kind’ and if so, who is ‘our own kind’ in the relevant sense?”

For his part, Singer finds moral justification for preferential treatment of family members and friends:

Very few human beings can live happy and fulfilled lives without being attached to particular the human beings. To suppress these partial affections would destroy something of great value, and therefore cannot be justified from an impartial perspective.

Furthermore, while these relationships do require partiality, they may not necessarily result in the sort of broader injustice that should cause us concern. Friendships, after all:

…are stronger where there are shared values, or at least respect for the values that each holds. Where the values shared include concern for the welfare of others, irrespective of whether they are friends or strangers, then the partiality demanded by friendship or love will not be so great as to interfere in a serious way with the capacity for helping those in great need.

So there are grounds for accepting these intimate relationships. After that, though, the circles of concern break down.

I am inclined to agree with Singer in finding “few strong grounds for giving preference to the interests of one’s fellow citizens, and none that can override the obligation that arises whenever we can, at little cost to ourselves, make an absolutely crucial difference to the well-being of another person in real need.”

It is good to love ones friends and family, but nationalism is a step too far.

This all seems good and rational, but there’s something seemingly arbitrary in determining where we draw our lines. Nationalism, for example, doesn’t quite seem to capture the international biases we show in our daily lives. In the US, for example, media attention and public concern are biased first towards our own affairs, and then towards European countries we find, though some ineffable metric, to be like us. Those people we find least like us are then shown the least concern.

Singer resolves this issue by arguing that what we think of as “community” is really a made up concept. Being “American” or even “Somervillian” really just means being part of an imagined community. Building off Benedict Anderson, Singer explains:

Though citizens never encounter most of the other members of the nation, they think of themselves as sharing an allegiance to common institutions and values, such as a constitution, democratic procedures, principals of toleration, the separation of church and state, and the rule of law.

And if our nationalism is little more than an imagined community, we can, with a little effort, imagine ourselves as part of a different community. A global community.

This is an inspiring thought, but Singer has far to go in illustrating that such a thing were broadly possible. If everyone saw this as the clear moral path, one might imagine we’d have accomplished it already.

Furthermore, given the deep racial and social injustices we see within our own ‘American’ community, it is hard to imagine that we are anywhere close to collectively embracing our international identities. If our current imagined community is so narrow as to only accept people of similar race, class, ideology, and national identity, how are we ever – on a collective scale – to move beyond that?

Thus Singer’s solution leaves me somewhat disenchanted. In theory, his approach provides a map for integrating cultures of equilibrium and extreme. We ought, one might hope, to be able to love select people a little bit more, while loving the vast mass of humanity all the same. However, the mere fact that Singer has put so much effort into answering this question – and that the answer is disputable – illustrates that, even if balance is possible, it is neither easy nor self-evident.

As much as we may resist it, we may, indeed, be left with the choice: equilibrium or extremes?

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