One of my favorite Simpsons episodes has a slick stranger selling the entire citizenry of Springfield a monorail as the solution to all their problems. The persuasion takes the form of a song and dance number, in the style of The Music Man: “What about us brain-dead slobs?” croaks Barney the drunk. “You’ll be given cushy jobs!”
Keep the Simpsons in mind while you read this bizarre tract, from the Harvard Law Review of all publications, but linked by The Volokh Conspiracy (in turn linked by Instapundit). The title of the piece shouts, in all caps, NEVER SHOULD A PEOPLE STARVE IN A WORLD OF PLENTY. Okay. A number of pointless moral choice scenarios are presented, in the style of the odious Peter Singer: should Phil save a baby or keep his Ferrari? That sort of thing. It then leads to this astonishing statement:
To the surprise of many, the sad fact is that children are dying every day in every part of the world, from the United States to India; from Europe to South America to Africa; no corner of the planet is free from this tragedy. In fact, a young child dies of malnutrition or starvation every five seconds. It is also the case that, with a donation of $200, a child’s life can be saved. There are organizations that dedicated themselves toward saving the lives of innocent children. They provide the vaccines for curable diseases and they supply the food to ward off starvation. By sending just $200, you can save the life of one child.
The author, I assume, is a Harvard law student from a privileged background, and so may be excused his surprise to learn that tragedy exists in the world. But the vapid certainty of his solution — the inability to grasp how morality works — the smug implication that those who disagree must not be clever enough or virtuous enough — makes one wonder what sort of law they teach at Harvard.
If I sacrifice my Ferrari to save a child, I have acted on the stage of my life, and I will see, immediately, the consequences of my action. That’s the way morality functions. If I give $200 to an “organization,” I may in consequence feel morally uplifted, but I have no idea what will result from my action, for good or evil. I may know an organization well enough to support it with money in the belief that good things will happen, but that’s a long way from expecting a “final solution” to child malnutrition.
We can hope to do good to the people we live with and encounter. We should, if we are fortunate in our circumstances, share our bounty, often through intermediaries. But we do this in the simple hope of making things better. The human condition will remain tragic, regardless of our efforts. If we don’t die when we are children, we must die at some later moment.
The moral struggle in every man’s heart isn’t for the purpose of finding “solutions” to problems, but to approximate goodness of character, that I may behave the way I should toward those who enter my life. Long-distance morality is thus no morality at all.
None knew this better than Dickens: he called it “telescopic philanthropy,” and embodied it in one of the best characters in his best novel, Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House. Her children, husband, and home were thoroughly neglected, but she worked self-importantly for the faraway objects of her compassion.
“You find me, my dears,” said Mrs. Jellyby, snuffing the two great office candles in tin candlesticks, which made the room taste strongly of hot tallow (the fire had gone out, and there was nothing in the grate but ashes, a bundle of wood, and a poker), “you find me, my dears, as usual, very busy; but that you will excuse. The African project at present employs my whole time. It involves me in correspondence with public bodies and with private individuals anxious for the welfare of their species all over the country. I am happy to say it is advancing. We hope by this time next year to have from a hundred and fifty to two hundred healthy families cultivating coffee and educating the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger.”
Most of us believe the world is complex, and the human condition tragic. The select few believe life is a problem to which they have a simple solution. These latter types don’t judge us to be the honest muddlers that we are: rather, they consider us either willful obscurantists or callously self-centered. We should be paying attention, because they know the answer. They have the solution.
I swear it’s Springfield’s only choice…
Throw up your hands and raise your voice!
Lyle Lanley: What’s it called?
Lyle Lanley: Once again…
Marge: But Main Street’s still all cracked and broken…
Bart: Sorry, Mom, the mob has spoken!