Many of us would presumably be familiar with the thought experiment of a drowning child in a shallow pond. You are an able-bodied pedestrian, walking past a child who is drowning in a pond; you could save them, incurring little costs to yourself beyond damaging your shoes. You nonetheless choose to walk past the child, leaving them to die, in preservation of your shoes.
The intuitive response to you here would presumably be as follows: we would find your apathy not only discerning and alarming, but worthy of moral condemnation. In other words, we intuit that the pedestrian in question has a prima facie duty to rescue the child, and the failure to comply with said duty – given the low costs involved – is morally reprehensible. It is deemed, in academic-lese, to be impermissible.
The universality of this intuition then leads us to a more curious question – for why, then, do we not share this very intuition when presented with instances of individuals refraining from, if not actively circumventing, the engagement of episodes of socioeconomic injustices?
From the housing crisis in London (see Grenfell last year) to the epidemic of sexual assault on campuses, from the fact that the electoral college settled for a historically unprecedented bigot as their choice for the 45th President of the US, to the political reality that witnessed a surge in virulent, bigoted candidates in countries ranging from Brazil to France, the Netherlands to the Philippines – the instances and frequency of large-scale, state-sanctioned (or at least tacitly condoned) injustices have increased, yet many remain unmoved.
Unmoved, in being politically apathetic and preferring to non-vote despite the importance of each and every vote; unmoved, in shying away from calling out and engaging political injustices because of the alleged fear of ‘over-politicisation’; unmoved, in being callously detached from the parallel realities inhabited by many who are far less privileged or fortunate.
I’d make the simple claim that the imperative to resist injustice, much as the duty to rescue the drowning child in a shallow pond, is not an option, but obligatory. There are several strong reasons in favour of thinking so, many of which clearly follow from common moral intuitions.
The first is a claim from virtue – that a virtuous political agent should harbour attitudes, traits, and beliefs that reflect a fundamental commitment to the dignity, humanity, and rights of others, and that such a virtuous political agent would opt to reflect their concerns for others through seeking to alleviate others’ suffering. Indeed, if we would not wish to end up sleeping rough on the streets, or as subjects of sexual harassment before the kangaroo courts of unsympathetic, victim-blaming public, why should we be OK with instances where others are placed in such undesirable positions?
It does not take someone who is maximally virtuous to participate in speaking out, voting and acting in defiance of injustice. It merely takes a pinch of virtue and a healthy dose of introspection.
The second reason is an extension of the Harm Principle. We find it almost truistic these days to repeat the John Stuart Mill mantra – that an individual’s right ends when it results in harms towards an innocent individual. Yet what we perhaps fail to recognise is that every time we choose to not donate towards a charity that addresses global poverty, or to not speak out on behalf of victims who are silenced in the status quo and are unable to do so on their own, or to not lobby for political changes in protection of ethnic minorities who suffer under gerrymandering and the Incarceration Complex…
We are committing an active and conscious choice to prioritise something we value more – whether it be our careers, or luxury, or a marginal modicum of time – over the needs and interests of others. This very active decision is something that can and should be judged as having incurred harm upon others.
For every word that is left unspoken, every act that is unperformed, and every decision consciously or implicitly made, could well be indirectly enshrining the powers of the oppressors against the oppressed.
The final justification sources from the unique relations that suggest that some of us are far more proximate to the victims in question than we’d like to comfortably think. Men benefit from faux-meritocratic systems that structurally discriminate against women in selection for education, employment, and promotions within workplaces. Wealthy businesspersons benefit from the lowering of taxes, which indirectly deprive the working classes of welfare and much-needed public infrastructure. White citizens of former colonial powers benefit from the accumulated wealth founded upon centuries of colonial oppression of former colonies.
If we are legally cognizant of the proposition that unjust enrichment is morally problematic and ought to be faulted, why should we not extend this principle to spheres of social justice, and recognise that beneficiaries from injustices have an active obligation to ameliorate said injustices?
The central objection to all of these claims is one of costliness – that it costs individuals far too much in order to resist injustices. In some instances, this may well be true; incurring death threats because of speaking out against a tyrannical regime whilst risking one’s life is probably a disproportionate risk that no one should reasonably take. It would be absurd to argue otherwise.
Yet this objection doesn’t stand, for several reasons. Firstly, this claim is simply empirically untrue for many cases: voting in the Mid-terms is not costly; signing a petition and raising awareness on one’s Facebook page for a particular cause is not costly; speaking out in a (generally) democratic society and lending your potentially greater media capital to typically silenced voices. All of these actions are not particularly costly to the individual.
Secondly, to the extent that it may be very costly for one individual to ameliorate all effects of existing injustices, this is where the collective action problem lies. If every member of the public chips in a little, whether it be in monetary or political terms, the cost that each member has to shoulder becomes substantially less. Saving a homeless man from sleeping rough for a year may impose a large financial sum upon the lone benefactor – but this sum can be quickly and easily reduced when distributed amongst ten or fifteen people.
So, the costliness objection simply does not stand.
Let’s not forget the clichéd yet sagacious saying: all it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing. From the victims of Grenfell to the rough sleepers on St. Giles, from the thousands of boats of people and refugees being turned away by wanton border controls, to the victims of Donald Trump’s tyrannical rule – these are individuals to whom we owe a most significant obligation in assistance and beneficence.
Let’s not legitimise our inaction with the fallacious excuse of costliness. In face of injustice, we fight – we do not compromise, we do not yield, and we certainly do not go gently into that good night.