America: on Existentialism and Obligation

Posted on November 9, 2016 by

This is not meant as a rhetorical exercise; it is a genuine issue I’m wrestling with re: my own academic future. As such, please keep comments respectful and relevant. Content notice for discussion of the repugnant positions of the United States’s President and Vice President elect.

In October of 1992, on a stage in Georgia, Vice Presidential candidate James Stockdale asked the ever important philosophical questions: “Who am I? Why am I here?”

In the way of the 2016 Presidential election, I sit [more-or-less] comfortably in my office in Alberta wondering something not dissimilar. Many friends, between terrified pleas for an explanation I do not have and expressions of anger and frustration, have sent me notes congratulating me on my preemptive escape from a country that (like Stockdale) seems to have lost its mind.

The problem is, in lieu of these elections, I wonder whether it is appropriate to be the sort of person who pursues the beginnings of a career in philosophy in Canada. I know it is important to go where there are problems, and try and address those problems with the skills that I have; that’s a part of the person I aspire to be. However, at the moment, that general maxim seems entirely incompatible with what I’m doing.

Given that the United States just elected a President who openly talks about groping and demeaning women, has a history of violating the civil rights of black Americans, unconditionally supports the profiling and intimidation of black and brown Americans, advocates committing war crimes, and incites threats and violence against Jews, Muslims, Latinos, blacks, gays, trans*people, etc. ad nauseum; given that the Vice President elect believes that homosexuality can be “treated” with electroconvulsive therapy, that puritanism about needle exchange is more important then the spread of HIV/AIDS, believes in the importance between “forcible” and non-forcible rape, and actively tries to humiliate women in pursuit of safe and legal abortions with restriction provisions.

Perhaps the appropriate response is to think that there are already activists, there are already people doing the hard work. However, given that it seems the work is much harder, the state of things much worse, than previously understood and anticipated, it seems morally obligatory to lend a hand.

In a famous thought experiment, we ask students whether it is morally permissible to walk across a bridge as you see a child drowning below. The answer is obviously no. Suppose that there is someone else, at that very moment, fishing out the child. Then is it permissible to cross? Perhaps, but just in case the work that the person is doing doesn’t require an additional set of hands. If it does, then there’s a moral obligation to help out. In this moment, I feel like the guy standing on the edge of the bridge, watching some of my friends try to save the drowning child and struggling with the line. I don’t know how much help I’d be, but perhaps it would be enough.

The challenge is that I’ve built a life, an identity, predicated on the pursuit of a certain sort of position, and stabilized (more-or-less) that life in a certain sort of place. In order to do that kind of work, really do the work of contributing to the social good of protecting the rights of LGBTQ, black, and Latino people, I’d have to give that up. Do I have a moral obligation to do that? I’m not so sure. People tend to give a lot of leeway when it comes to protecting their identity, their condition. Even radical philosophers like Peter Singer don’t maintain that he should quit philosophy and go be of more direct service to the community; but, in this moment, I am not so sure that’s a defensible position.

As a philosopher, it seems morally appropriate to use my work and position in the field to engage in this sort of advocacy. As a human being, it seems morally obligatory to do as much as I can, simpliciter. Insofar as the former may require giving up the latter, I find myself returning to Stockdale’s poignant, existential question.

“Why am I? Why am I here?”

-Josh can be found on twitter at @thephilosotroll