Many people believe that they do not have a moral duty to invest in their neighbors’ lives. On the contrary, I will argue that it is humanity’s obligation to genuinely invest themselves in their neighbors’ lives, but not to the extent that it harms the helper’s mental and/or physical stability. Three key points fall into place when accomplishing this task: A person needs to refrain from using others to benefit himself, must treat his neighbors’ emotions as his own, and must reject the Utilitarian stance of helping as many people as possible as too extreme. In my following argument, I will support and explain these three claims.
To begin, one of the key components in investing ourselves in our neighbors’ lives is to treat them as ends not simply means. We ought to see beneath the surface, beneath their outer layer. In Martin A. Nowak’s “Why We Help,” he states that “The fourth mechanism that fosters the emergence of cooperation is indirect reciprocity … In indirect reciprocity, one individual decides to aid another based on the need individual’s reputation. Those who have a reputation for assisting others who fall on hard times might even find themselves on the receiving end of goodwill from strangers when their own luck takes a turn for the worse,” (Nowak 2012, 38). He maintains that present-day humans have a “I’ll scratch your back, and someone will scratch mine” (Nowak 2012, 38) mentality. Although in context it appears better than the age-old saying “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” because you are initiating the good deed, or “scratching,” rather than doing it after someone has committed a good deed for you, it holds the same selfish connotation. It is positive that people are aiding each other, but the view in this mindset is if they help others, someone will take note of their actions and aid them when they are in need. Just as “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” treats people as means to get to the end, having the mentality to commit a helpful act simply to receive one in return uses people as means to achieve a reward for themselves in the end.
Some may object that this reciprocal reward is not always guaranteed, however. Indirect reciprocity relies on a strong amount of trust that others will take note of our positive actions and feel compelled to reward us with a returned gesture. As we have observed throughout our time on Earth, life is not fair, therefore just because we commit a good act does not mean that we will receive one in return. Even if someone states they will reward you because of your good act, we have also come to find out that people do not always keep their promises and are not always reliable, so we can’t put as much trust in them as we may like. Despite the uncertainty of a reward, people’s motivations remains self-consumed. Those with this mindset are inspired to perform helpful acts by the hope that they will receive one in return. We ought not to have this way of thinking, of treating people as means for an end.
Rather than cultivating this mindset, we should “perform selfless acts for the greater good” (Nowak 2012, 38), the greater good being our neighbors. We need to do our best to aid our neighbors when it does not infringe upon our health, but not to the extent that Nowak describes using Charles Darwin’s example of a tribe in The Descent of Man. Darwin states in his book that tribes “were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good” (Nowak 2012, 38). Darwin’s 142 year old book reflects the Utilitarian Principle of doing everything humanly possible to ensure everyone’s happiness. This view is too extreme, as it voices that it is necessary to be prepared to always help anyone in society without taking your health into consideration. Nowak also states that his work has shown that over the past two decades human beings have cooperated with each other in order to help their neighbors, rather than competed against each other. He refers to this current way of thinking as “a snuggle for survival,” (Nowak 2012, 36) meaning that people help others in order to survive and maintain a good life for themselves. We must not conform to this mentality. Instead, we need to maintain the idea of investing in our neighbors’ emotions simply for their benefit.
Some may argue, however, that the overall outcome benefits everyone involved, so why worry about people’s motivations for committing an act. Those cooperating to help neighbors are repaid by maintaining a positive life. They are happy in their lifestyle and at the prospect of receiving a reward for their actions. The beneficiary whom they aid comes away profitable as well. If society is cooperating for the common good and the product amounts to positive results, then what’s the trouble? Thee one problem with brushing aside people’s selfish motivations: selfish mentalities and inclinations to help others will cause people to embrace this way of thinking in everything they do. Eventually, helpful acts for others will no longer exist because egotism has taken over. Good deeds towards others do not immediately benefit oneself, so they are forgotten. Self-consumption will overtake humanity and helping others will become a foreign concept.
Josiah Royce begins “The Moral Insight” by stating early on, “Act as a being would act who included thy will and thy neighbors’ will in the unity of one life, and who had therefore to suffer the consequences for the aims of both that will follow from the act of either” (Royce 1913, 148). In order to truly invest oneself in another’s life, you need to see yourself and your neighbor as one person. In the standard formation of the Golden Rule,“love thy neighbor as thyself” (Royce 1913, 148) holds a self-centered stigma because you are simply treating others respectfully so you get respect in return. Royce adopts the idea of seeing your neighbor as your equal instead. He states, “In so far as in thee lies, act as if thou wert at once thy neighbor and thyself. Treat these two lives as one” (Royce 1913, 149). Genuinely seeing your neighbors’ life as your own, you need to rise with them in their highs and fall with them in their lows. A great deal of empathy for your neighbors’ life, the same care and insight you have into your own life, is necessary in order to see your neighbor as your equal.
Royce recognizes that we commit an “imperfect recognition of our neighbor implies rather realization of the external aspect of his being, as that part of him which affects us, than realization of his inner and peculiar world of personal experience” (Royce 1913, 149). The public, ourselves included, objectify humans, seeing them simply for the task that they perform for us. Instead we need to realize “his inner and peculiar world of personal experience” and seek to know his true self. Rather than glancing over people in our town such as the butcher, grocer, and policeman as those who simply make our food or protect our town and hold no other role in life, Royce makes an excellent point stating that we ought to observe their emotional state as well. We need to perceive our community members as “masses of genuine inner life, of sentiment, of love, or of felt desire” (Royce 1913, 151) to invest ourselves in their worlds.
Royce poses a question that needs to be asked: “Is anyone of these alive for him in the full sense,-- sentiment, emotional, and otherwise like himself” (Royce 1913, 151). Essentially he is asking whether or not we view people around us who perhaps we don’t have much contact with as living, breathing, human beings with lives full of rich emotions and memories. Growing up not getting to know these people well beyond their role in the community, it can be difficult to see them beyond the job they represent. Neighbors we may not come into contact with all that often are difficult to relate to and at times sympathize with as well. Selfishness, evident in situations with our neighbors and in humans’ motivations, is a pattern that according to Royce, has “moments of insight, with accompanying resolutions,” and then we regress to seeing our neighbor as “a foreign power” yet again (Royce 1913, 156). We must, however, acknowledge that “As he is real, he is as much an object for my effort as I myself am, in case I affect him. Ours is one life” (Royce 1913, 154). Establishing that your actions affect your neighbor as his actions affect you, his goals, wishes, and desires will come into your focus. We begin to see our neighbors as one with us and stop objectifying them. Our “neighbor is actual, as concrete, as thou are” (Royce 1913, 157).
Not only must we see our neighbors’ lives as our own, but we ought to learn about their life situation in order to help them in the best possible way. Elaborating on my point about seeing people as more than what their shell in humanity encompasses, we ought to fully invest in learning all we can about our neighbors’ situations. Though it is beneficial to treat their life as equal to your own, your neighbor most likely will not have wants and needs identical to your own. Therefore, you must take the time and effort to wholly determine how your neighbor wants to be treated, what their hopes and aspirations are, and at what point they are at in their life. The pairing of treating your neighbor’s life with the care and respect of your own, and thoroughly absorbing their situation in life will provide your neighbor with the utmost benefits.
Due to the idea of intertwining yourself with your neighbors in order to invest yourself wholly in their lives, you shouldn’t overextend yourself by helping too many people. The many consequences your neighbors’ lives will affect you greatly. The results of consequences from multiple lives other than your own would be overwhelming. For this reason, the Utilitarian view of helping as many people as possible achieve happiness is too extreme.
As observed in “The Ones Who walk Away From Omelas,” attempting to please a plethora of people does not just result in one becoming overwhelmed, but in one’s own suffering as well. In the town of Omelas, everything is perfect from the weather to the people, but this perfection is the result of one child’s anguish. The work illustrates the image of this innocent boy who has been locked in a basement with little physical care, social interactions, or living essentials for the majority of his life. He sacrifices himself for the greater good and happiness of the community. Aware of his suffering, the whole town allows it to go on because “they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery” (LeGuin 2004, 3).
This testimony exhibits the ultimate consequences if one embeds oneself in too many people’s lives and overextends onself. You ought to reach out to those in your community, but do not overextend yourself to the point where it results in detrimental effects on you, as with the child with “a mass of festered sores” (LeGuin 2004, 3) in Omela. Peter Singer states this in his piece “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” He says that “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it” (Singer 2007, 614). He goes on to explain that “sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance” means “without causing anything else comparably bad to happen” (Singer 2007, 614). This pertains to the concept of marginal utility, giving away your resources to the point just before bringing about your own suffering. We need to consistently do good deeds, however if it comes down to sacrificing something important such as mental and/or physical health, do not allow the deeds to infringe upon anything of “moral importance.”
Rather than invest all of your time and effort into someone else’s life, why not spend that time bettering yourself in order to better serve others later in life? According to the Dhamma, a lesson taught by the Buddha, “in looking after yourself you are also looking after others and by looking after others you also look after yourself” (Payutto 2003, 1). As Singer states, we need to ensure that we do not sacrifice our own moral importances to commit an act, no matter how great; You are not fully capable of aiding another in bettering their life if your own is not in order. The Dhamma says that one cultivates a virtue that begins in themselves, and then is shared with the world. To help others to the best of our ability, benefitting them to the highest degree, it is necessary to better oneself first. We need to establish that we are not “sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance” (Singer 2007, 614) before we help others in areas related to their moral importance.
This is a valid point and it seeks to establish the balance between generosity and self-help. Investing yourself in your neighbors’ lives and emotions and not extending yourself too far in aiding them demonstrates a healthy balance between selflessness and care for yourself.
Adopting the three virtues of treating others as ends not means, investing fully in your neighbors’ lives, and viewing the Utilitarian perspective as too strong, you will achieve this balance of service and personal stability. Some people may believe that it is not their duty to devote an equal amount of time, concern, and care into our neighbors as we do into ourselves, however they are narrow-minded and wrong. We ought to help those around us, so long as it does not impair our physical and mental states.
1. Josiah Royce, “The Moral Insight,” from The Religious Aspects of Philosophy (Houghton
2. Martin A. Nowak, “Why We Help: The Evolution of Cooperation” (Scientific American July
3. Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” in: Ethics in Practice, ed. H. LaFollette
4. Ursula K. LeGuin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” from The Wind’s Twelve
Quarters: Stories (Perennial 2004).
5. Ven. Prayudh Payutto. (2003). Helping Yourself to Help Others. Retrieved November 5,
2013, from http://www.buddhanet.net/cmdsg/helping.htm.