on brother’s keepers, civil responsibility, and the wisdom of MLK

When Dan and Libby Anne first challenged me (along with other progressive bloggers) to talk about civil responsibility, I thought it would be easy to come up with something interesting on the topic. After all, look at the news and try to find a hot discussion that’s not somehow related to the question of what we owe our neighbor. That’s the central question ion civil responsibility, at least how I define it.

Apparently it’s easier said than done. Partly, this is because my relationship to politics lately has been complicated. (I wrote about this a little earlier this month, here.) And partly it’s because civil responsibility is so central to pretty much every discussion going on in America, it’s almost too much a part of the bedrock to discuss in a short blog post. But I’d like to try, because this question matters. First I’m going to talk a bit about why I think politics alone won’t cut it on this issue. Then I’m going to take a cue from MLK and look at how civil responsibility is really related to human dignity. What do we owe our fellow citizens? That’s a hard question, but I think it starts with a simple truth: that whenever we find value and worth in things like race and gender and wealth, rather than in the fact that we’re all humans trying to live together, we’ve somehow missed the mark.

I believe in the importance of politics, trying to create more just laws and making sure those laws are actually reflected in our society. But I also think there’s something about civil responsibility that simply doesn’t boil down to good law and good politics. Law really is (or at least, really should be) about our actions, not about our character states. I can obligate people to give a portion of their income to charity, perhaps through taxes and a system of write-offs for charitable donations, but I can’t legislate generosity. In fact, I’ll go a step further: if you’re giving up part of your money because of what moral philosophers call external constraints – things like government taxation, social pressure from the neighbors, etc. – that’s hardly generosity.

There are things that matter deeply to me about civil responsibility, but I don’t believe they can easily be addressed by political discussions. This makes things difficult, because I’m still learning how to approach things except through the lens of political activism, and civil responsibility is a topic so relevant to politics it’s entirely too easy to slip back into an old way of discussing things. But I think this jump from talking about politics to a kind of ethical ought, the moral obligations incumbent upon us when we live in a society (totally apart from what the law requires of us) is important. Politics is often driven by ideals which is usually tied to some kind of morality, but it’s not so simple as saying, simply because something is immoral, it should also be illegal.

For instance, I’m generally anti-abortion – I believe that abortions necessarily destroy human potential and so having an abortion is immoral unless there are other factors that outweigh this harm. But I also am against political attempts to outlaw abortion. Even in cases where a woman has a moral obligation not to have an abortion, this still needs to be a choice rather than a legal obligation. So you can see/ how moral and political obligations diverge in this case. And it’s the same with civil responsibility. I’m very interested in what we owe each other, but that’s not the same question as what the law should demand we do for each other. And as I thought about Dan’s and Libby Anne’s question, it was the first one that really interested me.

So moving away from politics, what do we owe our fellow citizens in the moral sense? In honor of Dr. King’s birthday tomorrow, I was rereading his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and he makes some comments there I think may be helpful. Trying to explain why he feels morally obligated to follow some laws but not others, Dr. King writes,

Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?

Dr. King’s point is essentially this: a just law – the kind we have a moral obligation to obey – does not fracture human dignity. It does not point to race, or gender, or income, or whether you’re a Trekkie or Star Wars fan, or any other distinction you can imagine and use this as the basis of moral worth. The problem with segregation wasn’t that it made African-Americans suffer materially (although it did); the problem was that it treated them like less than fully human, not because they failed at being good humans, but for the completely irrelevant distinction that they had darker skin than Caucasians. This treated some humans like they were worth more than others, setting up an I/it rather than I/thou relationship. And that, according to Dr. King, was deeply wrong.

Now, this doesn’t mean we can’t ever talk about individual genders, races, classes, etc. African-Americans really do have a different history in this country than do Caucasians (or Latinos, or Asian-Americans, or Native Americans, or…), and it makes sense to talk about that. I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with allowing subcultures built around these or other factors. The trick is keeping those subcultures from becoming exclusionary. It’s one thing for a racial group to develop its own structures that help its members navigate and make sense of their unique experience; it’s quite another when that subculture says they’re better humans than other groups are, or when they hog up resources and honors that anyone would want and make them available just to members of their group. This is a big part of why I think we’re generally more comfortable with, say, a black pride group than a white pride group, or an LGBT pride group than a heterosexuals pride group: the first one just isn’t in a position to keep non-blacks or non-LGBT from getting good things, where the second group in each pair definitely is. Subcultures and power usually don’t mix all that well.

This all reminds me of one of my favorite lines in Les Miserables, from the “Look Down” reprise where we first meet Gavroche:

Look down and see the beggars at your feet
Look down and show some mercy if you can
Look down and see the sweepings of the street
Look down, look down, Upon your fellow man!

It’s amazing how difficult this is for many people: seeing “your fellow man” in “the beggars at your feet.” I believe, though, that this is the heart of civic responsibility. We need to recognize the way people who look nothing like us and view the world in radically different ways still need to be treated fairly and with respect. When it comes to respect and dignity, it’s their humanity that really matters. And our actions need to reflect this.

How does this play out, practically speaking? Let’s look at a few different issues here.

1. Poverty: Human dignity seems to require that humans – all humans, at least all members of your society – don’t live hand-to-mouth. Without bread there is no Torah. Civil responsibility requires that everyone, not just rich people, have the luxury of making choices, which becomes more and more difficult the less money you have. If an adult can’t support herself working full time, and I mean at any job the society wants done by an adult, you’re benefiting from having someone be a part of your society without letting them live a life worthy of a human. And that’s a problem.

2. Gun Violence: Guns may be useful tools for protecting our families and our property, but they also can be very dangerous. Civil responsibility requires that we not value our own safety over that of other people, and that we not focus so much on our own right to be safe that we undervalue other peoples’ lives. If our discussion of gun control, gun violence, and other related issues is driven by our personal rights, we risk valuing our own liberties over our neighbors’ safety, especially if we choose to own a gun out of fear (rather than out of a need to handle genuine circumstances in our community – whether this applies will vary greatly from community to community). When that happens, we put ourselves over our neighbors, a clear problem for civil responsibility.

3. Criminal Justice: In America, Afro-Americans and Latinos are more likely to end up in jail than Caucasians are, even for similar offenses. There’s also often a difference in the way the rich and poor are treated by the justice system. For instance, drugs common in suburbia carry lighter sentences than those common in urban areas, and rich defendants are much more likely to end up in drug treatment than in jail. Civil responsibility requires we set up a justice system that punishes crimes equally, without falling harder on some parts of society than others. Prison is dehumanizing even when it isn’t physically painful because it separates you from your community and keeps you from living a productive life or making your own choices. When we treat different races or classes differently when they commit similar crimes, we deprive people of their liberty, not because of what they did but because they are not rich and white. This is the sin of segregation Dr. King described.

The list goes on and on. I’m sure you can think of your own situations where this kind of problem comes up. But hopefully you get the idea.

Let me be very clear about one thing here. People can disagree about the how on these issues; I’m much more concerned with the motives. Take poverty. I think if we live in a society where people can’t afford basics like food, shelter and health care, that’s a major problem. But people can disagree over how best to solve that problem. Some will say we need to collect tax dollars and send poor people a check on top of their income. Others will say the government should pay for basic food, shelter and health care for everyone, which people are free to not use if they can do better on their own. Still others honcestly believe the free market works best and what we really need is less income inequality and more better-paying jobs. Not more taxes but a healthy economy where people really can support themselves.

I can respect all of those approaches as coming from good motives. I may not think they’ll all work, of course, but that’s a different issue. What I can’t respect is the person who thinks the plight of the minimum-wage job stocking Walmart shelves or grilling his McDonalds hamburger simply isn’t his concern. As long as we live in the same community, as long as we are interdependent, it’s our job to make sure people have their humanity respected, which means they earn enough to meet their needs. And similarly for the other issues. We may disagree on how best to meet those needs, but acting like those other peoples’ needs and basic dignity doesn’t count? Or that their worth is tied up in their skin color, the size of their pay check, whether they love guys or girls, or anything of the sort?

Somehow I doubt Dr. King would be on board with that. I know I’m not.


P.S. – Libby Anne pulled together a great round-up of all the entries to this challenge. Do check it out.


  • Posted January 23, 2013 at 3:41 am | Permalink

    Really interesting points, particularly about poverty and understanding that we benefit from the labor of people who aren’t paid living wages.

    • fidesquaerens
      Posted January 23, 2013 at 3:46 am | Permalink

      Thanks! It’s always good to get others thinking about things that interest me, and even better to to be told someone else found the points worthy of thought.

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