Does distance matter?

There is some contention in ethics over the moral relevance of distance—I touched on this to an extent in the ethics of rising sea level (II). In essence, the question “does distance matter?” amounts to asking whether we have greater responsibility to those who are nearer to us than to those who are far away—if we have any such responsibility to those far away at all. In context of catastrophic sea level rise, one might ask: am I obliged to my neighbor who will be affected by rising sea level more so than to someone living in, say, Bangladesh who will likewise be affected?

Some would say, yes—we have some such responsibility to help our neighbors deal with sea level rise, and no such responsibility to help someone in a similar predicament in Bangladesh. Others would contend that we have equal responsibility to both. A third option might be that we have responsibilities to both, but more to one than the other—i.e. we do indeed have responsibilities to sea level rise related climate refugees from Bangladesh, but we have more responsibility to our neighbors. Another might say we have responsibilities to neither, but should assist only if it serves our own interests. The list could go on, but that’s not the point here. The point is to show that it’s not necessarily clear how distance plays into responsibility. It’s not so clear if distance matters.

So let’s construct a thought experiment to clarify things.

Suppose you live in the US and you’re running late for some sort of important engagement—a dinner, perhaps—that requires you wear a shirt. But you had been at the beach (you had accidentally fallen asleep in the Sun) and are utterly shirtless. You have no option except to purchase a shirt, and fast—somewhere on your way to the important dinner you’re running late for. Along your way you come across exactly one place that sells shirts—the only shirt store, in fact. You enter the store and find, to your dismay, that your shirt options here are rather limited. There are exactly two options, no more no less, of exactly the same quality, kind, price, etc. But you notice a key difference, all other things being equal. One was made in an Indonesian sweatshop and the other in a Mexican maquiladora, both of the same deplorable conditions. Your moral sense starts to ache. Whichever you choose, you realize, is an implicit endorsement of the reprehensible labor practices that produced it. You don’t approve of or want to endorse either, but you seem to have no choice about it—suppose you must choose. So you wonder—does distance matter?

If distance matters, then as a person living in the US you have more responsibility to not endorse the closer repugnance. If distance matters, you should buy the Indonesian-made shirt, swallowing the sad endorsement of the unethical practice that’s farther away. But this seems wrong.

If distance doesn’t matter, on the other hand, then you have equal responsibility not to endorse either, and you have come to an impossible choice. The only ethical option, as you see it, is to purchase neither, remain shirtless, and forgo your engagement at whatever sacrifice that entails—because distance doesn’t matter. Neither is morally acceptable.

The thought experiment may seem odd—I’m open to other formulations or suggestions—but perhaps it helps clarify intuition. I think, at least in this case, intuition tells us that endorsing either disturbing labor practice is unethical—that distance doesn’t matter—and that we have equal responsibility to treat people on the other side of the Earth with the same moral considerability as we do those nearby. Of course, an obvious objection stems from the premise “ought implies can.” Distance doesn’t matter only if we are just as capable of treating those nearby and those far away as moral patients. If we literally can’t help those far away—e.g. a drowning person on the other side of the planet—then we aren’t morally responsible for doing so. Ought implies can. We can only be obliged to do that which is possible for us. But insofar as we can help distant people, we should.

The implications of this intuition for how we ought to address global problems like climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, sea level rise, world hunger and dehydration, sociopolitical oppression, ocean acidification, rampant poverty and disease, slavery and human trafficking, etc., are vast. If distance doesn’t matter then we all share a global responsibility to solve these problems, or, in cases that involve global commons, to engage and address them in and on equitable and proportional grounds of complicity and capacity.

Depending on the context of the moral question, distance may or may not matter, more or less. Regarding global climate change, perhaps distance doesn’t matter. But regarding exposure to the risks and harms of natural gas development, where proximity is an obvious important factor, perhaps distance does. To say that distance always does or always doesn’t matter is an over-simplification, so it’s important we rehash this question in various contexts. The more often we ask the question, the more often we may find it appropriate or obligatory to expand our spheres of moral consideration. And such expansion, it seems to me, is of supreme importance if we are to live well in our global community.


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