Friday, May 6, 2016

Our Obligation To Each Other

What is our obligation to each other? If there is one, what is our level of commitment to meeting that obligation? And what is the most effective manner for us – individually or collectively – to fulfill that commitment? If we have no such obligation, what should then be done with those unable to adequately fend for themselves?

These are some of the most fundamental questions being asked of us today, demanding answers from us that we so studiously seek to avoid, the WHAT questions that should precede the HOW arguments. Is our only obligation to our one sole life, or do we share some measure of responsibility for the well-being of others? On a national level, what does being “an American” really mean?

For instance, does every child in America deserve to be fully fed, clothed and safely sheltered each and every day? If not, then what should we do with a hungry, unclothed or unsheltered child? Is every child responsible for him/her self regardless of their capability to do so?

We can ask a similar question about our older Americans. They have typically lived a productive lifetime, and have supported us in often intangible ways far distant and long invisible to us. Now they find their skills unwanted, their bodies insufficient, and their resources inadequate to their needs. What obligations do each of us have to each of these?

In a land which has the most advanced medical science capabilities in the world, to whom should this science be made available? Should all of those capabilities be available to all people, or all capabilities to only some of us, or should some portion of those capabilities be available to all? What level of safety of life and limb should be inherently available to an American?

The Founding Fathers strongly believed in the necessity of an educated public in order for the country to successfully progress and succeed as a free and prosperous democracy. Over the course of the mid-1800s through early 1900s, America committed to the universal education of all children, regardless of their ability to pay. Yet the quality of that education has never been universal due to issues of discrimination and varying economic support. Is our commitment only to the appearance of educating, or is it access to real quality of instruction regardless of one’s circumstances? And does this include education beyond the basics of adolescence?

We are bedeviled with similar questions around a host of other topics. But instead of answering fundamental questions about our shared obligations, we instead argue about individual self-responsibility, government welfare programs, tax liabilities and national debt, the proper roles for religions and charities, economic theories, and “the 1%.”

In the 1607 Jamestown settlement, founded in pursuit of individual economic success, “earn your own keep” and “work to provide for yourself or be left on your own,” became the social contract. That experience bequeathed to future generations a heritage of American rugged individualism and the expectation of economic success from one’s own hard work. Self-reliance was the foundation.

Conversely, the 1620 Puritan settlement of Plymouth was founded on pursuit of religious freedom to nurture the spirit, built upon a collective (communist) system of economic sharing. All members of the community shared in the collective bounty based upon one’s mutual obligation to each other. That experience bequeathed to future generations a heritage of looking out for one’s neighbor and sharing the wealth, particularly in times of personal disruption and crisis.

These two heritages have left Americans with an ongoing tension between self-responsibility and helping one’s neighbor. We have been inordinately successful economically by our creativity, inventiveness, and “can do” work ethic for 400 years. We have also been extraordinarily generous in our charitable work, giving and sacrificing for others not only locally but across the globe. It is a generosity recognized and rightfully appreciated by people of all backgrounds the world over.

Yet the tensions between self-responsibility and helping others remain, and is a growing divide today. Protecting our economic viability and strength is certainly necessary to be able to be generous. Every major religion – Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism – challenges us to be compassionate to, and accept a measure of responsibility for, the well-being of others, especially the “poor, the widows, and the orphans.” Billions of religious people routinely attend their respective houses or worship and attest their acceptance to these moral obligations. But as they end their ritual service and leave their gatherings, what then happens to that profession of obligation? How does it become realized or lost in the everyday business of daily living?

Perhaps as Americans there is no obligation between us, even though each of our lives, and our successes, has been made possible by the enabling actions of many others – often unseen and unknown to us. Perhaps we all make our own way, and create or lose our own reward. Perhaps our religious teachings only apply selectively, and only to those who we deem deserving of our favor. But instead of endless debates about what government should or should not be doing, and what programs should exist and which should be cut, perhaps we should change the discussion altogether. As a collective society with a national border, we have both the right and the ability to decide what our national obligations to each other will be, and how we will choose to execute those obligations. Whether it is every individual for his/her self, or whether all share together, or perhaps something in between.

But in such a discussion, let us first leave behind for the moment the safe protection of unengaged intellectual argument, mathematical economic theory, and abstract principles of governance that we pontificate in the privacy of our living rooms and social media forums. Let us instead encounter the very stark reality of “If not this, then what?” When the social program is cut, what then happens to the individual? If it is not me, then who will feed the hungry child?

©  2016   Randy Bell