16 November 2012

Should 'actions have consequences' in a civilized society?

Katha Pollitt's column for the November 26 Nation, apparently written before the election, put the choice between Obama and Romney in almost the starkest terms possible. Some of the terminology is borrowed from Obama himself, who often characterizes the Republican attitude toward fellow citizens as "you're on your own." Expanding on that, Pollitt writes that "The logical corollary of 'You're on your own' is 'You're your own damn fault,'" explaining that "Americans in general are keen on seeing social problems in terms of individual weakness....After all, if you can hold people solely responsible for their problems, you can ignore them, even hate them." She finds examples of this attitude in the health department, deploring "how we demonize fat people" as well as the unsympathetic responses of New York Times readers to a columnist's account of a friend who had no insurance, despite having a job that offered a plan, when he contracted prostate cancer. Pollitt criticizes the mindset that looks upon suffering and says "actions have consequences." Her response:

Yes, actions have consequences, and that’s why we need society to protect us from our folly, ignorance and bad judgment—our own and one another’s. Sooner or later, everybody takes risks that turn out poorly. Some people have unprotected sex, cross against the light, drive too fast, ride a motorcycle without a helmet in Connecticut (where for some crazy reason that is legal), don’t wear a seat belt, drink too much, send money in response to e-mails from Nigerian princes, don’t vaccinate their kids. Some people refused to evacuate during Sandy—should relief workers deny them a hot meal and a blanket?

Pollitt puts the fundamental issue in all-or-nothing terms, but many readers -- the comment thread at the Nation website includes a lot of criticism from conservatives and libertarians --  reject those terms. There are two propositions in play. The first, which comes later in the text, is that there should be a limit to the consequences of actions, well short of death or even real suffering. The second is that society should set the limit and enforce it by protecting its members from the consequences of "folly, ignorance and bad judgment." Implicit in the second proposition is a third: that no one's actions have consequences exclusively for themselves. Because anyone's actions and/or suffering impacts others -- "No man is an island," Pollitt recites -- a "you're on your  own" attitude is unjustified in a social environment. Because she puts the issue in all-or-nothing terms, she may not seem to account for consequences well short of death or profound deprivation that individuals could be expected, even in a civilized society, or even obliged to absorb on their own. Critics will point to many cases where taking the consequences would be salutary to the individual, those consequences obviously being well short of death or permanent disability. Many on the right clearly believe that many other Americans should accept consequences that would ultimately prove salutary yet are delayed by liberals, presumably on the liberals' assumption that those consequences are truly unendurable or should not be endured by people in a compassionate society. Since Pollitt herself concedes -- it's really part of her main point -- that "we all make mistakes," her critics may wonder why she won't let people learn from them by feeling some consequences. Critics of the "nanny state" complain that people will never learn not to make the same mistakes so long as the government shields them from the consequences, and that such people will never become productive members of society until they do learn, however hard the lesson may be when they do. A lot of the popular ideological conflict in this country is a dispute over where to draw the line separating consequences from compassion. Pollitt takes an extreme position if her column reveals a hedonist "zero tolerance" attitude toward suffering. The opposite extreme would be that which requires sufferers to learn the lessons of their suffering on their own without making any effort to teach them; its most drastic form would be the "Darwin Awards" mentality that welcomes the demise of "losers" as beneficial to the race. I suspect that this is what Pollitt perceives whenever she hears that actions have consequences. At heart, I suspect, all she wants is for poor people not to die. A middle ground should be possible. Hedonists should be willing to concede that some "pain" can teach useful lessons. Will the other side concede that everyone must live?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Having your job outsourced is NOT a "personal weakness". It is a direct result of the personal weakness (greed) in others who are in a position to directly affect the lives of the working class.