It’s a little late here, and my sinuses are full of fluid, but I promised you all a post about my Public Ethics course, so this will be my pre-bedtime activity for the night. Today was a whirlwind, but was incredibly rewarding nonetheless. We had this incredible lecture that explored the true differences between inequality and inequity. We spent a lot of time trying to tackle the question, “If we see an inequality, is that inequality inherently unfair?” “If the inequality is unfair (and unjust), does that then turn the inequality into an inequity?” “How might we go about determining if an inequality is unfair and/or unjust, and what would we do to combat the inequality?”
But those questions are to be answered (or explored, rather) another day. I’m here to write about what I learned on Monday, or at least tell you how I experienced this Public Ethics class. My teacher reminds me of my old professor, Scott Stonington (shoutout!), as he was extremely enthusiastic about his field of study while being so personal with his students that anything he lectured on would seem interesting to me. I also share first names with him, so you could say that inherently makes him decently cool…
To start class, Jeff got us into groups of five and had us all learn each others names, while he made the same attempt. He then asks the class if anyone can explain the “James and the villagers” example that was in our readings for the past week (I can’t remember if this was actually the name of the experiment). Whoever knew what he was talking about was told to stand up and explain, as dramatic as possible (his words, not mine), the story. It went as such:
You are a foreigner in the colonial United States. You land on the coast and come inland, entering into a village that is run by a dictator, who is an imperialist eternally trying to exert his dominance over the community of Native Americans over which he rules. Seeing that you’re another white foreigner, he happily calls you over to what best resembles a town meeting place. You look to the wall of the meeting place where the dictator has lined up twenty Native Americans. The dictator says, “Welcome to the village! Now, there’s been some misbehaving in the community, so I’ve decided to show these Native Americans who’s boss. My plan was basically to kill twenty of them right here, death by gunshot. This will help them learn that I can’t be challenged as a ruler.”
“But, I’m going to turn this over to you. You, good sir, can shoot only one Native American by yourself, and the other nineteen walk. However if you don’t choose to kill one and you walk away, then I will kill all of them.”
What would you do as the foreigner?
The class was polled and we talked about why or why not we might have chosen between the two options. After exploring our options, Jeff kept modifying the situation. For those of us who said we would kill the one Native American for the others to go free, he asked what we would do if instead we had not a gun to use but a hammer. I brought up the question of age and (independently) quality of life. What if one Native American was willing to take the fall for the rest? Would that choice have been completely autonomous? What makes the choice justified? Is it your fault for the deaths of twenty Native Americans if you choose to walk away? A Deontologist might say no. A consequentialist might say yes.
This story is a good precursor to my year studying (predominantly) philosophy. Some say, “No, philosophy is not useful because the questions that philosophers ask never have the right answer!” However, I think we’re trained to believe that there really is only one answer to the deeper questions we encounter in life. However, the fact that these questions don’t have an answer gives them this incredible inner beauty that lets us truly explore the human condition. Exploring the grey area in philosophical thought experiments like these will let us really pin-point where our boundaries lay, and finding our limits (or others limits) is important, in my mind, when trying to truly understand another. My hope is that training myself in exploring the grey areas of life through philosophy will let me then be better equipped to provide solutions (not answers) to the most difficult problems that arise in the world global health.
That’s it for tonight, friends – thanks for thinking with me.