My dearest Shosh and Jaialai:
Too often, people blind themselves to problems occurring outside their homes and occupy themselves only to what immediately affects their own lives. They leave the problems at large (e.g., pollution, injustice, fascism, racism, environmental degradation, etc.) to the care of others. This is known as the “free-ridership problem”.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains the problem as follows:
In many contexts, all of the individual members of a group can benefit from the efforts of each member and all can benefit substantially from collective action. For example, if each of us pollutes less by paying a bit extra for our cars, we all benefit from the reduction of harmful gases in the air we breathe and even in the reduced harm to the ozone layer that protects us against exposure to carcinogenic ultraviolet radiation (although those with fair skin benefit far more from the latter than do those with dark skin). If all of us or some subgroup of us prefer the state of affairs in which we each pay this bit over the state of affairs in which we do not, then the provision of cleaner air is a collective good for us. (If it costs more than it is worth to us, then its provision is not a collective good for us.)
Unfortunately, my polluting less does not matter enough for anyone—especially me—to notice. Therefore, I may not contribute my share toward not fouling the atmosphere. I may be a free rider (or freerider) on the beneficial actions of others. This is a compelling instance of the logic of collective action, an instance of such grave import that we pass laws to regulate the behavior of individuals to force them to pollute less.
Greater minds than mine have argued the morality of free-ridership, i.e., whether it is immoral for me to sponge off another or whether it is immoral for another to impose their collective will upon me. Id. But, I think they miss the point: I have a moral obligation to not waste finite resources. For example, if I were given a basket of food sufficient to feed 10 people, would it not be morally wrong and morally repugnant of me to pick a few items out of the basket then waste the rest as target practice, especially when there are others who go without food and could have used the food I wasted? If that’s true and if my moral duty is to keep myself alive and not burden others, then my obligations must include nurturing and making the best use of the finite resources which sustain life and an orderly society. Whether I do this individually or collectively is a separate matter.
Your maternal grandmother, imperfect as she may be, has done us a great service by teaching us at a young age to care others. We used to tutor children, help carry groceries for our elderly neighbors, mow their lawns, push cars stuck in ice and snow as we walked to church, translate for schools and churches, etc. In other words, she taught us to be activists.
Her teaching is in keeping with our faith. As stated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, where I once worked:
16 The way we came to know love was that he laid down his life for us; so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.k
17If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him?l
18Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.m
Although not religious, I am spiritual and try to live right. Thus, I have spent years working with refugees (in the U.S. as well as overseas), caring for the homeless (by both creating policies and homeless shelters for them as well as feeding and caring for them during the freeze of winter), helping the poor and the elderly (by building homes and improving the safety net for those in need), protecting children and victims of domestic violence, etc. I believe we are called to actions not just by our faith, but by our humanity. For example, how can we blind ourselves to the fact that “40 million people struggle with hunger in the United States, including more than 12 million children” … innocent children like you? http://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/facts.html.
Yet, for my efforts, I have been accused of, and admonished for, harming you, my own children, because I once lost my job and harmed my career by fighting the Enron of Healthcare to stop them from harming the sick and dying, to stop them from denying the insurance coverage and medical care for which policy holders have paid and for which they were then in great need. My accusers missed the point: by fighting the corrupt insurance company, I protected you and them from the corrupted practices of that particular insurance company and of other insurance companies in general. (The Enron of Healthcare is one of 10 largest health insurance companies in the U.S., and covers you guys as well as my accusers.) By taking the fight to insurance regulators and to the court, after failing to stop the illegal practices internally, I exposed those corrupt practices. Insurance regulators spent a year investigating that insurer. They corroborated all of my allegations and found numerous other violations. By publicizing their findings and issuing fines, they gave notice to that insurance carrier and all others that such harmful and corrupt practices would not be tolerated.
We live in a closed system, my sons. Pollutants and poor environmental policies adversely affecting the South and Midwest affect us in terms of rising food costs and societal costs. Chemicals dumped into rivers harm our fish, hurt of water system, and poison our oceans … all of which comes back to haunt us. Our silence when others are bullied is assent and emboldens the bullies. Can we then complain when the bullies move past their targets to us?
I am always mindful of the lessons of Martin Niemöller. Speaking about the fascism of the Nazis, he states:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Live well, my sons. Live right. I never promised you that life would be easy, only that you would find life rewarding if you lived well and helped others.
All my love, always,
P.S., I leave you with this thought.