Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Moral Blind Spots

What will future generations say we missed?

Every fall, I team-teach a course in the Honors Program at my institution. One of the course texts we use discusses many of the pro-slavery arguments from the antebellum South. It is disturbing, shocking, and disappointing to read arguments which include the attempt to defend the indefensible. During this time period, there were individuals who offered arguments in defense of slavery based on politics, economics, religion, and medical science. The logical fallacies present in these arguments are plentiful, and the arguments themselves are so clearly wrong. We look back and wonder, "how could educated people believe that slavery was a moral institution?"

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When I read these arguments and discuss their flaws with students, I'm reminded of something a professor of mine once asked, "What will future generations think about us? What moral blind spots of ours will they see, that we miss?" There are many possibilities, to be sure, but I think that future generations may look back at the disparity of wealth in our world and wonder how we could have missed the injustices that exist related to this. Consider the following, from the ONE Campaign:

HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB) and malaria are treatable and preventable diseases that disproportionately affect the world's poor. Sub-Saharan Africa is the hardest hit region, accounting for 90% of malaria deaths, two-thirds of all people living with HIV and nearly one-third of all TB cases. The human impact of these three diseases is undeniable, but their socioeconomic impact is also severe and measureable. In sub-Saharan Africa especially, AIDS threatens to wipe out an entire generation during its most productive years. Businesses are losing their workers, governments are losing their civil servants and families are losing not only their loved ones but also their breadwinners.

How could we believe that it is morally permissible for certain parts of the world to have so much, while others, through no fault of their own, die of malaria because they lack access to something as cheap and effective as a bed net or anti-malarial medication. Bednets cost $10, and anti-malaria medicine is only $2 per dose. The cost of antiretroviral medication for an HIV/AIDS patient is now only $140 per year, compared to $10,000 a few years ago. The cost of a 6-month course of treatment which cures TB is about $25.

If we truly believe that all human beings have the right to life, then how is it that we can allow so many to die when preventing their suffering and death would cost so little? This is a difficult question. Like many other citizens of the wealthy nations of the world, I spend a portion of my income on luxury items. I pay extra money each month to my satellite tv provider so that I can watch Arsenal on the Fox Soccer Channel, have an occasional overpriced drink at the local coffee shop, and I purchase other things that I don't really need. To be clear, I don't think that we should necessarily stop all such spending. What I do think we should consider, however, is the option of curtailing some of this spending and then putting that money to work in ways that can help others who are suffering from treatable illnesses. By making do with a little less, we can help others live. This is not mere charity, it is a matter of justice.

Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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