Empathy comes easy. Of course, our children should learn that all of humanity shares common characteristics. They should understand that for some purposes we are all limbs of a single body. This will do no harm, but it avoids the only relevant question of political action: To what extent are we obligated to help the needy who are strangers to our culture?
A true utopian would say that we and other rich nations should share our wealth with the poor and suffering among the five billion people on the planet. If we really believed that national boundaries are arbitrary, as Nussbaum claims, we should have to apply John Rawls’s difference principle to all living people and insist that we justify an incremental American wealth on the grounds of its benefiting the poorest group of people on earth. This measure would, to say the least, test our commitment to the other limbs of the earth’s body politic.
But Nussbaum is not a true utopian universalist. It is not even clear that she recognizes the problem of redistributing our wealth. She advises against other countries’ industrializing quickly without taking steps to protect the environment. Apparently, she would be unhappy about a billion Chinese and a billion Muslims driving to work every morning, using paper plates and styrofoam cups, and generating tons of trash. The well-to-do among us can do this, but they should not. But, she says, we should rear our children to feel guilty about their privileged position in the world. That, in her view, is what it means to “take Kantian morality at all seriously.” But, alas, it is not clear what our children, so sensitized, could or should do to assuage their guilt.
There is no easy answer to the question of how much we should help strangers in need. Neither Rawls nor Nussbaum has anything serious to offer on the question. Our first obligation is to those who share our political and economic fate — to the Chinese, Africans, Latinos, and Jews who have become Americans. And undoubtedly we owe something to their erstwhile countrymen who stayed at home. But how much we owe to strangers abroad is open to debate. I have heard philosophers argue that the standard should be one of decency. We help refugees when our conscience bothers us. It makes more sense to debate our obligation as a discounted version of what we owe those in our midst. Yet neither of these approaches generates more than a haphazard approach to foreign aid.
The most dramatic rescue missions in the second half of the 20th century have occurred on the most patriotic soil. Germany’s taking responsibility for 17 million new citizens and their bankrupt economy is hardly an action of universal brotherhood. It is an expression of Germany’s commitment to its own people, narrowly defined. That they would not dream of a similar effort to help Romania or Bulgaria makes their actions no less noble. Israel’s absorbing a population from Russia and Ethiopia almost equal to its own size speaks in a similar idiom of patriotism. Jews are committed not to universal humanity but to helping each other. Would that Americans had some of this commitment that Germans and Jews nurture in their patriotic culture. Perhaps then we could repair the South Bronx.
The ideal is the enemy of the good. And Kantian universalism distracts us from the localized solidarity necessary for political action. We cannot provide health care for the entire world, but at least we can seek to provide it for Americans. Those who dream of being citizens of the world should look around them. Are they proud to be a citizen of the country where they can actually make a difference?
In the end, Nussbaum’s argument reduces to name-calling. Her case is a version of the insult that anyone who takes patriotism seriously must be a crypto-fascist. Her charges range from accusing her opponents of treating their country as a god to their seeking “a surrogate parent who will do one’s thinking for one.” There must be a better way to make the point that we must help those close to us without forgetting those far away.