Images Shape Our Moral Community
By William Spohn
Should the United States have sent troops to Bosnia, or is
the terrible suffering of the people of Rwanda more deserving
of our country's attention? Should we allow people from economically
depressed countries to find asylum in the United States or should
we reserve this privilege for those who are politically oppressed?
What do we owe to the poor of our own country?
When we ask questions like these, we're really trying to fix
the boundaries of our moral community. Moral community refers
to the network of those to whom we recognize an ethical connection
through the demands of justice, the bonds of compassion, or
a sense of obligation.
This community is constituted by those whose interests we
consciously take into account when we make decisions and weigh
the impact of social policies. For some, this may be a select
group: family and a few friends. For others, it may extend to
all living things. The moral community for most of us lies somewhere
in between, reaching beyond the immediate limits of family and
friends to include those who share our gender or race, class,
profession, religion, nationality, and, possibly, our humanity.
Our sense of moral community is often established by the images
that guide our perceptions and emotions. Who counts for us morally
depends upon whom we notice. Our moral vision is focused to
a great extent by images from popular speech and social traditions.
These lenses of vision are not morally neutral. Images not
only shape our perceptions, but they also crystallize certain
emotions and motivate us to act in certain ways. They establish
psychological borders to our moral community. Images that restrict
our range of concern often serve to justify negative treatment
of those who lie "beyond the pale" (literally, a ditch dug around
the old city of Dublin to keep out undesirables).
The ethical function of images stands out in the central analogies
which shaped the population debate in the 1970s. First, the
earth was portrayed as a lifeboat with a limited carrying capacity.
Those on board could not rescue everyone stranded in the water
without swamping the lifeboat.
Second, battlefield triage was invoked as a guide for social
and economic policies. Medics in the field must decide which
wounded will surely die, which ones will recover without great
assistance, and which ones will benefit most from medical care
and resources that are in short supply.
Note the way in which these images justify shrinking the range
of moral community. Some persons in need must be excluded because
we have limited resources; we cannot prudently afford to let
everyone make an equal claim on us. The crisis demands setting
moral doubts aside and making painful decisions.
These analogies were, of course, comfortable and somewhat
self-serving. They placed first-world countries in the boat,
not the water; they cast us as medics, not casualties. In contrast,
others described us all as passengers on "Spaceship Earth."
That metaphor called up visions of a shared fate, with everyone
dependent on everyone else for the success of the mission.
Today, the dominant images in the debate over immigration
give some clues to how Americans define our moral community.
The common references to "invasion" and "waves of foreigners"
restrict the scope of moral community and legitimate defensive
actions. Invasion connotes a military campaign of hostile forces
crossing our borders. This image suggests a military response:
barricade the borders, dispatch troops, repel the invaders.
Waves of immigrants suggests a natural disaster, a tidal wave
that is eroding our sea walls and flooding the land. Both images
depersonalize the newcomers, heighten a sense of crisis, and
demand stern countermeasures against a perceived threat.
An alternate image is the Statue of Liberty, which welcomed
generations of European immigrants and appeared in Tienanmen
Square. It embodies a spirit of hospitality to strangers, which
acknowledges their humanity and invites the host to make a compassionate
On the other hand, hospitality does not make excessive claims
on the host, who must have a place to welcome the guests and
means to feed them. Hospitality which bankrupts a family would
be self-defeating. This image points to a humane but prudent
response to immigrants, recognizing the prior, yet not absolute,
claims of established citizens.
For some moral philosophers, all local allegiances such as
citizenship are merely distractions. Each person has equal dignity
and makes the same moral claim on us as anyone else. Preferences,
even those based on kinship, automatically mean discrimination.
Philosopher Peter Singer formulated the principle, "If it
is in our power to prevent something bad from happening without
thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance,
we ought, morally, to do it." He states that this principle
takes "no account of proximity or distance. It makes no difference
whether the person I can help is a neighbor's child 10 yards
away from me or a Bengali, whose name I shall never know, 10,000
Some argue further that our sense of moral connection and
corresponding responsibilities should extend not only to all
people but also to future generations and even to animals and
plants. Aldo Leopold, the pioneering writer on ecology, holds
that an action "is right when it tends to preserve the integrity,
stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when
it tends otherwise."
Others fear that such a global conscience will dissipate our
moral energies, leading to neglect of immediate relations and
compassion fatigue brought on by too much suffering and too
many issues competing for our attention. They argue that differences
are morally relevant when we consider who counts in our moral
community. Stanley Hoffman writes, "Equality consists of treating
different things differently, not equally."
Thomas Aquinas discerns a ranking of obligations an
"order of love" that respects natural ties but is not
rigidly determined by them. In the Summa Theologiae,
he reflects on natural inclinations, such as the bond of care
parents have with their children and the bond of honor that
adults have with their parents. These are qualitatively different
kinds of love, which can, in certain cases, come into conflict.
No absolute rule of justice or charity will dictate the moral
obligation of a mother who has to decide whether to take funds
from savings for her children's college education in order to
pay for nursing care for her own mother. Which bond takes precedence
depends upon particular features of the situation and the person's
moral, political, and religious convictions. Aquinas and contemporary
virtue ethicists look to virtuous habits like prudence and courage
to guide us to the proper action when obligations conflict.
Yet Aquinas is clear that, in general, our first responsibility
is to the family. The dire needs of a stranger may take precedence
over meeting the ordinary needs of our children, but generally,
these less dramatic obligations must be met first.
So, moral community begins locally. Our identity does not
initially come from membership in the universal human species
but from the particular allegiances that make us a member of
this family, this religion, this neighborhood, this school.
As a person matures, however, ethical concern and sense of
duty should gradually expand outward. Identification with others
who were once perceived as different pushes back the boundaries
of moral community. We begin to appreciate the common ground
beneath our differences.
This is not to say that moral community is a series of concentric
circles with moral claims diminishing as we move further away
from our immediate sphere. We have different obligations arising
from the different overlapping communities we inhabit, and we
must reconcile their demands.
For example, a natural disaster makes a claim on us as members
of the civic community even if our immediate relatives are not
affected. On this basis, the government may properly spread
the cost of flood relief among the general population through
taxation or special levies. According to Aquinas, however, it
would be morally wrong to impoverish our own families by donating
all our assets to the relief effort.
So, who should count in our moral community? Perhaps the best
answer is everyone; we cannot avoid considering the moral claims
made on us by any other inhabitant of the earth, including those
who are yet to be born. But we must weigh those claims against
each other, considering the resources we have to respond and
the duty we owe to those who call on us.
William Spohn is the John Nobili Chair of Religious Studies
at Santa Clara University.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae II-II, question 26.
Hoffman, Stanley. Duties Beyond Borders: On the limits
and Possibilities of Ethical International Politics (Syracuse,
N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1981).
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac (London: Oxford
University Press, 1966).
Pope, Stephen J. The Evolution of Altruism and the Ordering
of Love (Washington: Georgetown, 1994).
Singer, Peter. "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," Philosophy
and Public Affairs 1.3, pp. 229-243. Taylor, Paul W. Respect
for Nature. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press,