Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Who Counts?:
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 response.

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 miles away."

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.

Further Reading

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, 1986).