I experienced the 2016 Presidential election as a loss of innocence. For the first time in my life, the prospect of losing my most basic rights and freedoms did not feel so remote. In confronting this possibility, I found myself struggling to understand what distinguishes reasonable accommodations to injustice from morally unacceptable accommodations. Under what conditions, I wondered, is the fact that I can do something to resist injustice a decisive reason to resist? More particularly, when would I have decisive reason to resist, even though in so doing I would be putting myself at great risk?
As I grappled with this question, my thoughts coalesced around a pair of examples. And this is where my paper begins. I ask the reader to imagine two groups of people. The people in each group have no legally protected power over the conditions of their lives, and no civil and political liberties, in particular. They spend most of each day engaged in the tasks by means of which they earn their daily bread. When they aren’t working or sleeping, they enjoy the company of their family and friends.
In carrying on with their lives, these people put up with the severe constraints on their choices, and with the arbitrary exercise of power to which they and their neighbors are subjected. They do their best not to provoke the wrath of those who have tight control over their lives. They refrain from protesting when this wrath is directed at others.
So much for what these two groups of people have in common. How do they differ? This is, in effect, the guiding question of my paper. In finishing my description of each group, I simply stipulate that those in the first group are “making the best of a bad situation.” Their coping strategy is “the better part of wisdom.” In contrast, the accommodators in the second group are cowardly accomplices to injustice. Like the so-called “good Germans,” they are at fault for “keeping their heads down,” and “not being willing to stick out their necks.”
In trying to understand what it would take for me to avoid finding myself in the second group, I focus attention on a special subclass of cases in which people accommodate great injustice: cases in which there is good reason to believe (as people rightly believe in so many countries today) that such accommodation is a necessary means to remaining safe, moderately comfortable, and secure. Surely, I have good reason to try to protect myself against great loss.
Yet there are also occasions on which I have even more compelling reasons not to accommodate. There are occasions on which I would be a coward if I were to refrain from stating my views publicly because I did not want my name to be added to a list of government enemies. There are occasions on which I ought not to lie or hedge when directly asked what I think. Or to refuse to sign a petition. Or keep my distance from friends and neighbors who are trying to work together to improve the situation. Or refuse to appear as a witness in their defense. Or give some other sign of support for an oppressive, lawless regime. Or to accept a job that is affiliated with this regime. It would sometimes be wrong for me to do such things, even though I rightly believe that if I were to act otherwise, I would be likely to get into big trouble with the people who have absolute power over the conditions of my life – people who are not in the least bit reluctant to use this power to make me pay dearly for my opposition.
As I mused about how to draw the line between justifiable and unjustifiable accommodations to injustice, I became especially interested in the limited help I seem to be able to get from my reason. Not only do there appear to be no sufficiently determinate criteria for sorting cowardly accommodators from justified accommodators under the circumstances that concern me in the paper, but I don’t seem to be able to rely on my rational capacities to make the relevant moral distinctions when the moment of decision is upon me. Under such difficult circumstances, my fear of what will happen to me if I refuse to accommodate the powerful in some way is sure to tempt me to use my reason to reassure myself that this particular accommodation is justified. When someone has good reason to fear what will happen to her if she stands up for her moral ideals, she has a powerful motive for rationalizing her decision to keep her head down and pull in her neck.
If I cannot rely on my reason to determine whether a given accommodation would be cowardly, then what can I rely on? In the paper, this question eventually leads me to muse about which sort of relation to oneself makes one less vulnerable to the corrupting effects of fear. I consider what would happen if one were to internalize the awareness of how little one’s own life matters “in the scheme of things.” Where this awareness does not undermine one’s joy in living, or one’s concern to “make the most of” one’s life, it might, I suggest, enhance one’s ability to discern what a genuine commitment to justice commits one to doing.
In exploring this rather tentative suggestion, I am especially intrigued by the possibility that altering my relation toward myself in this way would have the looked-for benefit only if it were combined with an apparently incompatible attitude toward others and the value of their lives. My reason for reaching this conclusion can be put in the form of a challenge: if others don’t really matter, then what is the point of sticking up for their rights? Of course, it could be that the sense in which I don’t really matter is compatible with the fact that each human being has a value (“beyond price,” as Kant puts it) on the basis of which her interests and needs impose constraints on what the rest of us have reason to do. I am inclined to think, however, that moral courage — and practical wisdom, more generally — requires a profound lack of coherence between one’s attitudes toward oneself and one’s attitudes toward others.
According to this hypothesis, our ability to identify the circumstances under which we are justified in accommodating injustice is unlikely to be significantly enhanced if we simply remind ourselves that the lives of others are every bit as valuable as our own. We would be far more likely to make the correct moral distinctions if we could manage to balance a deep concern for the interests of others with an equally profound lack of concern for our own precious selves.