It’s always dangerous to speculate about the hidden psychological motives of people you disagree with – this is the sin of Bulverism. But like most sins, it’s also fun. So please forgive me while I talk about blame.
Many people have remarked on the paradox of an academia made mostly of upper-class ethnic-majority Westerners trying so very hard to find reasons why lots of things are the fault of upper-class ethnic-majority Westerners. The simplest example I can think of is attributing the woes of Third World countries to colonialism; without meaning to trivialize the evils of colonization, a lot of academics seem to go beyond what even the undeniably awful facts can support. Dependency theory, for example, is now mostly discredited, as are a lot of the Marxist perspectives. I would provide other examples if I weren’t satisfied you can generate them independently.
This is on the face of it surprising; naively we would expect people to cast themselves and those like them in as positive a light as possible. Forget about whether these attributions of blame are right or wrong. Even if they were right I would not expect people to believe them as enthusiastically as they do.
The theories I’ve heard to explain this paradox are rarely very flattering; usually something about class signaling, or holier-than-thou-ness, or trying to justify the existence of an academic elite.
I want to propose another possibility: what if people are really, fundamentally, good?
Moral philosophy distinguishes between a couple of ethical systems, like deontology, utilitarianism and virtue ethics. Most people without philosophical training settle into a sort of mishmash of all of them, but one which, I think, is closer to deontology than either of the others. Call it Moral Therapeutic Deontology. Like all deontological systems, it focuses on following certain rules: don’t murder, don’t steal, respect your parents, pay back your debts. Like all deontological systems, other things like charity are “supererogatory”, meaning they’re nice but not really necessary. If you’ve got extra time and energy after doing the important stuff, then sure, do the superogatory stuff, whatever, but it’s hardly where your moral focus should be.
On the other hand, when confronted with the full extent of human suffering – whether by living in a poor area, or serving in a war zone, or traveling to a Third World country, or treating depression patients – it’s hard to think about anything else. The sheer burning horribleness of it becomes this unscratchable itch, this flaw in the world that blots out the sun.
And here’s Moral Therapeutic Deontology, saying, “Yeah, helping quench the burning fire of human suffering is nice, but it’s not like a real thing that real morality should care about. It’s not your duty.”
This is some heavy cognitive dissonance. It doesn’t match basic intuitions about the importance of the matter. Even worse, it doesn’t allow you to communicate the importance of the matter to other people. If you say “Look at all these people living squalid and miserable in the slums without any hope,” and they say “Yeah, well, it would be supererogatory to help them and I’m not feeling supererogatory today,” you don’t really have a leg to stand on.
There’s an easy way to resolve the dissonance without abandoning either Moral Therapeutic Deontology or your concern for the less well-off. That resolution is to prove that human suffering is you and your friends’ fault. Deontology very clearly says that if you cause a problem, it’s your job to help fix it. If you can prove that the reason the Third World is suffering is because of First World white people, you have a strong claim that you as a First World white person should be deeply emotionally invested in solving it; that your friends and neighbors, as First World white people, ought to help you; and that your government, as that of a First World majority-white country, is justified in using taxpayer money to get involved.
I think this might be a part of what’s happening. People feel a need to help the less-advantaged so strongly that they come up with a justification to do so that makes sense in their own moral system, whether it’s factually accurate or not.
I am not as fanatical a partisan of utilitarianism as I used to be, but this still seems like one of the situations where it has an obvious advantage. Utilitarianism tells us that we are perfectly justified in seeing the relief of suffering as a pressing need. We don’t need to justify it by positing facts that may later be proven untrue; it is self-justifying. People sometimes complain that a flaw of utilitarianism is that it implies a heavy moral obligations to help all kinds of people whether or not any of their problems are our fault; the world is divided between those who consider that a bug and those who find it a very helpful feature.
I want more people to become familiar with utilitarianism because I think a lot of the colonialism theory stuff is net hurtful. It combines a justification for helping the poor with an insult to people’s identity, and probably makes the former less palatable to many people than it would be naturally. It also makes our need to help the poor hinge on an empirical point; if that empirical point gets disproved, things become pretty awkward.
This theory implies that utilitarian liberals will have all the features of liberalism except the interest in blaming their own group for major problems. My anecdotal experience confirms that. The utilitarians I know are very interested in helping the poor and in various other liberal ideas, but are more likely than other liberals to roll their eyes at talk about colonialism and stereotype threat. I think it’s because they feel confident in their right to care about the disadvantaged regardless.