The Parable of the Ower

I have this bad habit of reading six books simultaneously, because my tastes vary wildly with my moods. Also, I like to read stupidly dense books, and so I have to actually be mentally alert to read them, which means that I'm always detouring into something easier, usually fictional... You get the idea. For example, I'm currently racing through the omnibus edition of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, walking through David Copperfield, meandering through Seeing Like a State, and occasionally eyeing Culture and Imperialism with a look of mild interest.

"Ah, but that's only 4!" you exclaim triumphantly, because you're a smart ass math whiz. Well, congratulations. That's because, a) I overstated slightly, and b) I'm not done yet. Also, c) the omnibus edition of HHGG is like five books, so it should count for more than one, even if I'm not reading them all at once. Just saying. And d) I usually read at least one longform piece per day, so we should probably just round up to 7 and call it a day.

Right. So then I got my hands on an ebook version of David Graeber's book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, and, hyperbolically speaking, I threw all the other books out the window. I like economics, sort of. That is to say, I'm interested in several fields that economics happens to be important to, such as: Marxism, global aid, and my future. But when we actually get down to brass tacks, I don't like economics, because I think it's a dry, reductionistic way of looking at vivid, highly complex, real world relations that are frequently altered--or even, dare I say, damaged--by their contact with the abstract quantifications of modern economists. I'm also just bitter, because the number of potential students at Penn who unselfconsciously patronized the humanities by saying they wanted to "major in economics, but minor in [actually fun, interesting, and deeply human subject]"... sorry, sentence got too complicated. Basically, there were too many of them. I mean, great for them, because they want jobs and that's important too. But please, let's not sell our souls too eagerly.

Graeber, however, is not writing as an economist. He is writing as an anthropologist who does a much better job of expressing my concerns about the role of economics in modern life. I'm not that far into it, but he's totally shredding up the economic myth of barter as the original system of exchange, and I'm a fan of this activity. Plus, it's generally really well written and informative. I'd sass this hoopy frood--he definitely knows where his towel is at.

There's a reason why I'm mentioning the book, aside from the fact that I have pledged to write something today and every day for the next... 22 days. God... But hey, who's counting? For the past few days, I've been cobbling together a meet up discussion on ethical theories to guide our efforts for global justice. My source text is Onora O'Neil's "Rights, Obligations and World Hunger" (In every relevant heading in this essay, she uses the Oxford comma, but not in the title. WHYYYYYY???), in which she argues for what she sees as a much older conception of justice, beginning from obligations rather than human rights. This might not sound like a huge difference, and I'm still not entirely convinced that it is, but part of her reasoning is that the responsibility for action should not be on the bearer of the right, as an often powerless claimant making demands of the powerful. Rather, action should naturally proceed from those who are obligated to do so, where their obligation arises in part from the mere fact of their ability to do anything. (I might be embroidering this last part ever so slightly, but it's the only way I could resolve the "ought" =/= "can" dilemma.)

Early in Debt, Graeber talks about the difference between a debt and an obligation. Basically, the former comes down to a matter of quantification. Or, alternatively, an obligation is an unquantifiable debt. This isn't really a revolutionary thought, except that I personally don't find the word "obligation" to have the impact of the word "debt"--something Graeber himself touches on obliquely when he notes that debt has an impersonal, moral force to it. "One must pay one's debts" is a truism that even a bleeding heart liberal could parrot with a straight face.

If I transfer my associations with debts to my conception of obligations, I am left in a rather more uncomfortable position than when I started off. Whatever my own ethical theory for understanding global aid might be, I have not personally acted as if it were anything but a charitable act--that is, something that is good and praiseworthy to do, but not something that I am required to do. What if I brought that mentality to the table? Suddenly, the intensity of Peter Singer's arguments about getting the best possible paying job that you can and donating most of your income to charity... kind of make sense. Because if this is something that I owe my fellow human beings, then I don't get to think about whether I want to do it or not. And that's a pretty sobering little epiphany.

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