Questions of Privilege

Most people on Earth are “better off” in some way than at least some other people. Some have access to more food. Others live in more secure or better shelter. The surroundings of some are more reliably safe. Others can depend on a healthier or safer food supply. Some people have more money to buy a more reliably secure lifestyle. Others live in the lap of luxury and never want for any basic needs. Some people are isolated from physical and emotional threats that plague others. Unfortunately, a significant number of people live in constant fear, not only for their own physical and emotional safety but in fear of inadequate or unsafe food and water and shelter.

For each of those people, where does society draw the line between having too little and too much, in comparison to others? Does the person with a barely adequate supply of safe and reliable food have an obligation to share with others whose supplies meet neither measures? Is the person fortunate enough to live in secure shelter obliged to share it with those whose shelter is worse or less secure?

In each case involving people more fortunate than others, we can say they are privileged in some form or fashion. They live more comfortably than others, at least along a single dimension. Does that good fortune carry with it an obligation to share? Or, if not, does that good fortune carry with it a moral obligation to at least feel guilt for undeservedly having “more” or living in better circumstances? For the sake of contemplation, let’s assume that no one along any continuum has “earned” his or her place. Everyone has worked hard to achieve whatever he has. The “luck of the draw” has enabled those with plenty to acquire more than they need. That same “luck” has withheld largess from people who suffer from paucity.

The point of these questions, and this contemplation, is to frame ideas of obligation. What are we obligated, as humans, to do? And, perhaps as importantly, to feel? Should I feel guilt at my good fortune in comparison to a poor beggar on the streets of a village in an impoverished country? Does feeling guilt count against any obligations I might have to share my largess? Does simply recognizing my privilege count in any way and, if so, how? Am I under any moral obligation to minimize the extent of my privilege so that someone else might rise part way toward that privilege I once enjoyed?

None of these questions have “correct” or “incorrect” answers. They are just questions that merit some attention. Yet they “feel” like they ought to have correct answers. They “feel” like we ought to know when we have too much and, therefore, should share without expecting anything in return. But we don’t know. And that’s the source of guilt; not knowing how much we should share or, knowing, not sharing.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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2 Responses to Questions of Privilege

  1. If you come up with any solutions, Linda, let me know!

  2. lindakblack says:

    Very good questions to ponder! Makes you truly think!

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