In the last few days I have had a couple of bus rides sitting next to people who positively smelled. It was a redolent reminder of the variety of lifestyles people have.
Because I live where I do and use the buses a lot, I often see people with very different lifestyles from mine. There is nothing unusual about that, but I fear it’s becoming less usual. As the poor get poorer and the rich get richer, more people have an incentive to insulate themselves from those with whom they have little in common. They then become unaware of what life is like for those others.
This is especially true of the poor. Television and the newspapers tell us a great deal about the lives of celebrities. (All that fuss about Nigella Lawson’s drug-taking! There are loads of people who do that without anybody reporting it.) They also give us images of lifestyles that purport to be normal but omit what life is really like for those in the worst conditions, so most people have little idea what is happening. We are governed by people who for their own political reasons encourage rhetoric about welfare recipients being ‘scroungers’ or ‘workshy’. We read the newspapers that tell us what we want to believe. In any case we all have incentives for not thinking too much about the people who are worse off than ourselves.
Does it matter? Is there any kind of moral obligation to know about other people and what life is like for them?
In practical terms democracy cannot work unless voters have an informed understanding of their own society; otherwise we end up, as at present, with competing sets of rhetoric shouted across the divides and no shared discourse about what the problems are and what a solution might look like. However there is also a deeper issue, about our philosophy of humanity.
In the ancient world many people thought in terms of a radical difference. Foreigners not only spoke an incomprehensible language, but were created by different gods. This made it possible to believe that foreigners had nothing in common with their own race beyond what they could see for themselves. From this perspective the idea of universal human rights would be as artificial as treating dogs the same as birds and feeding them birdseed.
Modern atheist value systems see humanity as more of a unity. Evolution theory tells us that we are all descended from some animal in or around Kenya. There was a ‘mitochondrial Eve’, an ancestor of every living human. This tells us we have many needs and desires in common with each other and so can be a basis for arguing for a set of human rights to apply throughout humanity. However it also tells us that there are many ways in which we differ, so it can also be a basis for Herbert Spencer’s ‘survival of the fittest’ and his present-day successors beating the drum of economic competitiveness.
Religionless value systems tend to treat respect for others as a human invention. As such it is not self-evident that it ought to be granted to everyone. The most significant case against is in economics: if wealth is created by the economy, why should people who do not contribute to the economy have a share of it? Such people – immigrants and the unemployed – are now being demonised.
Civilisation therefore depends on presupposing a greater common humanity than either of these models can give on its own. We need good reason for affirming the unity of humanity (against polytheism) but this unity needs to be more than just an accident of history (as evolution on its own implies). We need some way of insisting that the unity of humanity is part of humanity’s meaning, its purpose. Otherwise I have no reason to treat the other people on the bus as though they matter the way I matter. I might for example suspect that the smelly person sitting next to me is a homeless non-contributor to the economy and therefore has no right to a bus ride.
To my mind it is the Abrahamic religions which provide the best defence against this elitism. Other religious traditions may express it to some extent.
It is the Abrahamic religions which best express that sense that humanity as a whole has a single origin and purpose, because we have all been made and designed by a single divine mind.
It is not enough to believe that we happen to be like each other and can appreciate what homeless and unemployed people must feel like. We also need to believe that we are equivalent to each other in what we deserve. The Abrahamic religions establish this by saying that the banking executive on five million a year and the homeless tramp are equally loved by God. In the final reckoning neither is more important than the other.
The fact that we are equally important to God is not just a surd fact. It sets the moral agenda. We have been designed to relate to each other by responding to each other’s needs and wishes. If we don’t treat other people as equally legitimate users of the good things the earth provides, we misunderstand the meaning of our own lives as well as theirs.