The circle of concern
This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 83 autumn 2011
As widespread devastation continues in Japan and New Zealand, many Australians have also experienced storms and floods at home. Natural disasters on the scale we have seen in recent months sharpens the focus on where we draw the line when it comes to our concern, writes Simon Longstaff.
Two of the fundamental ethical questions that we all must answer concern both how and where we set the boundaries of our concern for others. One way to conceive of these questions is to imagine a ‘circle of concern’. If someone or something falls within the circle, then their interests should be taken into account. Those outside the circle may be ignored. What, then, is the basis for inclusion or exclusion within the circle? And where does this leave the stranger?
For Australians, these questions have been brought into sharp focus by three recent events: the violent storms and floods in Queensland and Victoria, the funeral of asylum seekers drowned off Christmas Island and the devastating earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. In each case, there has been a general expression of compassion for the victims of tragedies caused by forces beyond their control. However, in one of these cases, there have also been voices questioning the propriety of rendering aid to the apparent stranger; voices urging that ‘charity should begin at home’.
The idea that we should ‘look after our own’ was expressed most clearly when debate erupted about the decision of the Australian Government to cover the costs of relatives attending the funerals of their loved ones drowned off Christmas Island. Some people complained that it was wrong that public funds should be spent for this purpose – not least, it was claimed, because the same kind of consideration would not be given to Australian citizens. By contrast, I did not hear a single objection raised when aid was rendered to the stricken people of Christchurch. In both cases, the recipients of aid and support were citizens of a foreign nation. In both cases, the disaster struck within our immediate vicinity. Why, then, the absence of complaint in one case and not the other?
great religious and cultural traditions of
the world have sought to define how the
‘circle of concern’ should be filled
One explanation for the difference in response might be that the critics of the asylum seekers judged them to be more ‘at fault’ for their plight and therefore less deserving of compassion. However, I doubt this to be the major issue because if you were going to discount compassion according to perceived fault, then it would go pretty hard for people building homes on known flood plains and earthquake zones.
Rather, I think that the treatment of the asylum seekers attracted adverse comment simply because they were perceived to be strangers. For all of the rivalry that exists between people of different States within Australia and from New Zealand, when it comes to the crunch there is a strong sense of shared history, place and identity that defines our relationships. This is what allows Tasmanians and Territorians to assist each other despite the significant differences in their experiences of daily life. The apparent absence of a common connection with people from Afghanistan or Sri Lanka or the other points of origin for people seeking asylum is what turns them into ‘strangers’ – and this is enough to see them treated differently by some.
The great religious and cultural traditions of the world have sought to define how the ‘circle of concern’ should be filled. For example, one of the major theoretical developments advanced by the religions of the Middle East (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) was to accord an equal and fundamental dignity to all human beings due to their having been made ‘in the image of God’. I say ‘theoretical’ in recognition of the fact that nominal adherents of these religions have found plenty of ways to discriminate against others (often by denying their full humanity because of differences in colour, creed, gender, etc). However, in principle, there should be no strangers amongst humans with an obligation of equal compassion owed to all. Other religions have extended the ‘circle of concern’ well beyond humanity to encompass all life. And some cultures (eg. those of the Indigenous people of Australia) accord ethical significance to all ‘creation’ – animate and what others see as ‘inanimate’.
one of the marks of ethical maturity is the
capacity to transcend instinct and desire
and to make conscious choices
As noted above, the ethical imperatives of these traditions are all too often ignored in practice. In one sense this is understandable. After all, it seems quite natural that people have a special affinity with members of their own families or with others whom they know intimately. Equally, there is a common tendency to be suspicious of the unfamiliar. However, one of the marks of ethical maturity is the capacity to transcend instinct and desire and to make conscious choices.
While it is true that there are many Australians in need of support, Australia is one of the most bountiful lands on earth. Those of us lucky enough to have been born here have done nothing to deserve that bounty. What we can take credit for is the quality and character of the culture that we build using those resources. As we do so, we will need to address, for ourselves, the questions that I began with. That is, we will need to ask, “who is our neighbour” and if some are strangers to us, then is this reason enough to allocate them a lesser portion of our compassion?