Arguments Against Apathy

Introduction

There is no good reason to be apathetic.

We are awash amidst perpetual tides of broad and pervasive moral crises. Human beings suffer and die needlessly day after day, hour after hour, subjected to preventable hunger, disease, abuse, exploitation, slavery, poverty, violence, and war. Our planet, and the unimaginably vast web of life that it supports, is being systematically degraded and destroyed. [1]

We nearly all see the headlines. Some read the stories. A few take a take longer, deeper look at the issues. Hardly anyone moves. No one acts. Apathy rules the day.

Why is that? Why do decent people turn their backs on the dispossessed and disempowered? Why do we allow the world to be as it is when there is clearly so much to be done, not only to alleviate suffering and promote well-being, but to ensure our very ecological survival? No brief essay could hope to completely answer these questions, but I believe it may reasonably endeavor to articulate and dispute the common justifications that arise in defense of apathy. For while most people need not present any such defense in their day to day lives (so normalized is the expectation of public inaction), few that are aware of the world as it is will be able to persist long without posing the question to themselves, “Why aren’t I doing anything about this?”

For a long time I have listened to the different answers people offer up to this bothersome question and thought about responses to those answers. Here, I will attempt to systematically describe and (I hope, convincingly) disprove what I have observed to be among the most common and basic justifications for apathy, both so that readers can no longer hide behind them in the privacy of their own disquieted reflections and so that they may judge them, in conversation with others and within the broader public discourse, as without merit or substance, as cloaks which conceal our moral cowardice.

Apathy and Ignorance

I will define apathy as the lingering attitude or default mentality of inaction; it describes the failure to involve one’s self practically, emotionally, and/or mentally in the working out of recognized social problems[2]. It is significantly—though not completely—distinct from ignorance, which is the mere unknowing of those problems. Apathy and ignorance mingle and coalesce insofar as individuals in some sense choose to keep themselves in the dark about social problems that they could otherwise easily become informed about, thus perpetuating a form of sub-conscious or semi-conscious apathy through their voluntary ignorance. Such voluntary ignorance is usually not explicitly chosen or deliberately decided upon but unreflectively maintained by long-standing habit and encouraged by social conventions.

Apathy that is to a substantial degree free of ignorance may be called reasoned apathy, or rationalized apathy, which takes the form of a conclusion that arises from an argument. This argument is usually supplemental and often subordinate to other factors that contribute in their sum to the inaction of the individual. Such factors include habitual inertia, selfishness, and internalized social, cultural, and political pressures. However, since it is the argument behind apathy that shapes and codifies public discourse as well as soothes the mind fond of reason and the heart warm with empathy, it is still a worthy and necessary task to identify and disprove those arguments.  For if only sub-conscious motivators exist to supply apathy with its impetus, then many more will be compelled to action and those still uncertain of their stance may become obliged to participate in the working out of social problems by witnessing the changing attitudes and behaviors arising about them.

There are four principal justifications for inaction in the face of a social problem. When individually refuted, each is likely to retreat to an even more basic justification. What follows is a typical regression of defense for apathy:  (1) that all potential solutions are impractical, (2) that any particular individual is impotent to affect real change, (3) that the individual in question is not responsible for addressing the problem, and (4) that morality does not or might not exist.

Practicality

This line of reasoning goes something like this: Solving or meaningfully addressing problem x is impractical and thus should not be attempted. This argument has within it at least two contradictions when applied to social phenomena.

First, it assumes an immense, exhaustive understanding of whatever problem is being considered, in all of its many facets and contexts, which is obviously an unlikely reality. Specifically, it judges some part or parts of the problem to be absolutely limiting, immovable factors, thus making the problem as a whole incapable of being changed. However if one then questions why that part of the problem is unchangeable, then he will necessarily need to point to another even more fundamentally limiting subpart that accounts for the first. This line of reasoning goes on ad infinitum which is absurd because there never arises a truly unchangeable foundation upon which a claim of impractically can be built. This is the case precisely because we are dealing with social issues, which are by nature the products of human beings and thus may be altered—though not always reversed—by human beings.

A brief example: the introduction of large quantities of “cheap” chemical fertilizers and “labor saving” tractors and machinery to American farms following WWII could be legitimately referenced as among the most influential forces for the country’s transition into practicing an industrial form of agriculture, characterized by systemic soil erosion and depletion, the depopulation and impoverishment of the countryside, an overwhelming reliance upon petroleum, and the concentration of our food supply into shockingly few hands. One may say that to change this state of affairs is impractical because we have now grown too dependent on chemical inputs and machines to feed ourselves. But it is we who create those dependencies and it is we who can disassemble them, by readopting an ethic of sustainable land stewardship and a culture that values and supports the work of small farmers and the importance of healthy food and good land. This is a social change that could be achieved through diverse social initiatives. Which is to say that there is nothing fundamentally limiting about our current “dependencies” on agricultural chemicals and heavy machinery.

If one then insists that social initiatives to change the state of industrial agriculture are impractical because of broader trends like urbanization and technological progress, then again there arise social responses to these trends, for example, designing cities to be economically tied to and reciprocal with their local agriculture, incentivizing new small farmers with affordable land and start-up loans, limiting the use of chemical, mechanical, and GMO technology, etc. Of course one could here object (as they always can) that these responses are also are impractical for reasons x, y, and z. The point is that these reasons are always social realities, capable of being changed by social forces, by people.

Any argument that states a given social problem to be incapable of being addressed by people is fundamentally disingenuous, since social problems are inherently subject to the effects of human actions.

One might contrast this situation to a purely technical problem, which will have definite limits as defined by scientific laws. Of course these laws are still the ultimate contexts of social phenomena as well, but not so directly that they could be referred to in order to prove a problem as being incapable of change.

The second contradiction is more basic and yet still rampantly ignored: that when one believes or concludes a state of conditions to be determinately incapable of change, that belief or conclusion instantaneously and directly contributes to its own fulfillment, since it functionally removes the individual a priori from any possible action. However if a different belief or conclusion were maintained then so too would the reality of those conditions—since there would then exist the potential for that person’s action—revealing them to be contingent not on objective, limiting factors but on the subjective attitudes and opinions of individuals. When a person decides to act to improve a social situation or solve a social problem despite apparent difficulty and popular apathy, their efforts change—albeit often in minor, immeasurable ways—that situation and make apathy, by definition, that much less popular.

In other words, to believe that social problems are intractable and their solutions impractical, and to behave in accordance with those beliefs, is exactly what threatens to make them so. Thus apathy works to create the very conditions of impractically that are supposed to justify it in the first place. Apathy based on the argument of impracticality is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Impotence of the Individual

This argument proceeds by allowing that although a problem is in theory possible of being meaningfully addressed, no single individual (especially not me!) is powerful or influential enough to make an appreciable difference. In addition to falling prey to the same basic contradiction of self-fulfilling apathy that was just noted above, this argument also reveals fundamental errors of empiricism and intuition.

The empirical error has to do with the implicit assumption embedded here that there exist forces of action that are of greatly varying magnitudes. Specifically, it rests in the mistaken assumption that there are forces other than individuals— governments, corporations, international agencies, NGOs, etc.—that are the only appropriate entities for addressing problems since they are believed to have the requisite amount of power and influence to affect change, something mere individuals supposedly lack. But of course all of these social bodies are made up of individuals and are allowed to function only insofar as individuals maintain and support them. So while it is undoubtedly true that certain individuals have more power and influence than others depending on their social position and level of privilege, and that organized individuals wield more power than solitary ones, there are no non-individual forces of action; there is no other unit for action than individual action, action executed by people.

If one admits only individuals to be at issue but still maintains that only those super-powerful individuals are capable of solving problems, that only CEOs and politicians and specialists can do anything about anything, then they swiftly fall back into the fallacy of self-fulfilled impotence, for it is solely by the compliance—whether implicit or explicit—of the wider public that an executive’s company or a politician’s party or government is allowed to exist and function as it does.

If one denies the individual’ s active role and insists that even the most powerful people are helpless to alter the effects of those broad social, cultural, political, and economic structures that dominate the trajectory of society, then the same empirical error rears its head, since every “greater” force that is conjured to render the individual impotent is also shown by social analysis—since they are social forces—to have been authored, maintained, and developed through the course of history by individuals.

The intuitive error built into thinking of the individual as basically impotent to affect change is due to a common inclination to formulate our personal orientations toward social problems as an all or nothing relationship. So that one usually asks one’s self, “Can I solve the problem by my action?” or “Can I make a meaningful, measurable difference by my action? Because if not (and I am quite sure I cannot), I might as well not try in the first place.” But this framing of the question completely misrepresents the reality of an individual’s place in society, which is one individual living amongst many other individuals. Just because any one person is incapable of completely altering or undermining pathological social realities does not mean that she therefore cannot or should not attempt to contribute to such changes, since that is all any one person can do.

Indeed, most every individual is already actively participating in many of the social phenomena that they would find morally problematic. Voting, paying taxes, and obeying the law are all forms of implicit approval concerning the government, just as shopping, driving, and eating (unless you grow your own food) are implicit forms of approval regarding the capitalist-market economy. We are already intimately involved with systemic social problems by our roles as citizens and consumers. Every action we take within these roles has moral relevance in relation to the problems that our political and economic systems generate or contribute to. With this understanding there is not really such a thing as inaction. To irresponsibly consume or comply with an unjust government at the cost of destroying our environment and degrading the well-being of others is to contribute to harm; it is to ally oneself with the very kind of social problems that most recognize as needing to be resolved. We are all morally relevant participants of social phenomena and thus we are all integrally involved with the problems that are part of those phenomena. No individual is impotent to affect change on account of being an individual; individuals are the only things that may create such change.

Responsibility

Here is the next line of retreat: Ok, so there are social problems capable of being practically addressed by individuals, but I am not the one responsible to do so. This of course begs the question, who is? Certainly other individuals, seeing as they are the sole unit or force that affects social change. So then what would make some individuals more or less responsible for solving social problems than others? There are at least a few ways to answer that question, but they all have to do with the particular relationships that exist between individuals and the conditions that make up social problems.

The first relationship is causal; one may answer the above question by saying, those who started and/or authored the problem are responsible to resolve it. This clearly has an element of truth to it but it is still not a comprehensive answer to the question, nor is it always applicable in the first place. For example, the individuals who often have the strongest causal links to certain social problems are also often dead or do not have the means to resolve the problem they created.  But what is even a greater obstacle for this line of reasoning is determining with any accuracy exactly who is causally responsible for a given problem and where one can draw the line between those who started a problem and those who merely perpetuated or contributed to it by their compliance and participation. And then we must ask if there is even moral relevancy or legitimacy to that distinction. For it seems obvious that those who benefit from and participate in a social phenomenon that causes harm to others or to the environment are still in part responsible for that harm even if they did not originally conceive of that phenomenon.

The ongoing accumulation of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere is a readily available example.  The destructive consequences of this accumulation cannot be overstated. Entire small island nations and coastal cities face the deadly and displacing threat of rising sea levels; the world’s food supply is endangered by broad and erratic weather changes, disrupting agricultural systems everywhere; severe and unseasonal storms and droughts stress global infrastructures and threaten the cities and communities they connect and service; wildlife migrations shift to adapt to weather alterations, thereby severely disrupting otherwise balanced ecosystems; the list goes on.  But what happens when we ask, “Who is responsible for anthropogenic global warming and climate change?” If we appeal to causality, then the answer must include a condemnation of those who emit greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2). Or would it be of those who first started emitting those gases in the context of an industrial economy, since we know that pre-industrial revolution atmospheric concentrations of CO2 were more or less stable throughout the course of human civilization?

If we answer yes to that second question, then we face the challenge of holding a lot of long dead businessmen, industrialists, and politicians accountable for a very urgent contemporary crisis. If we forgive them their folly or recognize the irrelevance of condemning them, then we must look towards those currently emitting greenhouse gases as those most causally responsible for their destructive consequences. But in a society built upon a fossil-fuel energy economy, where virtually every participant in that economy contributes to the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas, where does responsibility lie? Could we agree that some low-level emissions—like those of an average individual—are permissible while those of heavily polluting corporations are not? Where would one draw the line to quantitatively make that distinction? Would everyday consumers then be off the hook regardless of their carbon footprint, even when they are most often the beneficiaries of the products that corporations burn such copious amounts of dirty fuels and clear such vast tracts of carbon sequestering ecosystems to produce?

Questions such as these point to the fact that causal responsibility is only legitimate when applied to all those involved in the perpetuation of a harmful phenomenon. In the case of climate change, this means that all greenhouse emitters are guilty of the harm their emissions help cause, in exact proportion to their quantitative greenhouse contributions. But this is not the whole story. Causality is not and cannot be the only kind of relationship between individuals and social conditions that determines responsibility. If it were, then every individual would have to possess equivalent power to influence a social problem. But this is obviously not the case; it is a person’s role in society that most enables (or prevents) them to affect social problems.

Thus, another basis for determining responsibility is tied to one’s social role or occupation. One may say, those charged by society with the proper orderings of the state, of domestic and international policies, and those members of powerful corporations and organizations are responsible for solving social problems. Again, there is common sense in this idea that is of merit, but by itself it is again insufficient. Built within it are two false assumptions; one is about the relation between individuals and institutions; the other concerns the very nature of those institutions.

The most powerful institutions are the modern nation-state and the for-profit multinational corporation. Though most individuals do not labor directly on behalf of these institutions, they are nonetheless in a regular and permanent relationship with them as citizens and consumers.

Politically, if one is a citizen of a democratic, republican, or parliamentary government, then they are, at least formally and in principle, exactly the people charged with moral decisions, by the power of their vote, which should be the culminating action of a much broader political life of discourse, reflection, activism, and debate. If one lives in an authoritarian government, which includes those states that are democratic in name but who violate its principles in practice and policy, then the government has no moral legitimacy in the first place, since the people have neither autonomy nor representation. In such cases, every individual is responsible to work to overthrow or radically reform their government, since those individuals whom compose the government have little or no notion of responsibility to the welfare of the people, being interested rather in preserving and expanding their own personal or collective positions of power.

Economically, if one lives in a capitalist-market economy, then they use the selective power of their consumption to directly contribute to what is available within the marketplace, since their purchasing of a good or service creates demand, to which the market responds with greater supply. And since the production, distribution, and consumption of commercial products vary greatly in respect to their moral consequences (treatment, safety, wages, and autonomy of workers, environmental sustainability or lack thereof, distribution of profits, usefulness, safety, and resilience of products for consumers, etc.), choosing amongst such products is itself an intrinsically morally relevant act. Thus, to be a consumer is also to be responsible for the production and viability of what one consumes.

However, the responsibilities of citizens and consumers stated here depend upon specific and somewhat idealized conceptions of political and economic institutions. We must still ask more fundamentally, can modern nation-states and capitalist-market economies actually function to develop and secure the public welfare? Can structures that have historically been wielded by a relatively small group of individuals to hold power over the majority, much to their own economic and political advantages, be expected to pursue a free, open, and more equal society, for the betterment of all?

If they cannot, then the question of responsibility becomes nonsensical when applied to those invested with institutional power; their imperative is not that of the people, but that of their institution; they strive not towards public health or happiness but private power and profit. Thus the responsibility for change lies on the oppressed people themselves, upon the majority who have little to lose and much to gain by dismantling established social structures in favor for ones that better address their needs and improve their lives.

Morality

We have thus far been discussing apathy and action as relating to morally significant social problems. Thus the final argument for being apathetic puts morality itself in doubt and roughly proceeds, though there exist problems that I am capable of acting upon and that I would be responsible for addressing if morality existed, I am unconvinced that it does.

Few come this far in public discourse. Though we may disagree about exactly what morality means and what gives it authority, most all accept its reality.  This common ground is tied to the universality of holding values and having experiences. Values can be fulfilled or failed; experiences can be better or worse. This is enough to construct a common sense and self-evident conception of morality, as actions that fulfill common values and improve common experiences are therefore good, while those that fail common values and create common experiences of suffering are likewise bad. This is enough to take the idea of responsibility seriously, as one’s actions or inactions affect the status of values and the quality of experiences, thus making them morally responsible for that affect.

Conclusion

There is no good reason to be apathetic. In the face of so much suffering, destruction, and death that we produce through our economic and political structures, cheered on and normalized by a perverse dominant culture, it is clear that bold and radical action is needed. When one recognizes the groundlessness of their apathy they must see it for what it is: cowardly, selfish, and deeply immoral. To recognize this and internalize its significance is to take the first and perhaps most challenging step to living an ethical life of meaningful action and virtuous intention.  Let us take this step together and urge others to do the same.


[1] I could here reference the latest OXFAM, IMF, WTO, World Bank, WHO, ACLU, NAACP, IPCC, United Nations, etc. etc. statistics (which are often problematic in their own right for a number of reasons) along with a virtually endless selection of excellent full-length works of history and contemporary analysis on the proceedings and unfoldings of human and environmental degradation, but will instead refrain for the sake of brevity and focus, taking for granted that readers accept the truth that all is not well in the world.

[2] “Social problem” is here being used to describe an existing or potential conflict that is inherently of moral significance, i.e., that affects the lives and well-being of sentient creatures, humans first and foremost. They are not merely technical problems. Examples obviously abound and are usually interrelated: climate change & global warming, worker exploitation, poverty, government corruption & crimes against democracy, systemic corporate malfeasance, ecological & environmental destruction, the oppression of women, institutionalized racism, wars of aggression etc., etc.

 

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