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9. The Ethics of Scale, the Scale of Distress

Published onMar 27, 2020
9. The Ethics of Scale, the Scale of Distress

There is a scale to the ethics we propose as moral peoples, to the sense of responsibility we develop as persons. How could it be otherwise? We embrace, in theory, a set of moral definitions that define us as citizens whose governments craft laws based on them and then sign international covenants that promote their message. At least in theory, we believe in them not simply as citizens but as individuals because they seem to us, and others like us, honorable and right. An ethical perspective follows on those moral declarations that in theory are universal and thus everywhere applicable but in their actualization become particular.

“The existence of a hierarchy or system of rank,” writes Princeton’s Peter Singer, “is a near-universal human tendancy.”1 Our sense of obligation and the field of opportunities for ethical action based on moral definitions can be distinguished spatially, ranking close and far, familiar and foreign. Adam Haslett describes this as a spatial hierarchy by which we “attend to suffering and injustice. … There are friends and family, whose suffering is ineluctable. There are people in the immediate communities, physical and virtual, that we live in whose troubles we see and talk about. And then there is the pain of distant others, people who live in places we’ve never been, news of whose suffering arrives through the media if it arrives at all.”2 And so with scale comes resolution, a degree of attention to the images we see in the world as we see it.

Philosophers call this practically preferential ethic the “morality of special relations,” a sliding scale whose imperatives are greatest where the person is most intimately active, lessened as the degree of direct engagement diminishes.3 Moral definitions don’t change, but the imperative to their ethical enaction is more urgent the closer we are to home. Chris Kaposy addresses the issue in a different context: “For many of us, the most valuable aspects of our lives revolve around these relationships of intimacy—whether they derive from intense friendship, relationships with lovers, or from familial ties. Those who are not given this ‘special relationship’ status are owed [only] the baseline of ethical obligations that prevail among strangers.”4

The closer we are geographically to those in need, the greater the familial and social ties that bind them to us, the more we are called on to help. And at the large scale of the personal, the more we are able to help. Our options for practical involvement decrease rapidly as we move from the local and personal to the national and then international. With distance, the seeming need to enact ethical engagement lessens. It is not that our moral presuppositions are spatially dependent but that our ability to act on them decreases with distance.

It’s the ethical-moral equivalent of Waldo Tobler’s First Law of Geography: “Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.”5 The result is a kind of distance decay affecting the urgency of our moral intuitions and the strength of their resulting ethical imperatives. The farther we are from home, the less clearly we see injustice or feel its force. We may feel a sense of pathos when a flood hits India, an earthquake decimates an area of Japan, or another hurricane ravages Haiti. Unless we are from India, or Japan, or Haiti, our response is minimal. We may note the human suffering that results from these disasters but will not see them as our problem or a call by us to supportive action. But when the flood happens in our city or the earthquake rocks our neighborhood or state, we are engaged immediately in our concern not only for ourselves but our neighbors.

When forced to confront the distance between thin principle and thickly complex realities at greater remove (for example, those starred counties on the Enders map), we may feel queasy, even a bit guilty. But that’s as far as it goes when the object of our concern is … away. Put another way, for most people, distress only becomes injury when it is personal.

Think back for a moment to figure 5.1 and its companions. We see the mapped poverty, but as middle-class (or better) US citizens, we do not easily equate it with our lives or world. The scale is too grand for association; the idea of nationhood and its responsibilities is too thin to spark active outrage and a concerted call for redress. Think back to the maps of New Orleans after Katrina. Like the NACIS members who presented at Map-Off, we prefer to see the city’s flooding as a natural disaster rather than the result of years of inaction by governments we elected. Officials responsible for the state of the levees would say that they asked for monies to shore up the city’s defenses but Congress refused their request in favor of other priorities. If you want to blame somebody, blame them. Congressional legislators might say they were elected on a platform of lower taxes and good business—and that, not a possible hurricane, was their mandate. But us? Well, not really our fault, and thus not our responsibility.

The Amahl, or Satya

This is why charities that seek financial contributions for the welfare of children in impoverished countries do so not with a global map of poverty, or one of global income inequality (figs. 5.8–5.9), but with an endless succession of sad-eyed children, their bellies distended, standing in front of dismal thatched huts with earthen floors. A voice gives the child’s name (call him Amahl, or her Satya) and details his (or her) pitiful destitution. You can save Amahl, we are told—or others like him (or her)—for just pennies a day, a few dollars a week. Just a few hundred dollars a year. Help him (or her), and “your” child (who is illiterate and does not speak English) will write back! The relationship will be reciprocal, and the child not a stranger but an acquaintance, a person linked to you. The obligation to care will be based not on distantly thin moral definitions of human allegiance and solidarity, or on simple pity, but instead on an interpersonal relationship whose ethical obligations are as clear as they would be if Amahl or Satya lived next door. The realities of global inequality and poverty are thus scaled back to a personal point: Amahl, Satya, and you or me.

Signing up, you won’t be signing up for the salvation of Amahl or Satya, of course. They are totems, symbols of the need of children across the dark-red regions of the maps of world poverty, the reddish sections of the map of inequality. Your child will be someone else, one of the many otherwise nameless children living in villages so small you’ll never find them on any but the most local of maps. And so as the advertisements seek to personalize poverty in a way that requires we seek its reduction it simultaneously objectifies its young subjects who in the end are merely fungible, examples of a class of needy who are all nameless.

The advertisements seek to invoke and thus focus in the child a moral definition of human solidarity whose result is an injunction to care. A sense of ethical propriety, of moral righteousness, is what they’re selling. If you don’t contribute, then you feel guilty or at least queasy because you’ve abandoned human beneficence and solidarity, suppositions that you thought you held. The ideas and ideals that power these advertisements are lodged in the United Nations’ charter and subsequent covenants our nations have signed which seem to promise to all a minimum of care, food, health, housing, and maybe education.6 The advertisements invoke that ethic as a practical, personal proposition: If we are persons with a moral compass, then we will want to help, if only to confirm our own humanity (which is to say our status as moral persons). And if we want to help, who better to help than this needy child? If our nation can’t do something, then, well, we individuals will.

This transposition of broad moral ideal to practical human context is what at another scale made Agee and Evans’s writing about southern sharecroppers so powerful; Edward R. Murrow’s “Harvest of Shame” so, well, shameful; and the work of Jonathan Kozol documenting the lives of poor inner-city schoolchildren in the United States so damning. The psychiatrist Robert Coles chose to argue the general from the perspective of the particular in his Pulitzer Prize–winning five-volume Children of Crisis (2003).7 In the same vein, think of Andrea Elliott’s and Ruth Fremson’s “Invisible Child,” which describes the life of Dasani, one of twenty-two thousand homeless children existing in New York City shelters.8 This isn’t the far side of the world but our own backyard.

But those descriptions of individual life are so particular that they are not easily generalized as a mandate to care. What do I in Canada care about the homeless children of New York City (or Austin, Texas)? I care a bit as a human being, but it’s not my nation, city, or neighborhood. And even if it were, the idea of what are in effect third-world children living in first-world countries challenges us in ways most do not want to consider.

That is why television charities do not invoke the need of an Amahl in Harlem, a Satya in rural Mississippi, a Michelle-Jean in Buffalo, New York—or any of the more than 2.8 million American children living in households with incomes in 2012 of less than $2 a day.9 To do so would be to challenge our sense of the nation as able, prosperous, and moral in its treatment of all its citizens. It would insist on an ethics of local and national action and redistribution, or at the least a consideration of the distance existing between the nation’s moral ideals and its realities that we prefer to ignore. A Charity for America (not for Africa or the Sudan) would invoke an ethical judgment obliging us to demand programs at once costly in tax money and, perhaps more importantly, in their damage to our self-esteem. To focus on the nation’s ongoing failure to embrace the morals we trumpet to others, the ethics we espouse to the world, would indict our own failure as citizens to insist on that long-promised more perfect union.

Most of us do care more about our immediate neighbors than about those who live on the far side of the nation or the world. The exception is those who are from those places, the new and first-generation citizens for whom the far side of the world was home. Still, for most, the spatial drop-off is steep. In western New York State, the high school dropout rate in Buffalo’s poorest schools was … news. But the families of suburbanites in Amherst, Kenmore, and Williamsville outside Buffalo safely ignored the structural inequalities that are its root cause (fig. 6.7). They could tisk and stay gratefully uninvolved, ignoring the long-term effect of high school dropout rates and disaffected youths in their region. And, too, they could ignore the imbalances and inequalities that encourage white flight to the suburbs and penury in the inner cities of New York State and the nation.

When the gulf between our moral posture and ethical programs is pointed out, most of us become defensive and a bit … queasy. This isn’t the “avoidance problem” presented by Nancy Berlinger (described in chap. 1), in which a problem is simply ignored. Instead the source of the problem is scapegoated. If one forgets the reasons for those school failures—systemic poverty and funding formulas that ensure inequalities of education service—then one’s responsibility for them diminishes in a defensive moment. Blame the parents who don’t supervise their kids, who then drop out of school; blame the teachers charged with their failed education, or the reluctance of the kids themselves to learn. And, sure, suburban schools are better, but isn’t that why people with children move to the suburbs? Too bad, Buffalo, or Rochester, or any large city with the same problem. We look after our own first. You inner-city folks should do the same.

In mapping the problem and not the context, the test results and not their rationale, we invite this type of response.

Global Scales

Consider The State of the World Atlas (fig. 9.1), now in its ninth edition.10 First published in 1981—and quickly followed by its companion, The War Atlas (updated edition in 1991)11The State of the World Atlas deploys a range of cartographic techniques to present a mass of data arguing that the state of the world is inequitable, unequal, violent, in trouble. Map after map posts key indicators and vital statistics of global life, its dangers, and its many inequalities.

Figure 9.1 The State of the World Atlas has been, since its first printing, a persuasive mapped indictment of global inequalities. Penguin Books.

One map presents nations like the United States that are major exporters of the weapons used in the active wars of the day. A map of the wars where the munitions are used … that’s on another page. There is a map of national military expenditures and, a few pages away, another detailing the inverse relation between military expenditures and monies spent on education and health. Flip forward to a map of life expectancy, and not surprisingly, it is lower in countries where poverty is a constant and war is simply business as usual.

The politics of the Atlas are antinuclear, antiwar, antipoverty, pro-equality, and aggressively humanist. It invites indignation, implicitly demanding that nations pretending to an ethics of moral responsibility to change policies, change rules, change the maps. It thus encourages, at least in theory, readers who live in the wealthy nations to lobby as citizens of those nations for a different and more equitable world.

In more than thirty years and across nine editions, the Atlas has not provoked an international movement to disarmament, income equality among nations, or an international fight against poverty. At best, its maps confirm a liberal reader’s view of the world as a dismal, sorry place (more than 700,000 copies of the Atlas have sold to date). We feel queasy in the face of the reality the Atlas presents, but we see no way to influence its arguments. The result for most readers is less a call to action than a sense of exhausted resignation, of general moral decay.

I may express solidarity with humanity everywhere, but in 2016 the world population was around 7.46 billion persons and expanding by 1.07 percent annually. It is impossible to conceive of that number of persons and even more impossible to think about having a personal responsibility to them all. The world is too vast and complex a place for most people to feel a personal presence and thus to sense an individual responsibility for its current state until and unless—as it did with the Ebola epidemic of 2013 to 2015—something from afar seems to threaten their own cities and homes.12

Look again at figures 5.8 and 5.9. Most people are drawn first to their own country—for me it is Canada—and then to one’s native region (again, for me, North America). The eye then travels to other countries one knows, where one has lived, perhaps. I always look next at Ecuador and Guatemala, countries where I worked on health-care projects in my youth. Then the eye follows a general survey of the map’s surface, the color ramp of its presentation, in which one sees the dark reds and bright oranges of poverty on continents whose countries we often do not know (Where is Chad?).

Unless one is contemplating moving to Bolivia or Haiti (an island almost too small to be seen at this worldly scale), the dismal realities lodged there, in the map, will be perceived as perhaps lamentable but personally inconsequential. Even if one knows where Chad or Haiti is located, their individuality is lost in the coloration. They are just one more small, red-colored polygon in an event class of mass poverty too vast to be internalized without going mad. And in the end, what do the realities of the poorest countries in the map have to do with me, in Canada? Well, look: We are pretty fine, thank you. The global scale smooths into invisibility our pockets of extreme poverty among rural First Nations, the local sites of want that exist in each and every Canadian city.

There are exceptions, of course. The death of more than 1,100 Bangladeshi workers in a 2013 factory collapse “turned a lens on poor conditions endured by workers and brought fresh focus to production practices used to create affordable goods.”13 Canadians were shocked to learn that Bangladeshi sweatshops with abysmal work conditions and low pay rates produced a popular Canadian clothing brand. Promises were made by the manufacturer to increase oversight of their offshore factories.

Sales did not suffer for long, however. Things soon returned to normal. In 2016 conditions in most factories still included forced overtime, unreasonable production targets, and unsanitary (and in some cases unsafe) work conditions.14 Attempts by workers to organize into unions were met with ferocious resistance. Canadian consumers, however, were again mostly unconcerned. Progress, we were told, had been made. Things take time. Situations like this are complex. And after all, we were told, what seems to us to be a pittance of a wage might seem to a Bangladeshi munificent and life sustaining. In buying Bangladeshi clothes, we are actually supporting those workers and that nation’s economy! That’s the glory of global trade.

National Maps

Our sense of involvement and thus responsibility comes into only slightly sharper focus at the scale of the mapped nation. Here the injunctions are clearer, even if the sense of solidarity is no less liable to distance decay. I was born in the United States and have visited thirty-one of its fifty states. As a voter (I am both a Canadian and a US citizen), I have some say, albeit minor, in the nation’s policies and thus some responsibility (at least as a virtue ethicist) for urging it toward ethical programs reflecting moral definitions that the nation in theory embraces and should thus promote. At the scale of the nation, I may lament but am not personally engaged with the poor of Mississippi, a state I only once briefly visited, or Tennessee, where I have never been. While I endorse, in a general way, the idea of a “war on poverty,” its necessity remains an abstraction imaged in the maps and leavened by tales of want so local and specific as to be, for me, irrelevant. Higher taxes? Please, no.

In Canada it’s much the same. I may lament the sorry health state of impoverished northern communities and endorse, in a general way, government plans for their improvement. But it’s a long way from Toronto to a First Nation Cree community at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River on James Bay. I have read about their dire need, and I hope, in a general way, that things will improve, but it’s hard to rally a sense of personal engagement. The average urbanite can muster at most a bit of queasiness, a sense of inchoate moral stress. We’re Canadians, after all, and so are they. Somehow we should do better.


Just as a world map obscures the variances existing in a country’s map, so a state map smooths the often intense variations existing at the finer county resolution. Figure 9.2 shows a 2014 map imaging levels of SAIPE-calculated poverty in 2012 in the fifty states. The first panel (upper left) presents poverty as a general feature of state populations. Beside it is another map with a different color scheme that presents the SAIPE-calculated poverty of young people under eighteen years of age. Below these maps are others that present the same poverty among those aged five to seventeen, and finally, in the lower right, for children under five. Because most young children live with their families, one would expect their poverty to reflect that of the general state population. After all, few children are significant wage earners. And so in looking at the maps, we see commonalities more than differences.

Figure 9.2 These US Census Bureau maps of SAIPE-defined state poverty compare poverty as a general population characteristic and its effect on underage children.

Across the four map panels, the darker states, which are the poorest, are generally in the Southeast—Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee—and Southwest (Arizona and New Mexico). The richer states are in New England and the Midwest. A closer inspection shows that, map to map, there are shifts of one level of poverty on the color ramp, up or down, depending on the particular map’s demographic focus. We see this in California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and Oregon. We do not know what causes these shifts, or what they mean, but the changes are not so visually radical that we who live elsewhere are likely to see them as critical testimonies that ethically require national policy initiatives.

In the four-panel page, we have a broad statement that childhood poverty is epidemic across the plane of US states, although uneven in its prevalence. Moreover, map to map, the poverty is worst among the youngest of citizens. But as we look at the maps, our eye is drawn first to the states colored so lightly they seem empty. What’s the real scoop here? Are things really so good that you can color poverty in those states as … blank?

Look again, and a bit more closely, at this official, automatically generated map set. The earlier, SAIPE-generated maps of county-level poverty used as many as six divisions in their color ramping. The computerized map program at the state level on the SAIPE website employed four mapped divisions. County data on poverty (remember the Enders map [fig. 5.1]?) are smoothed at the state level. The quartile division smooths data again. A five- or six-division choropleth color ramp would emphasize differences that the map in figure 9.2 ignores or at least reduces. The result says poverty isn’t so bad, not really. And where it is, well, the colors are somehow calming, a dark woodland green or a pale blue.

Consider the details in the legends of these 2014 maps based on 2012 SAIPE data. The dividing line between “have” (light color) and “have-not” (darker color) state populations has risen, in the upper-left map (total population), from 13.2 percent of all Americans in poverty (figs. 5.2–5.3) in 2008 to 15.9 percent of young people under eighteen. In the map beside it (under eighteen), the divisor increases to 22.6 percent. In the lower maps, left and right, the bar distinguishing have and have-not states rises yet again to 21.1 percent (children in families) and 25.6 percent (children under five) respectively.

For US citizens these are our Amahls, our Satyas. The number increases as the age of the children decreases to one in every four children under five years of age. And yet that abysmal conclusion is hidden, albeit in plain sight. The very solidity of the maps on the page, the blocks of states in their comforting familiarity, lulls us into acceptance.

Look again at the earlier maps of SAIPE-calculated poverty in US counties, and also at the starred orange and red counties in the Enders map (fig. 5.1). In those maps, poverty is real, persistent, and in some counties extreme. But the maps are so chaotic there is nothing to anchor the message; we see so many counties, it is hard to locate one’s home and harder to see how, across a landscape so varied, anything could be done. Moreover, we have little idea what the maps mean for those living in red, and especially starred red, counties. Are the American Amahls and Satyas without food or clothing? Are they without healthcare? What about education? What do we do with the map and its data? Should we really get involved; should we care?

It’s Not in the Map

None of this is just about maps or the means by which they are produced. Maps are just exhibits, ideas presented in two dimensions, and to think that this is about mapping is to ignore a map’s real message. Nor is this about statistics as a methodology whose divisions transform rows of columned data into a graphically presentable numeric conclusion. The problem is not the algorithms used to generate the computer-generated SAIPE maps or the statistics of poverty on which they are based. The computer-generated map of child poverty is accurate, saying what it was created to say about poverty in youth in America. The statistics are firm and verified to high levels of statistical confidence. One can quibble with the automatically generated color ramps critique the number of divisions in the maps categorization. One can ask, with Enders (fig. 5.1), for a symbol that shows the areas of most-enduring long-term poverty in children. But those are the edges of the problem, not its heart.

The maps exemplify the manner in which the ethical supply chain is interrupted, the means by which a narrow focus and a general perspective permit us to feel at worst a bit queasy about our practical ethical disengagements. Just a tad of moral distress, perhaps.

The scale promises a context, geographic and political; the resolution determines the specificity of the material presented. But somewhere along the line, the rationale behind the collection of the data is lost. The stated purpose was to identify areas of the nation where citizens need but do not receive assistance so that with the nation’s help they and theirs will have an equal chance in life. Data on impoverished children, our Amahls and Satyas, are collected to identify those who need but are not getting an equal chance to thrive, an equal opportunity to become the best citizens possible, the democratic participants we need. As we saw in chapter 5, that is why federal officials collect poverty-related data. The moral ideals of equality of opportunity and freedom are the motivating rationale behind the moral imperative to identify the needy so that we can then collectively help them. That moral call for ethical actions to ensure moral goals gets lost in the telling.

In the same vein, data on global income inequality or outright poverty ($1 a day is the measure) are perfectly presented in maps. The statistics of the Gini index, or any other index of inequality, are ably constructed. They are supposed to awaken us to humanitarian concerns, to the dreadful existence endured by others like us who live in a different place. But they don’t, at least not often, and then not without damning text describing the short, dreary lives of those in the beleaguered regions of the map. Why?

One reason, I think, is that in mapping numbers, we are still seduced by the idea of their objective truth. That’s just the way it is, as the demographer in Regina would say: numbers are just facts, and as such we can blissfully ignore the context of structural poverty that makes those numbers real. We lose the greater meaning when we retire to the safety of the broad numbers set alone, the objective fact without a context that gives depth and meaning to the abysmal portrait of millions of impoverished children whose futures are endangered. If numbers are just numbers, then consequentialists can rest easy. There is nothing truly consequential until those numbers are correlated with ill health, a lack of education, and social dysfunction.

The ethical injunction to aid and care is not wholly lost in the specificity of the numbers posted in this or that chart, map, or table. We know we should feel something. We know that poverty is more than a statistical conclusion based on census data collected and manipulated by statisticians. It has a human face, and in glimpsing it in the reports of writers who focus on the particular, we know that somehow our moral suppositions are violated, our ethical goals unmet. We know as well that structural poverty is costly economically, politically, and socially. Billions are lost in taxes not paid by the unemployed; billions more on the health of those who have no money to pay for insurance or health care. And, too, we know that a disenfranchised, semiliterate, unemployed population is unlikely to participate in the issues of the day, the participatory democracy we purport to value. So, like readers of The State of the World Atlas, we are left with a kind of moral exhaustion when confronting ethics we feel but can’t quite see and do not know how to enact.

Professional Ethics

As professionals, we are trained to ignore our individual ethical sensibilities. We are trained as well to ignore the broader context. A focused research grant’s subject does not invite a broader critique. An assignment to identify relative poverty in the United States (or Canada, or the United Kingdom, and so on) is not a brief to indict inequitable national tax structures that ensure poverty will be as constant a landscape element as mountains, lakes, and rivers. Like the cartographers at Map-Off or the fictional reporter in Raleigh, North Carolina, our task is specific, and if we don’t like it, well, like the Challenger engineer Bob Ebeling, we just can find another job.

And so our ethics are in liege to those of our employer of the moment. Did Institute of Medicine researchers ask about individuals who never made it to the transplant list? Did they question the criteria by which some organ recipients may reflexively be disallowed because they can’t afford postoperative care? Did they demand a clear breakdown of ethnic or racial divides at the level of local organ procurement organizations? To have done so would have raised fundamental questions that their employers (and certainly UNOS) did not ask them to address. As “professionals,” the researchers were constrained even if, as people, they might have questioned the entire enterprise.

“As educators, but also as inhabitants of the world,” wrote the geographer Jim Tyner in 2009, “we have a responsibility to act. … To know that poverty exists, to know that infants and children are dying from malnutrition and inadequate health care and to do nothing … is to participate in and perpetuate a culture of impunity.”15 Tyner argues a kind of ethical two-step. He takes as given that the ethics of the professional instructor are related to his or her being in the world and responsibility to it. He enjoins geographers and cartographers to teach these realities as a means to expose, if not personally combat, a “culture of impunity.” The cartographers, geographers, and statisticians thus trained are enjoined to promote accurate public information as a way to identify the social ills their expertise enables them to document. Think of it as a fugue played on three keyboards: the first is professional (the cartographer and geographer); the second is expressive and instructive (the teacher); and the third, a muted-pedal addition, invokes the responsible citizen embedded in a culture and world of potentially reversible moral improprieties.

In the end, however, Tyner’s clarion call rings hollow. Teaching is a good thing, but it’s usually a safe thing. It puts the onus on the student to act in a way the teacher him- or herself need not. Moral indignation is the order of the day, a way to bleat at inequity without personally engaging its core realities in a substantial manner. The base notes of personal citizen engagement are largely absent in Tyner’s call to ethics. As teachers, they do not need to organize student food drives or work in the homeless shelters of their cities. They need not tithe to charities. Their careers need not focus on the many ways we might combat economic and social inequalities in our neighborhoods, cities, provinces, or nation.

There are exceptions, of course, but most professional lecturers and researcher (and journalists) remain safely disengaged. If they did anything else, they would be activists and not lecturers or writers who in theory are supposed to be as objective as Peter Singer’s universal observer. Here one may observe an inverse of Tobler’s law at play: in general, the more distant the inequity, the more academics and other so-called experts trumpet their distress, calling for radical change.

North American bioethicists are outraged by the transplant tourism of Israelis seeking organs from poor countries in the Middle East, as well as by China’s program of organ harvesting from criminals (many of those organs ending up in foreign transplant tourists). But to talk about organ transplantation inequities in the United States, to see the resegregation and ghettoization of the poor in inner-city Buffalo, Chicago, or New York … no way. At least, not in a manner that would require them to actively involve themselves in seeking solutions.

In the same vein, federal statisticians calculating SAIPE poverty are enjoined to keep a professional distance from the realities their work implies. As citizens, they might feel a tad queasy about the data, but once the numbers are collected and computed, they need do no more as citizens or as moral persons. Certainly they are not called on to be activists. Perhaps one of the federal statisticians made a donation to a charity after his or her work was complete. But to take the maps as a clarion call would be to step beyond the professional role into one that is personal. “You want to do something,” a supervisor would say, “run for office. Here we just do our jobs.” Consequentially, ethics and their attendant morals end precisely there. Professionalism becomes in this way a retreat to the amoral, to personal disengagement.

Think Local, Act Global

The current cant enjoins us all to “think global, act local.” But the global is exhausting, and its relation to the local unclear. It thus becomes a recipe for inaction or, rather, for actions that are largely symbolic, like driving the family SUV to the annual Earth Day celebration. “Think global” permits us to be vocal in our indignation at the inequities that exist in distant places while remaining largely agnostic about those in own neighborhoods, cities, and nations. Remember the redlined neighborhoods of the 1930s federal maps.

To “think local,” on the other hand, to see at home what one may condemn abroad, is to require action by those who wish to see themselves as ethically engaged, moral citizens. To see in one’s immediate environment a reflection of the world at large insists on addressing local consequences in a way that is more personal and perhaps immediate. Few people perceive the world in this way, however. And to be fair, it requires a perspective that professionals are trained to resist from their undergraduate years (it’s about the data) to their own later careers (“Here’s what I want from you”).

Habits of the Heart

It is rare these days to find a moral philosopher or a practical ethicist talking about the nature of citizenship or the responsibility of citizens; the link between the person and the ideals of his or her community and nation. The very idea that as a people we might proclaim a moral platform whose suppositions are the basis of our ethical postures is eccentric if not radical. And yet it is in the distance between those morals and the ethical stance they promote that moral stress and distress exist for many. This is the perhaps inevitable conclusion of what Alexis de Tocqueville called the “habits of the heart” resulting from a moral perspective that leaves “the individual suspended in glorious, but terrifying isolation.”16 Published in two volumes (the first in 1835 and the second in 1840), Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (De La Démocratie en Amérique) reported on the nature of the then-young American body politic. There he found the idea of freedom increasingly equated with individualism, “a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends.” As a result, the sense of responsible community and reciprocal solidarity was lost, except perhaps within a family and a small circle of friends. Thrown back on the local and individual, each person is thus locked “in the solitude of his own heart.”17

Tocqueville perceived a conflicting set of moral suppositions at the heart of the American ethic. On the one hand was a belief that “each man learns to think and act on his own, not counting on the support of an outside power.”18 In this ethic of individualism, wealth, not moral rectitude or social service, became the defining standard by which worthiness was measured. At the same time, however, “The political dogma of this country is that the majority is always right.” And so individuals beholden to no one were free only to the extent that the majority of their fellows gave permission to their beliefs and their practice.

The inevitable result was a “unity of disunity” that is not, as others have suggested,19 the result of modernity but instead a thing deeply embedded in the American consciousness. The disconnect becomes dysfunctional because we are not alone, locked in our own solitudes; we are members of interlocking sets of communities, each active at varying scales and resolutions stretching from the home and its neighborhood to the city, state, and then the nation and world. American individualism thrived in its earliest incarnation because of a sense of active reciprocity, of solidarity (and thus equality) among peoples in its mostly rural, isolated villages and towns.

“Nothing struck me more forcibly,” wrote Tocqueville, “than the general equality of condition among [those] peoples.” That equality permitted individuals to act on an equal basis with neighbors in their shared community. It was, for Tocqueville, America’s most defining characteristic. It is that prerequisite equality in the midst of constant interpersonal exchange that is challenged, map by map, statistic by statistic, across this book. We fail to the extent it is denied at the varying scales we promote as requiring our allegiance.

If equality and freedom are moral imperatives, their range must be actively local. From there it extends naturally and necessarily to the interlocking realities of governance and trade. Economies are linked, local to regional to national to global. Local factories serve national interests active in global economies in the kind of transnational mercantilism (today we call it globalism) that Adam Smith railed against in The Wealth of Nations.20

We have the ethical propositions that follow on a set of agreed-on moral suppositions. The form is clear: if we believe x is good, then we should, if we are ethical, do y. Conflicts are inevitable, and Hegel’s tragic hero embodies the moral distress of us all, a fact of modern daily life. Sometimes it is extreme, sometimes a persistent, chronic discomfort, but it is always there, poised at the edge of the heart and mind. It is always there, its traces calling from the edges of the map.

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