Can Morality Make Demands on Our Attention?

by Joseph Shieber

Georg Schultz. Newspaper Carriers (Work Disgraces). 1921. Art Institute of Chicago.

Imagine, in a solitary clearing, a ballet dancer practicing a piece of choreography. The dancer, who is listening to music on earbuds, is so engrossed in their performance that they don’t notice the world around them. Anyone who happened upon the dancer would hesitate to disturb them, afraid that any interruption would break the transcendently beautiful spell they cast with their graceful and intricate movements.

At that moment, there is a commotion in the lake beyond the clearing from the dancer. A young child has fallen into the water and can’t swim. Nobody else is within earshot, and the child screams for someone to help.

The dancer, caught up in their solitary performance, closed off from the sounds of the outside world by their earbuds, never hears the child. The child drowns.

Let’s suppose that the dancer could easily have reached the lake and rescued the child, if the dancer had been aware of the child’s existence at all. But the dancer thought themselves to be alone in the clearing, far away from anyone else. There can be no question that the dancer bears no responsibility for not having saved the child. The dancer never heard the child’s screams, never saw the child splashing about in the lake.

Of course, were the dancer ever to learn of the child’s death, they might blame themselves for not having done more. Such self-blame, however, is clearly not rational. They knew nothing of the child’s existence!

But now, let’s vary the case a bit. To keep the two cases apart, let’s call the first case “Earbuds”. The second case, like “Earbuds” has a similar setup. Again, a solitary clearing. Again, a ballet dancer at the pinnacle of their art. Again, a drowning child.

Unlike “Earbuds”, however, let’s now imagine that the dancer is accompanied by music played on a boombox. Let’s call this second case “Boombox”.

The further difference between “Earbuds” and “Boombox” is that the dancer CAN hear the child. The child’s cries are faint, but definitely audible. Not only can the dancer hear the child, but it would take a bit of work, an extra effort of concentration, for the dancer to ignore the noise made by the child.

Perhaps you’ve had this experience yourself. You’re fully absorbed in some task, some activity that you find extremely fulfilling. Doing it well requires concentration, and you want to do it well. If something were to disturb you, that moment would be broken, shattered forever. It would be a loss that you felt deeply. When potential disturbances arise, threatening your concentration, you expend a bit of extra effort to maintain your concentration, blocking out the disturbances — perhaps before they even fully rise to the level of your complete awareness.

Let’s imagine, however, that in “Boombox” the ballet dancer allows themself to be distracted by the child’s call. Once their concentration on the performance is broken, they recognize that the child is in danger. Leaving the clearing, the ballet dancer runs to the lake and saves the child. By the time they return to the clearing where they had been practicing, after emergency services arrive to take the child for further treatment, the spell of the performance is broken, never to be regained.

Now, let’s imagine that in both “Earbuds” and “Boombox” the balletic performance was a once-in-a-lifetime, transitory moment of sublime beauty. By leaving the clearing in order to save the child, the dancer in “Boombox” destroys that moment. Nevertheless, you’d surely grant that the value of saving the child’s life more than outweighs the cost.

Reading the two cases, “Earbuds” and “Boombox”, you might be experiencing a moment of deja vu. Perhaps you’re familiar with Peter Singer’s famous thought experiment from “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”. In that thought experiment, Singer argues that the same moral intuitions that drive you to think that you should heed the calls for help from a nearby drowning child ought also push you to work to save the lives of children far away from you.

Or maybe you’re thinking of one of Peter Unger’s thought experiments from Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence, the one he dubs “The Vintage Sedan”. Unger considers a case in which you’ve spent countless hours lovingly restoring a vintage car. One day when you’re out driving on a deserted, seldom-traveled country road, you pass someone on the side of the road who is limping along with a bloody, badly injured leg, attempting to hitch a ride. Though the injury isn’t life-threatening, unless the hitchhiker gets to the hospital he’ll lose the leg. The nearest hospital, however, is fifty miles away; if you drive the pedestrian to the hospital, he’ll bleed all over the leather upholstery on your back seat, setting you back at least $5,000 and a great deal of additional time. Unger suggests that, if you chose not to drive the hitchhiker to the hospital, you’d be behaving abominably.

Like Singer’s thought experiment, both “Earbuds” and “Boombox” involve cases in which we must consider the value of saving a drowning child. Structurally, however, “Earbuds” and “Boombox” are closer to Unger’s “The Vintage Sedan”. Like “The Vintage Sedan”, both “Earbuds” and “Boombox” force us to weigh competing values against each other: the value of the unrepeatable epiphanic aesthetic experience against the value of saving a child’s life.

Further, both Singer’s and Unger’s thought experiments, as well as “Earbuds” and “Boombox”, suggest that there’s a moral component to our evaluation of competing goods. In Unger’s “The Vintage Sedan”, for example, one who prized the good of their lovingly restored leather upholstery more highly than the hitchhiker’s leg would be judging immorally.

These sorts of thought experiments are indeed very powerful. For example, a recent experiment conducted by Harvard University’s Fiery Cushman and UC Riverside’s Eric Schwitzgebel found that a brief argument, by Singer and Brooklyn College philosopher Matthew Lindauer, was effective in encouraging people to give more money to charity. Here’s the argument:

Many people in poor countries suffer from a condition called trachoma. Trachoma is the major cause of preventable blindness in the world. Trachoma starts with bacteria that get in the eyes of children, especially children living in hot and dusty conditions where hygiene is poor. If not treated, a child with trachoma bacteria will begin to suffer from blurred vision and will gradually go blind, though this process may take many years. A very cheap treatment is available that cures the condition before blindness develops. As little as $25, donated to an effective agency, can prevent someone going blind later in life.

How much would you pay to prevent your own child becoming blind? Most of us would pay $25,000, $250,000, or even more, if we could afford it. The suffering of children in poor countries must matter more than one-thousandth as much as the suffering of our own child. That’s why it is good to support one of the effective agencies that are preventing blindness from trachoma, and need more donations to reach more people. (Discussion by Schwitzgebel here.)

Now, the challenge posed by all such thought experiments is that they seem to suggest that very few, if any, of us are doing enough to alleviate suffering. Perhaps you bought a Starbuck’s coffee yesterday for $5. For the price of two of those coffees, you could prevent a child from going blind later in life. Suppose you forego Starbucks for a year. If you normally go to Starbuck’s once a week, that’s 26 children whose suffering you’ve prevented.

Once you follow this inexorable logic, it can seem difficult to determine precisely where to stop. One of the New Yorker pieces that has stuck with me for almost two decades is an article by Ian Parker, “The Gift”. In that article, Parker recounts the story of Zell Kravinsky, a multimillionaire real estate investor in the Philadelphia area who, in the early 2000s, donated practically all of his $45 million fortune to charity, leaving himself, his wife and their four children only a modest home in a Philadelphia suburb and sufficient income to support their living expenses.

Merely donating money was not enough for Kravinsky, however. He had begun to look for ways to donate a kidney as well. Singer, who read about Kravinsky in the New Yorker article, invited him to speak to one of Singer’s classes at Princeton. As Singer describes the talk, Kravinsky explained to the class “that the chances of dying as a result of donating a kidney are about 1 in 4,000. For him this implies that to withhold a kidney from someone who would otherwise die means valuing one’s own life at 4,000 times that of a stranger, a ratio Kravinsky considers ‘obscene.’”

What the discussions about Singer, Unger, and Kravinsky can obscure, however, is an aspect that the contrast between “Earbuds” and “Boombox” highlights. It’s the importance of attention: of attending to another person’s suffering.

Thought experiments like Singer’s and Unger’s press the question: how can you spend money on comparative trivialities, when that money could reduce so much suffering? Analogously, “Boombox” presses the question: how can you pay attention to comparative trivialities, when there is so much suffering demanding your attention?

If, as I noted, the challenge posed by Singer’s and Unger’s thought experiments is that both seem to suggest that very few, if any, of us are doing enough to alleviate suffering, the challenge posed by “Earbuds” and “Boombox” is to suggest that very few, if any, of us are doing enough to focus our attention on the suffering going on all around us.

You might remember that Adorno wrote … something about the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz.

That’s not actually what he wrote. The passage that sparked the common misconception is from the 1949 essay “Culture Critique and Society”, published in the 1955 volume Prisms. What Adorno in fact wrote is, “Cultural criticism finds itself today faced with the final state of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” (There’s a nice discussion of this passage at James Schmidt’s blog, Persistent Enlightenment.)

Adorno later amended this stance. It’s not poetry that’s barbaric after Auschwitz, but poetry of a certain type. After all, as Adorno notes in the Negative Dialectic, “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.”

The point of Adorno’s revision here is that poetry is acceptable only insofar as it expresses “perennial suffering”. If it gives voice to the cries for help demanding your attention, poetry still has a role. The broader point is one that Adorno makes in the Notes to Literature, IV, vol. 11: “The sentence that after Auschwitz no more poems could be written, is not simply true. What is true, however, is that after Auschwitz, because it was possible and for the foreseeable future continues to be possible, it is not possible to imagine any carefree artworks.” (Rough translation by me, emphasis mine; the German original is here.)

The force of “Boombox” is that we would judge the ballet dancer harshly if, however faintly, they heard the calls of the drowning child but chose to focus their attention on their dance, however beautiful and epiphanic that dance might have been. How much more harshly would we judge someone who chooses to focus their attention on even more trivial diversions, ignoring information about suffering children — or others — in need of their help?

When I tell students about Singer’s and Unger’s thought experiments, a common initial reaction is that, because self-abnegating responses like Kravinsky’s seem to be a logical conclusion of those thought experiments, the thought experiments themselves must be absurd and ultimately not worthy of a more thoughtful reaction.

I can imagine a similar response to “Boombox”. It’s not possible, you might say, to live your whole life seeking out information on those who are suffering, ignoring more carefree diversions or experiences of simple beauty. You would burn out too quickly and be of no use to anyone.

This response is correct, but it’s not sufficient. The force of “Boombox” isn’t that you must devote all of your attention to instances of suffering that you could help to alleviate. Rather, it’s that you could devote more — likely much more — of your attention to those who cry out for your help, as opposed to frittering it away on mere trivialities … even beautiful trivialities.

I have no good answer to the challenge of moral demands on attention. It seems to me to be a genuine challenge. Certainly, as a philosophy professor, reader of mystery novels, and inveterate binge watcher of Nordic noir, I feel the pull of the claim that I myself could direct my attention in more meaningful and, yes, more moral directions.