How would you end this statement: “I’ll hope I do my fair share…”: “…and not a penny more!” or “and a little extra”? And how do you get assigned a ‘fair share’ of your society’s work and sacrifice?
Teaching about NIMBYs, facilities regarded as advantageous to a large jurisdiction overall but opposed by nearby neighbors, I find the following parable useful:
Driving down a northern country road in the dead of winter, a citizen of Grover’s Corners rolls his window down to throw an apple core out and hears a cry for help.Â He stops, and realizes a child has fallen through the ice of the pond next to the road.Â Without thinking about it, he rushes into freezing water up to his armpits and rescues the child.
A half hour later, the familiar scene: flashing red lights, EMTs and police on the scene, and our rescuer sitting on a log, shivering, wrapped in a blanket.Â A TV reporter pushes a microphone into his face: “How do you feel about saving that little girl?”
This story has two endings:
The hero says,
I. “I’ll tell you how I feel: I’m furious, and I’m going to sue the town, the police, whoever owns that pond, and her parents. I was so scared, I almost drowned in there, I’m going to catch my death of cold, my clothes are ruined.Â Why did I have to be the one to pull her out? It’s not my job, I can’t even swim. And now I’m late for dinner! I’ll tell you what I think, it’s completely unfair, just because I happened to be driving by minding my business. Next time I’ll just keep driving and not be such a chump.Â Nobody else even got their feet wet!”
II. “Well, anyone would have done the same: I’m just so grateful I could help…it’s lucky I didn’t come by ten minutes later or earlier.”
Most people think the first ending is unimaginable, impossible, absurd.Â No-one would say such a thing in such a situation. When, for no particular reason, you are the one put by chance in a position to create value for others (especially to avoid injury) at some cost to yourself, there’s a widely held view that you have a duty to help, even if, as is true in most states, you have no legal obligation to do so.Â Curiously, and this is the central mystery of many NIMBY episodes, it would not be surprising to find the selfless lifesaver (second version, of course), in a town meeting vigorously opposing the state’s proposal to site a hazardous waste landfill in Grover’s Corners’ uniquely dense and extensive clay soil deposit, a facility that would protect dozens or hundreds of nameless people across the state from toxic and carcinogenic chemicals, as completely unfair. Of course it’s unfair (though it could be made more fair by compensating the locals for their real costs, especially property value hits); it’s the only such clay formation in the state. So?
A month ago, I viewed LeBron James as being in a similar situation: he didn’t ask for the job in Cleveland, but he found himself by chance in a position to create a lot of value for the community he grew up in, a town and region very much back on its heels, and that thought of him as a local boy, by giving up a chance to play in Miami on a better team. Mark rapped my knuckles for this, saying James owed nothing to his team or his town. I think I was right and Mark was wrong: James’ behavior was completely legal and deplorable, “not a penny more” morality.
Now we have the spectacle of opposition to an Islamic community center two blocks from the World Trade Center site that will impose some cost on 9-11 victims’ families and friends, and many who suffered in and after the attack, purely through their consciousness of the existence of the center. This is because (even though fifteen times more Moslems were victims of the attack than carried it out) all the perpetrators acted in the name of Islam. New Yorkers didn’t ask for an inclusive, outreaching, anti-hate Moslem institution, but the proposal fell upon them like random lightning, giving them the chance to incur some cost (of personal painful reflection) to create value for their community.Â Some of them are whining about how unfair this is, but some have the “and a little extra” instinct, and understand that being a mensch at the irreducible price of sometimes being a chump is a good deal. I don’t think it’s even a close call which side I would want to be on, and if unfair opportunity lightning strikes me, I sure hope I go into the pond, and in a New York minute. Duties you might acquire by being in a place at a time, that you didn’t ask for and no-one else has, that you can duck with no legal punishment, are still duties; indeed, they may even be blessings.