Sigh. Bobo’s preaching again. In “A Question of Moral Radicalism” he babbles that stories of extreme do-gooders are both inspiring and unnerving. So how altruistic must one be? In the comments “Stuart” said “I am so incredibly tired of lectures from David Brooks about morals. Where has he been on the moral issues of the day? Absent or in support of his morally objectionable party.” In “Europe’s Huddled Masses” Mr. Cohen says a digital migration of epic proportions is underway. But America is nowhere to be seen on the refugee crisis. Prof. Krugman asks “Who Hates Obamacare?” He says left-wing attacks on an imperfect program could undermine progressives’ interests. Here’s Bobo:
At the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama told the story of a group of Americans who were captured by the Nazis during World War II. The head of the German prison camp gave an order that the Jewish soldiers step forward. An American master sergeant, Roddie Edmonds, ordered all of his men to step forward. The Nazi held a gun to the sergeant’s head and said, “These can’t all be Jewish.” The sergeant replied, “We are all Jews.” Rather than execute all of the men, the Nazi backed down.
That kind of moral heroism took place in extraordinary circumstances. But even today there are moral heroes making similar if less celebrated sacrifices than those soldiers were ready to make.
Larissa MacFarquhar’s recent book, “Strangers Drowning,” is about such people. She writes about radical do-gooders. One of her subjects started a leper colony in India. One couple had two biological children and then adopted 20 more kids who needed a home. A women risked rape to serve as a nurse in war-torn Nicaragua. One couple lived on $12,000 a year so they could donate the additional money they earned annually, about $50,000, to charity.
These people were often driven by moral rage and a need to be of pure service to the world. They tend to despise comfort and require a life that is difficult, ascetic and self-sacrificial. They yearn for the feeling that they are doing their utmost to relieve suffering. One abandoned a marriage to serve the poor.
For these extreme do-gooders, MacFarquhar writes, it is always wartime. There are always sufferers somewhere in the world as urgently in need of rescue as victims of a battle. The do-gooders feel themselves conscripted to duty.
Some radical do-gooders are what the philosopher Susan Wolf calls rational saints. It is their duty to reduce the sum total of suffering in the world, and the suffering of people halfway around the world is no different than the suffering of someone next door.
There’s a philosophy question: If you were confronted with the choice between rescuing your mother from drowning or two strangers, who should you rescue? With utilitarian logic, the rational saint would rescue the two strangers because saving two lives is better than saving one. Their altruism is impartial, universal and self-denying. “The evil in this world is the creation of those who make a distinction between the self and other,” one man MacFarquhar writes about says.
Others Wolf calls loving saints. They are good with others’ goodness, suffering in others’ pain. They are the ones holding the leper, talking to the potential suicide hour upon hour. Their service is radically personal, direct and not always pleasant.
This sort of radical selflessness forces us to confront our own lives. Should we all be living lives with as much moral heroism as these people? Given the suffering in the world, are we called to drop everything and give it our all? Did you really need that $4 Frappuccino when that money could have gone to the poor?
The argument against this sort of pure moral heroism is that fanaticism in the relief of suffering is still a form of fanaticism. It makes reciprocal relationships difficult, because one is always giving, never receiving. It can lead to a draconian asceticism that almost seems to invite unnecessary suffering.
Love, by its nature, should be strongest when it is personal and intimate. To make love universal, to give no priority to the near over the far, is to denude love of its texture and warmth. It is really a way of avoiding love because you make yourself invulnerable.
In an essay on Gandhi, George Orwell argued that the essence of being human is in the imperfect flux of life, not in the single-minded purity of sainthood. It is the shared beer, the lazy afternoon, the life of accepted imperfection. Full humanness is in having multiple messy commitments and pleasures, not one monistic duty that eclipses all else.
In a 1982 essay called “Moral Saints,” Wolf argued that the desire to be supremely good can never be just one desire among many; it demotes and subsumes all the other desires. She wrote that a world in which everybody strove to achieve moral sainthood “would probably contain less happiness than a world in which people realized a diversity of ideals involving a variety of personal and perfectionist values.”
As Andrew Kuper of LeapFrog Investments put it, sometimes you can do more good by buying that beautiful piece of furniture, putting somebody in Ghana to work.
Yet I don’t want to let us off the hook. There’s a continuum of moral radicalism. Most of us are too far on the comfortable end and too far from the altruistic one. It could be that you or I will only really feel fulfilled after a daring and concrete leap in the direction of moral radicalism.
Gawd, but he’s insufferable. Next up we have Mr. Cohen:
From London to Athens Europe is questioned. Some people, mainly refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, are dying to get into the European Union. Many British conservatives are fighting to get out of it. Others, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, plot to undermine it. Yet others are bored by it. The 20th century and the strategic imperatives behind NATO and the European Union seem far away to wired millennials.
The two most powerful symbols of European integration — the euro that binds 19 European Union states in a currency union, and the Schengen accords that allow people to move freely between 22 borderless European Union nations — are in danger of unraveling under the pressure of polarized politics, diverging economic performance and the influx of more than one million desperate migrants and refugees in the past year.
There is an identity crisis. Christian Europe, a notion that Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary has turned into a kind of illusory fetish, is in fact much less Christian. Around 6 percent of the European population is Muslim today; by 2030 that figure will be 8 percent.
A small minority of those Muslims — told by online jihadi propagandists that there is no gray zone between Islam and the infidel, only the obligation to slaughter the unbeliever — drift off via Turkey to ISIS-held territory in Syria and return to kill — Charlie Hebdo, the Paris kosher supermarket, Paris sports and music halls and restaurants, the Brussels Jewish museum. Division and demagoguery spread. Xenophobic rightist parties thrive at the margins from Sweden to Greece.
At Cologne and Stockholm stations, in the two countries that have overwhelmingly taken in the most refugees, two rampages — by asylum seekers against women in Germany and by masked nationalist thugs against refugee children in Sweden — illustrate the tensions.
Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, recently told my colleague Jim Yardley, “This is not Europe. This is a nightmare.” That nightmare is one of looming fragmentation, violence and walls for the half-billion people now moving freely between Warsaw and Lisbon.
It can be averted. The Europe of today is not the Europe of the 1930s. In Berlin, Angela Merkel stands tall, a European leader of immense stature. Still, the fissuring pressures are intense.
Sometimes, as Yeats noted, “the falcon cannot hear the falconer.” We live in an age of unraveling. The postwar is over. The post-Cold War is over. The United States, under President Obama, has quietly stepped back from Europe. Washington is nowhere to be seen on the refugee crisis, the absent power, much as it was absent from the Minsk process on the Ukraine crisis.
The world is most dangerous in a power vacuum. The geopolitical divides across the world are the most marked in at least a generation. This makes every issue more intractable. The United Nations has proved a complete dud on Syria. It took almost five years, 250,000 dead and more than 11 million displaced people for the Security Council to pass a resolution on a “road map” to peace. That map, for now, is utter fiction. For as many years, Obama did nothing.
Now refugees stream from Syria and elsewhere into Europe. If they carried a banner, it should read, “Reap what you sow, feckless world.” A digital migration of epic proportions is underway. Each refugee carries a smartphone and knows his or her desired destination.
From this New Europe to New Hampshire, unpredictable forces are at play. Show me a Donald Trump, even a slightly Iowa-humbled one, and I’ll see you with a Marine Le Pen.
The strange thing is this troubled Europe has rescued the United States. That’s new. Without Merkel’s courageous decision to take in 1.1 million refugees last year, Europe would have faced catastrophe — and America, even in an election year, could not have ignored violent mayhem among its allies as borders closed and “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” were cast adrift.
Another 65,000 refugees arrived in Germany in January, setting the country on course for 780,000 more this year. Some 200,000 mainly Muslim children are entering German schools. Imagine if America, which has four times the German population, were to register 800,000 mainly Muslim children in schools in a few months. On reflection, don’t even try.
Nobody knows what Germany’s limit is. But there is one. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union will turn on her if the numbers keep rising. Other European nations are not going to take significant quotas: There’s scant democratic support for the right and ethical thing to do.
So Germany has to cut a deal with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. The deal will probably see Turkey getting piles of cash — and perhaps the visa waiver that Turks desperately want from Germany — in exchange for Turkey strictly curtailing the refugee flow to an agreed number who would not have to risk their lives in flimsy boats.
Turkish politics have become German domestic politics. A troubled Europe, cast loose from America, slouches toward Ankara to be saved.
And now we get to Prof. Krugman:
Ted Cruz had a teachable moment in Iowa, although he himself will learn nothing from it. A voter told Mr. Cruz the story of his brother-in-law, a barber who had never been able to afford health insurance. He finally got insurance thanks to Obamacare — and discovered that it was too late. He had terminal cancer, and nothing could be done.
The voter asked how the candidate would replace the law that might have saved his brother-in-law if it had been in effect earlier. Needless to say, all he got was boilerplate about government regulations and the usual false claims that Obamacare has destroyed “millions of jobs” and caused premiums to “skyrocket.”
So Mr. Cruz has a truth problem. But what else can we learn from this encounter? That the Affordable Care Act is already doing enormous good. It came too late to save one man’s life, but it will surely save many others. Why, then, do we hear not just conservatives but also many progressives trashing President Obama’s biggest policy achievement?
Part of the answer is that Bernie Sanders has chosen to make re-litigating reform, and trying for single-payer, a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. So some Sanders supporters have taken to attacking Obamacare as a failed system.
We saw something similar back in 2008, when some Obama supporters temporarily became bitter opponents of the individual mandate — the requirement that everyone buy insurance — which Hillary Clintonsupported but Mr. Obama opposed. (Once in office, he in effect conceded that she had been right, and included the mandate in his initiative.)
But the truth is, Mr. Sanders is just amplifying left-wing critiques of health reform that were already out there. And some of these critiques have merit. Others don’t.
Let’s start with the good critiques, which involve coverage and cost.
The number of uninsured Americans has dropped sharply, especially in states that have tried to make the law work. But millions are still uncovered, and in some cases high deductibles make coverage less useful than it should be.
This isn’t inherent in a non-single-payer system: Other countries with Obamacare-type systems, like the Netherlands and Switzerland, do have near-universal coverage even though they rely on private insurers. But Obamacare as currently constituted doesn’t seem likely to get there, perhaps because it’s somewhat underfunded.
Meanwhile, although cost control is looking better than even reform advocates expected, America’s health care remains much more expensive than anyone else’s.
So yes, there are real issues with Obamacare. The question is how to address those issues in a politically feasible way.
But a lot of what I hear from the left is not so much a complaint about how the reform falls short as outrage that private insurers get to play any role. The idea seems to be that any role for the profit motive taints the whole effort.
That is, however, a really bad critique. Yes, Obamacare did preserve private insurance — mainly to avoid big, politically risky changes for Americans who already had good insurance, but also to buy support or at least quiescence from the insurance industry. But the fact that some insurers are making money from reform (and their profits are not, by the way, all that large) isn’t a reason to oppose that reform. The point is to help the uninsured, not to punish or demonize insurance companies.
And speaking of demonization: One unpleasant, ugly side of this debate has been the tendency of some Sanders supporters, and sometimes the campaign itself, to suggest that anyone raising questions about the senator’s proposals must be a corrupt tool of vested interests.
Recently Kenneth Thorpe, a respected health policy expert and a longtime supporter of reform, tried to put numbers on the Sanders plan, and concluded that it would cost substantially more than the campaign says. He may or may not be right, although most of the health wonks I know have reached similar conclusions.
But the campaign’s policy director immediately attacked Mr. Thorpe’s integrity: “It’s coming from a gentleman that worked for Blue Cross Blue Shield. It’s exactly what you would expect somebody who worked for B.C.B.S. to come up with.” Oh, boy.
And let’s be clear: This kind of thing can do real harm. The truth is that whomever the Democrats nominate, the general election is mainly going to be a referendum on whether we preserve the real if incomplete progress we’ve made on health, financial reform and the environment. The last thing progressives should be doing is trash-talking that progress and impugning the motives of people who are fundamentally on their side.