This post originally appeared on May 28, 2015.
I’ve got a friend who’s suffering from depression. He’s been holed up in his house for the last two years; living first on sick pay, then savings; venturing out only for fish and canned vegetables. (“They’re healthy.”) I visit him from time to time, which isn’t often enough, and I excuse the infrequency with a lame thought: it doesn’t matter whether I go.
The problem is not that I’m wrong. He doesn’t want visitors, we have the same conversation each time, and he isn’t getting any closer to the man he once was, all bright and bounding. If I’m showing up to make a difference, I’m probably wasting my time.
This defense of inaction is psychologically powerful. We know how the election will play out, so we don’t vote. We know that having tofu won’t save a cow from slaughter, so we have the burger. We know that Old Navy isn’t going to notice whether we shop elsewhere, so we may as well save some money. When we can’t make a difference, why bother?
Sometimes, because we’re wrong. It only seems like we can’t make a difference because so many people contribute to the effect. This tends to be the story in consumer ethics: industries don’t care about what any one person does, but they certainly care about what lots of people do, and “lots of people” don’t do anything if we don’t do something.
In other cases, we really can’t accomplish what we’d like—too few are willing to take up the cause—but we can do something else worthwhile. Consider, for example, participating in Adjunct Walkout Day. My university isn’t going to start paying adjuncts a living wage, so canceling class for their sake feels pointless. By joining in, though, we stand in solidarity with those who aren’t being treated fairly, insisting that wrongdoers be held accountable. That’s a far cry from achieving securing fair wages, but it still isn’t trivial to encourage and criticize, respectively, those who deserve encouragement and criticism.
All that said, my friend’s depression isn’t a collective action problem; it isn’t as though a few more supporters will tip the scales. Protest won’t help either: depression may be a thief, but it can’t be shamed. And we could conclude, on this basis, that my excuse is a good one. But I remain unsatisfied by it. When I drive the twenty-two miles to his door, I’m his friend. When I pick up a book instead, I’m not. And that choice isn’t trivial.
It might sound like I’ve just made this about me. “I can’t make a difference in my friend’s life, but I can make a difference in mine: I can choose what sort of person I’ll become, the ideals that I’ll embody.” And although those things are true, they’re beside the point.
Which is this: sometimes, difference-making doesn’t matter. If I’m going to be a friend, I’m going to sit with him in his depression. Not at the expense of everything else in my life—that’s martyrdom. But at real expense, since that’s what friendship involves. Likewise, if I’m a citizen, I vote; if I’m compassionate, I don’t want anything to do with factory farms. That’s what it is to be a friend, or a citizen, or compassionate. And that’s why we aren’t bad friends or citizens if we fail, or a little less compassionate when we keep eating animals. Rather, we are “friends” and “citizens” and “compassionate.” We have different versions of these relationships and roles and virtues—the paltry, calculating ones where “This is my country” isn’t argument enough for voting, and “That creature suffered needlessly” isn’t argument enough for abstaining. Not so with the versions worth having: they settle how we ought to proceed. (Indeed, that’s much of why they’re worth having.)
Why act when it doesn’t make a difference? In some cases, because it does—though only with some help, or not how we’d hoped. But often enough, this is the wrong sort of question to ask, and the right kind is much simpler:
Are we friends?