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Time for Social Conscription?

photograph of Uncle Same "We Want You!" poster

The metaphor of war has been widely employed during the pandemic. Donald Trump characterized the virus as the “invisible enemy,” Boris Johnson declared himself the head of a wartime government, Narendra Modi envisioned the ‘Tika Utsav’ (a vaccination festival) as the start of the second Indian war on COVID-19, and even the WHO recommended the suspension of vaccine patents to secure the world’s “war footing.” Using the language of conflict to convey the pandemic’s threat and rally our march toward its defeat has been a regular feature of discourse worldwide.

The deployment of this kind of combat analogy isn’t novel. Similar language was used by Brazil officials during the 2018 Zika outbreak, by Nixon in the 1970s ‘war on drugs,’ and by contemporary conservative commentators to decry the ‘war on Christmas.’ And, while its appropriateness is sometimes questionable, the power which such an illustrative framing possesses is often considerable.

Conceptualizing challenges as battles elicits an ‘us v. them’ mentality. In the COVID-19 context, it provides a common enemy (the virus), a retaliatory strategy (flattening the curve), the soldiers (clinical staff), the home-front (people isolating), and the saboteurs (those breaking lockdown rules). The idea of uniting to fight an adversary capable of causing such catastrophic harm was used to justify the rapid closing of schools, bars, sporting events, the restrictions on domestic and international travel, and the general reduction in the freedoms many enjoyed pre-pandemic. Echoing WWII’s campaigns like ‘Dig for Victory,’ we’re repeatedly told that we must do our part to prevent disaster, preserve vital services and resources, and save lives.

The demands on state resources worldwide have reinforced a picture not dissimilar from that of a mass global conflict. Hospitals overrun with patients, a lack of available qualified staff, panic-hoarding and rationing of goods, as well as fear of potentially compromised foreign individuals, all elicit similar feelings of dread in the face of an uncertain future. Indeed, living under the shadow of war and the shadow of a pandemic has some palpable thematic similarities.

Yet, one aspect of the wartime era has been notably absent in the discussion about how governments might rise to meet the significant demands placed on public services during a pandemic: conscription; that is, people’s mandatory enlistment into national service.

This practice is typically reserved for compelling people into military service because war is broadly seen as the only event that could justify such a coercive social program. However, there are plenty that believe obligatory military service represents an important public good even in peacetime. In the U.K., for example, the prospect of military conscription’s reinstatement has been floated by politicians, commentators, as well as royals. Additionally, the U.K.’s public appears to possess an appetite for its restoration, with 48% of respondents to a 2018 YouGov poll and 43%-47% of respondents to a similar 2016 poll favoring compulsory military service for young people.

But, if it is appropriate to think of the pandemic as a war, shouldn’t a conscription program for non-military, social roles — such as the U.K.’s National Health Service or Italy’s Servizio Sanitario Nazionale — be considered?

Non-military conscription isn’t new. Germany, Austria, Finland, Switzerland, amongst others, have utilized a conscription service to ensure citizens contribute to social services in the past. However, this form of national service is generally employed as an alternative to military conscription, not a separate, preferable option. Social conscription is typically framed as the secondary option, something that is only considered in countries that employ military conscription as their default service option. But, a program of social conscription may not simply be a backup alternative for those who don’t wish to be involved in the armed forces. Rather, there is a compelling argument that the former avoids several of the latter’s more troubling ethical implications.

Chief amongst these criticisms concerns the methods employed by the armed forces to achieve their goals. The military secures its objectives via the threat of violence. Coercing people via social and judicial means to serve in an industry that invariably leads to the demise of others is hard to justify. Imposing an obligation on citizens to participate in activities that might conflict with their deeply held personal, moral, or religious convictions — like actively supporting the military-industrial complex or contributing to the taking of others’ lives — will strike many as going beyond what any legitimate government can demand of its people. This is why many jurisdictions with military conscription provide an opt-out pathway where individuals can pursue alternative service avenues to serve the public good and do their bit.

Social conscription, on the other hand, does not raise the same problem. Through a national service program that supports well-being-enhancing institutions — such as social care or health services — individuals can assist their communities and countries in a manner comparable to military conscription without being (in)directly involved with the killing of another human being. In fact, they’d be instrumental in the saving of lives.

Social conscription doesn’t simply avoid some of the ethical quandaries associated with military conscription. On the contrary, it possesses benefits that make it not merely relationally preferable to military conscription but inherently preferable, especially during a pandemic. With healthcare services struggling to meet demand due to a lack of available staff, an enormous task force needed to administrate and administer vaccination initiatives, and social care industries besieged by the increased need of their services, a consistent and reliable source of labor in the form of social conscripts may be the most effective way to secure the best possible outcome in the war against COVID-19. And, if increasing well-being, health, and positive results are ethically desirable outcomes, then social conscription may be morally required.

Whether such a program would be practical is something that needs investigation. However, given the appetite for conscription alongside the evident need to bolster those institutions that increase well-being and protect people’s health globally — a need highlighted by the pandemic — social conscription may not be military conscription’s inferior alternative. Rather, it may be its indispensable and desirable superior.

A Strange Moral Disgruntlement with Giving

photograph of donation jar stuffed with large bills

I tend to get annoyed when people donate money in ways I think are silly. I was recently reminded of this when I saw the staggering amount of money spent first on the Presidential campaigns and second on the Georgia runoff. This annoyed me, because everything I have read suggests that money makes little to no difference to federal or state wide election outcomes (note that there is a correlation between the amount of money raised and the number of votes gotten, but that is because popular candidates receive more donations, not because donations help make candidates popular). I was not only annoyed that people were donating money to political campaigns rather than to causes that could make a difference, but I was extra annoyed that people mostly donated to the political campaigns where money had the least chance of effecting the outcome (for example, democrats across the country donated to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s election fund even though her chance of losing was minuscule).

It is not just political donations. I remember in middle school being annoyed with my sister for raising money to rescue endangered species like tigers. I thought this was a silly use of money since a) humans are qualitatively more important than animals and b) the best environmental protection does not focus on the preservation of certain culturally-salient species. Likewise, a few years ago I was annoyed with people at my church who, as it seemed to me, were frivolously donating money to help build a new building and purchase a new pipe organ.

Hopefully at least some of you readers can identify with this annoyance (if not, this whole post is just self-indulgent moral navel-gazing). I bring it up because there is something odd about this annoyance — I seem more annoyed by people donating money ineffectively than I am by people just spending money selfishly.

Let’s make this oddity concrete. I am peeved when friends donate money to Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s political campaign rather than donating that money to charitable causes that will likely create practical, tangible change. And yet I am not peeved when friends go out to dinner rather than donate that money to charitable causes that will likely make a real difference.

I grumble about how donating money for a new church building was a terrible witness for Christian love, but don’t similarly grumble anytime a Christian renovates their own home or buys a car nicer than they absolutely need. I openly criticized my sister for raising money for animal conservation rather than for anti-malaria efforts, but of course I was not bothering to raise money for either!

So why am I more annoyed by ineffective selflessness than I am by simple selfishness. Whatever the explanation, it concerns me. The reason I should care that people donate to the Against Malaria Foundation rather than a political campaign is because I care about people dying from malaria! But people spending money selfishly are failing to help those dying of malaria at least as much as those donating to political campaigns.

So what is going on here, why do I get so annoyed by ineffective selflessness?

I’m not sure, but I have a theory I want to toss out there. The reason I am bothered by ineffective selflessness is because I’m annoyed at the thought of people feeling unjustified pride in their own goodness. In other words, if someone spends money eating out or spends money donating to a political campaign both are, in some sense, wasting their money. However, the person who donates to the political campaign is wasting their money and feels an inner glow of self-approval that they are ‘doing their part’ and ‘participating in the process.’ In other words, what bothers me about ineffective charity is the thought that people will unfairly get to feel good about themselves when they don’t deserve it.

This explanation fits well with some other things we know about human psychology. In particular, it fits with our natural concern that rewards be proportional to dessert. As Jonathan Haidt puts it in The Righteous Mind:

“When people work together on a task, they generally want to see the hardest workers get the largest gains. People often want equality of outcomes, but that is because it is so often the case that people’s inputs were equal. When people divide up money, or any other kind of reward, equality is just a special case of the broader principle of proportionality. When a few members of a group contributed far more than the others—or, even more powerfully, when a few contributed nothing—most adults do not want to see the benefits distributed equally.”

Some evidence for this comes from our willingness to pay to punish cheaters and free riders, even when no future benefit is secured by that punishment. In cooperation games where players can keep money for themselves or add it to a group pot to be grown and then distributed, the vast majority of players will pay money they won to take away money from those who did not contribute to the overall pot. People would rather make less money themselves if they can at least decrease the amount won by those who were freeriding. This is also why there is so much political pressure to root out cheating in the welfare system. It often costs more to find welfare fraud than we save in finding it. Yet people are still willing to pay to enforce standards because we are so bothered by the thought of someone benefiting unjustly.

All of this also makes good sense from an evolutionary perspective. Suppose there are two people, one of whom will spend resources punishing you whenever you cheat them, and the other who will only punish you when it makes financial sense to do so. Who are you more likely to cheat? Having a strong commitment to punish cheaters, even when it seems counterproductive, plays a vital role in maintaining social trust and cooperation.

My theory then, is that the reason I am bothered by ineffective selflessness more than selfishness, is because my concern with ‘wasted donations’ is not actually a concern for the global poor, instead it is a concern about fairness. Just as it bothers me when cheaters do not get punished (because they end up better off than they deserve), so too am I bothered when those contributing little to others feel good about themselves for helping (because they end up better off than they deserve). It is upsetting when someone does not feel guilt over doing something wrong, and it is similarly upsetting when someone feels pride over doing something neutral. In both cases the ‘moral order’ of the world seems off, and I am willing to invest considerable mental energy in trying to set the things right.

It is useful to notice this motivation because it goes some way to tempering my criticism. It is hard to feel good about my own disgruntlement when I realize it is motivated not by a love for the poor but by a concern that others not feel better about themselves than I do. After all, the people trying to help, even if they do so poorly, probably do deserve to feel better about themselves than those who are not trying to help at all (though of course, we should all spend time making sure we are using money where it can really help those who need it).

Voluntourism and the Problem with Good Intentions

photograph of African children posing with white volunteers

In the past few months alone, the global tourism industry has lost a staggering 320 billion dollars, making it just one of many industries to suffer from the pandemic. Most nations are no longer accepting the few American tourists still interested in international travel, rendering American passports “useless” in the words of one critic. Global tourism will have to evolve in the coming years to address health concerns and growing economic disparity, which is why many within the industry see this state of uncertainty as the perfect moment for reform. In particular, some are questioning the future of one of the most contentious sectors of modern global tourism, the “voluntourism” industry.

Voluntourism, a word usually used with derision, combines “volunteer” and “tourism” to describe privileged travelers who visit the so-called Third World and derive personal fulfillment from short-term volunteer work. College students taking a gap year, missionaries, and well-to-do middle-aged couples travel across the globe to build houses, schools, and orphanages for impoverished natives, either for the sake of pleasure or to pad out their CV. A 2008 study estimated that over 1.6 million people incorporate volunteer work into their vacations every year. The popularity of this practice explains why it’s so financially lucrative for religious organizations and charities; the same study found that the voluntourism industry generates nearly 2 billion dollars annually, making up a sizable chunk of overall global tourism.

But as many have pointed out, voluntourism often creates more problems than it solves. In an article for The Guardian, Tina Rosenberg explains how many nations have continued to rely on orphanages (despite their proven inefficiency when compared to foster care systems) simply because there is money to be made off of well-intentioned tourists who wish to volunteer in them. Furthermore, the majority of voluntourists are completely unqualified to perform construction work or care for orphaned children, which ends up creating more unpaid work for locals. Rosenberg also explains how local economies suffer from this practice:

 “Many organisations offer volunteers the chance to dig wells, build schools and do other construction projects in poor villages. It’s easy to understand why it’s done this way: if a charity hired locals for its unskilled work, it would be spending money. If it uses volunteers who pay to be there, it’s raising money. But the last thing a Guatemalan highland village needs is imported unskilled labour. People are desperate for jobs. Public works serve the community better and last longer when locals do them. Besides, long-term change happens when people can solve their own problems, rather than having things done for them.”

Overall, it’s often more expensive to fly out Western tourists and provide them with an “authentic” and emotionally charged experience than it would be to pay local laborers.

And yet, the emotional needs of tourists tend to come first. As Rafia Zakaria points out, “deliberate embrace of poverty and its discomforts signals superiority of character” for well-off voluntourists, who fondly look back on the sweltering heat and squalid living conditions they endured for the sake of helping others. This embrace of discomfort partly stems from white guilt, though some have pointed out that wealthy non-Western countries also participate in voluntourism. It has been labeled a new iteration of colonialism, perhaps with good reason. Colonial subjects have historically been positioned as an abject Other in need of Western paternalism, a dynamic that is reproduced in the modern voluntourism industry. As Cori Jakubiak points out in The Romance of Crossing Borders, voluntourism is essentially an attempt at buying emotional intimacy, which often overshadows the structural inequality that makes such intimacy possible. While voluntourism ostensibly taps into our most charitable impulses, in many ways it can be viewed as a moral deflection. Nakaria notes that

“Typically other people’s problems seem simpler, uncomplicated and easier to solve than those of one’s own society. In this context, the decontextualized hunger and homelessness in Haiti, Cambodia or Vietnam is an easy moral choice. Unlike the problems of other societies, the failing inner city schools in Chicago or the haplessness of those living on the fringes in Detroit is connected to larger political narratives. In simple terms, the lack of knowledge of other cultures makes them easier to help.”

At the same time, it seems wrong to completely reject qualified and genuinely well-intentioned travelers who wish to alleviate human suffering. Good intentions may not redeem the harm caused by the industry, but they also shouldn’t be dismissed as just the vestiges of colonialism. If properly educated on structural inequality, many voluntourists could actually help the communities they visit instead of perpetuate pre-existing problems. Furthermore, one could argue that most forms of volunteer work, whether domestic or abroad, contain some of the worst aspects of voluntourism. Wealthy Americans volunteer to work with the poor and needy at home, and however good their intentions are, they are perfectly capable of reproducing structures of power and privilege within those interactions.

Some see COVID as an opportunity to reform the voluntourism industry and weed out the useless or corrupt organizations, as a recent report for the World Economic Forum proposes. The most important thing moving forward is that we re-assess the needs of disenfranchised communities and adjust the practices of NGOs accordingly. There is a difference between building a school house and reforming educational policies, a fact which all charitable tourists should keep in mind before going abroad.

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

Progress, paradox, and the food justice movement

This post draws on my experience from co-leading the Prindle Institute’s Alternative Spring Break trip to Nashville, TN focused on food ethics and justice on March 22-28, 2015.

Food justice is an issue that many of us are indirectly exposed to at an early age. We’re taught, often through religious education but also in other ways, that many people in the world are hungry and we, as more privileged global citizens, have a responsibility to help alleviate their suffering. In my experience growing up in the Catholic school system in Columbus, Ohio, canned food drives were routine, field trips to food banks were not uncommon, and students memorized “feed the hungry” as part of the Corporal Works of Mercy. We lugged paper bags filled with Campbell’s soup, Ramen noodles, or whatever else our parents wanted to discard from our pantries to Homeroom to earn a “dress down day.”

Continue reading “Progress, paradox, and the food justice movement”

What Happens When Volunteering Becomes A Trend?

The act of volunteering seems inherently good and beneficial, and it almost sounds paradoxical to question that it is so. How could spending time helping people in need not be a positive thing? This recent story from NPR by Carrie Kahn discusses the rising trend in volunteerism and addresses concerns that may be raised due to the influx of students and young adults seeking to volunteer.  The article mentions that many young people today appear to be more interested in service and bettering society than in leisure and luxury. It’s not necessarily the volunteering that is cause for concern, rather the reason for it. Volunteer organizations are worried that some people might be driven by a chance to build their own resumes than by a genuine concern for contributing to a certain cause. In addition to this, Kahn explains that there is worry that for-profit organizations will try to capitalize on the popularity of volunteering.  She quotes Theresa Higgs, who runs her own volunteer non-profit in Boston:

“What I think often gets lost is the host communities…Are they gaining? Are they winning? Or are they simply a means to an end to a student’s learning objective, to someone’s desire to have fun on vacation and learn something?”

The article suggests that being educated and informed about the group of people you are serving and their needs will lead to a more meaningful experience for both the volunteer and the population that he or she is helping. What are your thoughts the volunteerism trend? Have you heard about or participated in group trips where you questioned how much the group was actually contributing to the community and cause? This topic is especially relevant at DePauw since we have so many service related travel opportunities. Comment with your thoughts and any stories from personal volunteer experience that you’d like to share.