Bystanders to Oppressions

I attended several interesting talks at the Central APA. This time, I tried to select more politically-oriented sessions, despite my lack of knowledge in that area. Subsequently, I was exposed to a lot of interesting issues I probably would never have thought about otherwise. One symposium that particularly got me thinking was “Responsibility for Resisting Oppression”, with Bernard Boxill, Thomas Hill, Jean Harvey, and Sarah Buss. One topic that came up was the responsibilities of “bystanders” to resisting oppressions, compared to that of the oppressed themselves.

That got me thinking: Who is a bystander? For example, are we bystanders to the Chinese government’s oppression of Tibetans? Suppose that information about this oppression were nearly impossible to get, then are we nevertheless bystanders? This hypothetical has implications for assessing our responsibilities as bystanders in everyday situations. There are many instances of systematic injustice in workplace or private homes. We might then ask: Are we bystanders to those, and if so, what are our responsibilities? Reflecting on these scenarios rather naively suggests an epistemic condition on answering the question ‘who is a bystander’: we are bystanders when we can easily obtain knowledge of the oppression.

Suppose that this is the case. A further question arises: Is this epistemic condition a constraint in theorizing about moral responsibility or is it merely a constraint on what we can do practically? Perhaps we want to say that we do always have moral responsibility to resist every oppression, but–as is the case in every instance of resistance–we do what we pragmatically can after considering the costs. On this latter point, as Buss points out in her comments, what price we ought to pay for resistance is very much related to what we can do. Still, this proposal appears to make the moral obligations of bystanders too demanding. On the other hand, it is not clear such a strong demand is a bad thing. The vagueness on one’s status ought not be a source of excuse-making. To motivate ourselves to act, perhaps, we really should think we have near-ubiquitous moral responsibility to resist every oppression as bystanders. (If the oppressed often have more moral responsibilities than bystanders, as Boxill’s talk seems to suggest, then the proposal I suggest has the consequence of assigning much more moral responsibility to the oppressed as well.)

I also thought about what one might call metaphysical conditions on being a bystander. Here is a cluster of questions: Are there other conditions in determining whether one is a bystander to oppression? For example, does one need to be simultaneous to the oppression to be a bystander? That is, are we bystanders to past oppressions or bystanders to future oppressions? Answering this cluster of questions, I think, has some relevance to telling us about our moral responsibilities when it comes to reparations and policy-making.

There probably is already a large literature in this area. Hopefully those who are more informed can tell me a bit more about it in the comments. Let me know your thoughts!

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2 Responses to Bystanders to Oppressions

  1. Steve C. says:

    Very interesting stuff. A few half-baked thoughts:

    -A ‘contemporary’ constraint on the notion of bystanding seems reasonable (to me). While it certainly seems right that we can be morally responsible for addressing past or future wrongs, I would worry that it strains the concept of a bystander too much to talk of one being a bystander to past or future injustices (when she wasn’t living–or appropriately placed–when these injustices took place). Of course, the failure to make reparations for past wrongs or take preventative measures with respect to future wrongs might itself be a current wrong/injustice to which we can be bystanders.
    -It seems like there are some interesting distinctions to be drawn on this matter that would bear on the question of moral responsibility. One bystander may be oblivious and helpless with respect to some nearby wrong. Another may be aware of it but still helpless to do anything. Another may be aware of it, able to prevent it, but lack knowledge of how to prevent it…

    Ok, that’s as far as I baked them.

  2. Elisa says:

    Hey Sam. I know nothing about this, but my initial thought is that (a) there is an epistemic constraint—having evidence of the wrongdoing is required in order to count as a bystander, and (b) we’re responsible, at least to some extent, for our epistemic state with regard to oppression (as in, we have an obligation to take steps to find out about it). So we can be morally wrong both for being a bystander and doing nothing, and for failing to be a bystander.

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