As strangers become more accessible to us through global markets and new media, so too do questions of our obligations to them. For Eric Gregory, who examines religious and philosophical ethics, our ever-growing connectedness to people around the world has necessitated a closer look at how and why we should help those in need.
“We have all sorts of relationships to our family, our friends, our fellow citizens,” he said. “Is it justified to show preference to family and friends in terms of how you treat them versus the person with whom you don’t have that kind of relationship? How do we think about those who might be suffering in terms of more distant relations?”
Gregory, a professor of religion, explained that Christian theologians such as St. Augustine have tackled the question of what people owe strangers in their writings, but lived in a time when strangers were far more distant than they are at present. Today, an individual can plausibly interact not just with their next-door neighbor, or with someone one village over, but with an entire globe. Yet global realities such as nationalism and religion can impose constraints on our dealings with others whom we have yet to meet, Gregory said. This tension, he explained, means we now need to balance our understanding of concern for distant others with the particularity of our relations with more immediate communities.
The calculus is a complex one, and the debate typically centers on efficiency. But Gregory, with support from The Tikvah Center for Law & Jewish Civilization at New York University School of Law and the National Endowment for the Humanities, is examining classical texts by authors from the religious and secular traditions to move past a utilitarian approach for investigating the question. “I think one of the virtues or hopes of the humanities is that there’s an ongoing conversation about how best to live a life,” he said.
-By Tara Thean