Us Before Me: Ethics and Social Capital for Global Well-Being

On rainy days, I carry a little hand towel so that I can wipe off my corner of the bench at the bus stop. People give me peculiar looks, but I don't care; I get a nice dry seat while the others stand awkwardly in the rain, waiting for the bus.

Well, this morning it was raining, and I brought a roll of paper towels. This morning everybody sat, and it was because of this book.

In Us Before Me, Patricia Illingworth, associate professor of philosophy and lecturer in law at Northeastern University, shares her philosophy that social capital, defined as "social networks, reciprocity, and trust," should be a guiding principle in answering both everyday moral questions and the more serious challenges facing us globally, and that broadening our focus from the individual to the collective good can overcome the negative forces that come from cultural norms and self-interest.

I did not care much for Us Before Me when I started to read it. Its central argument seemed simplistic, its global ambitions seemed unrealistic, and the everyday examples it used to illustrate its points did not initially persuade me: If you shovel out a parking space after a snowstorm, are you entitled to claim that space as your own? Is it wrong to teach your children not to talk to strangers? Are you obligated to tip a waiter? Is it criminal to ignore a stranger in need?

Take the case of that parking space, an example that particularly resonated with me as a former resident of northern Minnesota. In Illingworth's hometown, it is a common practice for people to claim cleared-out public parking spaces by marking them with a chair. For her, this is unacceptable behavior that "pits the interest of individuals within a neighborhood against one another, instead of finding a way that helps the collective."

My first instinct was to disagree: If I do the hard work of clearing out the space, am I not entitled to it? And if this is truly a "common practice," am I not just following the cultural norm of the community?

Illingworth argues that these responses are typical of how the "emphasis on individualism, paramount in Western psyches, may overwhelm the interest in social solidarity," and that individuals blinded by these cultural norms often are incapable of making the right decisions on how to improve their own lives or to promote general happiness.

And that made me think — not just about that parking space, but about my little hand towel.

But what about social capital's own dark side? Illingworth acknowledges that while social capital can encourage generosity and reciprocity within a community, it can also foster exclusionism and distrust of the outside world. And because a small number of people may take advantage of others' generosity without reciprocating — the so-called "free rider" effect — some may feel like dupes and be driven by self-interest to avoid acts of social capital. These problems can be addressed, Illingworth contends, by requiring that social capital be used impartially and only for ethical causes, thus giving it moral force. Once we have accepted these limitations to social capital, we can more comfortably use it to orient our actions to the benefit of "us" instead of "me."

More controversially, Illingworth argues that when people fail to adopt moral reasoning, society is obligated to "nudge" them in the right direction through techniques such as "choice architecture" or "libertarian paternalism — meaning that people's choices concerning their own lives and the lives of others are strongly steered (though not compelled) through changes in public policy. Illingworth maintains that such measures are "actually liberty-preserving even though people's choices are being manipulated," but her comfort level with this degree of social engineering may strike some as unsettling. In fact, for urgent and persistent global problems such as poverty, inequality, homelessness, disease, and injustice — all amply documented in this book — Illingworth proposes an even more draconian form of nudging: four changes to the canon of law that fly squarely in the face of some of our most well-established cultural norms.

First, Illingworth argues that "duty to rescue" laws, which compel citizens to help out — not just stay on the scene — when strangers are in danger, can increase social capital by mandating Good Samaritanism. Such laws are needed, she contends, because "not all people know that kind acts will increase their happiness, and not all people know that they ought to help strangers in an emergency."

Second, Illingworth proposes to increase social capital in the workplace by replacing the long-accepted principle of "employment at will" with "termination for cause." Her rationale is that job satisfaction, productivity, and emotional stability are all promoted by employment security, though she does concede that it is a less efficient way to run the workplace: "Terminating employees, no questions asked, is more efficient than extending due process rights, or engaging in expensive litigation."

Third, Illingworth advocates tax reform to allow the itemization of all charitable contributions, regardless of income level or type of contribution, arguing that itemization promotes giving by making explicit "the responsibility to give." In this sense, the tax code serves a parallel purpose to duty to rescue laws, nudging individuals to engage in behaviors that they might otherwise eschew.

Finally, Illingworth argues for the elimination of so-called "water's edge" laws, which discourage global giving by limiting charitable donations to organizations in the taxpayer's country.

Whether or not these changes in law would in fact result in a growth of social capital is a fair topic for debate, but one thing seems indisputable: there is simply no chance that any of these measures could be enacted — at least on a national level — in today's economic and political climate. (Illingworth herself seems to acknowledge this when she says that her discussion of legal reform is "primarily illustrative.") Criminalizing inactivity is a challenge to personal liberty that the public seems to have no appetite for, and increasing the complexity of the tax code is a non-starter for both political parties. Abolishing employment at will is completely unacceptable to the business community, and permitting unfettered donations to foreign entities is likely to be seen as a security risk.

So in many ways, this book is indeed unrealistic and impractical. Libertarians will object to its denigration of individualism, liberals will balk at its "libertarian paternalism," and conservatives will be horrified by its legislative agenda. Where Illingworth has succeeded, however, is in challenging some of our most entrenched notions about morality, equality, and liberty. In doing so, she is nudging us to rethink our preconceptions about reciprocity and trust or, at the very least, to leave the house with a roll of paper towels.

Chuck Bartelt
Electronic Grant Information Liaison
Foundation Center
New York, New York