Giving Up the Bow Tie: Navigating Our Moral Obligations

In his hallmark philosophical essay, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Peter Singer outlines a moral imperative to fight disparity. He argues, “If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we ought to do it; absolute poverty is bad; there is some poverty we can prevent without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance; therefore we ought to prevent some absolute poverty.”
While philosophers have argued against Singer’s philosophical argument, I believe that most of our discomfort with his basic conclusion lies in the judgment it places on how we choose to live our daily lives, particularly at a place like Harvard. Harvard becomes hypocritical. On one hand, many of its students have committed themselves to bettering the world in some way, and millions of dollars of research are spent to find ways to improve life in underprivileged communities. On the other hand, its students enjoy the high life. At spring formals, we dress in bow ties and evening gowns, eating decadent pastries and imported cheeses. As we dance the night away to a live band, the ice sculpture melts away in vain.
Many of my peers would agree that while we have worked hard to achieve what we have, most of those accomplishments would not have been possible without some measure of serendipity and those who helped us along the way. When my parents first immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s, I doubt they even imagined that their son would go to Harvard. Some would call it the epitome of the American Dream.
Nevertheless, my time here has been fraught by a subtle feeling of guilt. If the stars had not aligned as they did, I could have found myself in a completely different place under a completely different set of circumstances. As I dressed up for Eliot Fête last year, I thought about how my grandfather probably never owned a bow tie. My grandfather spent his life in rural India. He was a diligent student and entertained the idea of becoming a barrister in British India, but he found another calling. He joined Gandhi’s Quit India Movement and rode on horseback between villages preaching for Indian independence. He managed to evade a British warrant for his arrest and spent the rest of his life raising his family in rural India. I never got to know my grandfather because he passed away while I was young of suspected mild heart attack. Without any nearby hospitals or health services, his passing was just the way things were and continue to be in many places in the world.
The subtle guilt was the same feeling I felt while working on a public health project in South Africa my sophomore year of college. I visited Nelson Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town. As I stared into the small cell in which Mandela had spent 18 years of his imprisonment, the magnitude of the struggle Mandela faced was brought to life. I could not help but wonder why so much in life must be determined by something as random as the circumstances of one’s birth.
Do our serendipitous fortunes and the existence of disparity require us to give up our bow ties, evening gowns, and ice sculptures? In the strictest interpretation of Singer’s argument, probably yes. But such a requirement is not always practical or in accordance with our own desires and goals as we navigate and plan our academic, social, and professional lives. Through the myriad of problem sets, papers, applications, and internships, those hopes, dreams, and goals slowly become marred; navigating questions of morality becomes that much more difficult. At the very least, however, we are obligated to approach life with a degree of circumspection and show deference to the world around us. May that circumspection humbly kindle an inner inspiration.

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