I Live in California. What Do I Owe Climate-Denying Kentuckians?

What moral obligation do we owe to help the residents of Kentucky who experienced that horrendous flooding in February 2023, given that the representatives they elect to the Senate and the House of Representatives have consistently denied that climate change is occurring and have done whatever is in their power to block climate-change legislation? This issue is not comparable to the moral obligation that we owe to provide health care to smokers or the obese, for instance, who suffer the ill effects of their chosen lifestyle. None of us are perfect, and we all, in some manner, contribute to our own ill health. But more important, your smoking does not adversely affect my health. On the other hand, the votes of Kentucky’s elected representatives directly injure me by preventing the passage of effective climate legislation. L.S., Los Angeles

From the Ethicist:

We have special responsibilities toward our fellow citizens — call them civic obligations — that we don’t have toward just anyone. Those civic obligations include a particular duty of aid when our fellows face emergencies.

It’s true that in a democracy we can charge people extra if they choose to impose burdens on the rest of us, as smokers do by raising the costs of health care. We can fine people for polluting air, land and waters. This penalizes and discourages behavior worth discouraging. There are sensible measures, in turn, that we could take to reduce FEMA’s costs, such as improving the maps that specify where flood insurance is required or even forbidding the building of housing in floodplains or vulnerable coastal areas. We could decide that while we will continue to help individuals who chose to live in those zones get to safety, we won’t give them money to rebuild and that they’ll have to pay extra to cover the predictably high costs of protecting them when flooding occurs. But our civic obligations must still be honored when disaster strikes.

Let’s consider your health care analogy. When an injured motorist arrives at the emergency room, doctors don’t withhold care on the ground that he was drunk and therefore a menace to others. In fact, what you have in mind looks like collective punishment. Kentucky is, as it happens, almost evenly divided between registered Republicans and Democrats — only last year did Republican voters outnumber Democratic ones. Also, more than one-fifth of the state’s residents are under 18. A majority of Kentuckians might not have supported the policies you object to.

And even if they all did? Withdrawing assistance needed by our fellow citizens because they support bad policies looks like trying to change their support for policies by nonrational means. The only legitimate way to defeat bad policies is to get better policies adopted. And that should be done by convincing people, not by penalizing them. Trying to charge people for voting for the wrong policies would be ruinous for a democratic polity.

People often oppose public benefits that they think are aimed at the welfare of fellow citizens they hold in contempt. This was on display in some conservative rhetoric against universal health care coverage and public-assistance programs. Your letter reminds us that this impulse isn’t found just among conservatives. In these fractious times, we need to strengthen, not weaken, a common sense of purpose — a sense that we’re one American people, running the republic together for the good of us all.

Readers Respond

Last week’s question was from a reader who was questioning whether it’s appropriate for her and her children to claim their multiracial heritage. She wrote: “I am a 48-year-old biracial daughter of a Thai immigrant and a white woman who divorced when I was 5. My father moved back to Thailand after the separation, and I didn’t see him again for 26 years. After the divorce, my maternal family was eager to erase my Southeast Asian heritage. … I have since forgotten many of the Thai customs I grew up with before my parents’ divorce. Culturally speaking, I am a Midwestern-born Colorado resident with little to show for my Thai heritage. Now I have three children, all of whom bear a striking resemblance to their father, who is white, and to my mother. My children have met their grandfather only once, when we traveled to Thailand to meet him. As they applied to colleges, my children felt that it would be unacceptable, and grossly unfair, to check any box regarding their ethnicity as anything but ‘white.’ Is it acceptable for me to identify as an Asian person? Is it all right for my children to tell others that they are Asian?”

In his response, the Ethicist noted: “The key point is that racial categories matter insofar as people care about them. The biological differences on which they are built — the color of our skin or the shape of our eyes — have no intrinsic social significance, and they map into different systems of classification in different places. … If there are cultural differences associated with racial identities, it’s because conceiving ourselves as — and being conceived as — Black or white or Asian plays a role in how we think about our lives and how we’re thought about, and treated, by others. People who imagine that race has a deeper reality may suppose that there’s always a correct answer to what you ‘really are,’ racially speaking. That’s just not so. In particular, if you’re a descendant of people with more than one racial identity, there’s most likely no clear answer to how you should identify, although, for better or worse, how you look will often make a difference to how others treat you. As for what you or your kids tell others, it doesn’t seem hard just to say you have a Thai father and they a Thai grandfather. Those are the facts; no rule dictates what you must make of them.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)

A very nuanced answer which delicately negotiates the complexities of racial and cultural identity in America. Of course, the issue is: if the letter writer has to think about it, what is she really concerned about? A conscious effort to pass will always carry the risk that in the next generation, someone has a baby who could obviously not pass for anything but Asian. And this will create its own trauma which may be significant. In my view, being at ease with one’s own identity however one defines it is the key thing. Minh

I’m an Asian immigrant who married a white guy. My children look like their father, with little resemblance to me. However, I tell my kids they should be proud of their white and Asian heritages. Whether a person identifies with a group of people by culture or by blood, it is their right to recognize the intersections of humanity that make us who we are. Anne

As a non-American, I am constantly fascinated by the fixation on race in the United States. The result is that Americans are all far better at identifying and fixating on racial differences than anyone else. I’m not sure this is helpful. Denis

I am a Black gay man who can easily pass as white. I was raised to be proud of and never deny my Black heritage. At the same time I was raised in a mostly white community. Throughout my life I’ve experienced both overt and covert racial enmity from white folks, especially when they didn’t know my father was Black or that I identified as Black. That’s the reality of being a white-passable POC in a white-dominant nation. The letter writer has a responsibility to support her children claiming and knowing their full identity and how to be proud of who they are whether they feel as though their identity has been erased or that they are able to “pass,” especially considering the anti-Asian attitude spawned by the pandemic. We need more social justice warriors to combat racism and xenophobia, particularly when they have a “stake” in the game. George

The entire concept of race is simply a noxious and fairly modern invention. I don’t think it matters whether the children identify as white or Thai, with one exception. In my view, the children should identify as whatever suits their needs at any given moment, thus taking advantage of the artificial rules that apply to race. If they can get into a college of their choice by identifying as Thai, by all means they should do so. If it suits them to identify as white, they should do that. Mark

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