what if something is not your problem?

I frame a most of my research and teaching around the question, “What should we do?” I’d even define a citizen as someone who asks that question. In academic contexts, I argue that this question is complex and under-theorized: it raises difficult issues of loyalty, complicity, the definition of groups, dynamics within groups, problems of collective action, etc. These issues deserve attention along with the more typical questions of political theory: “What is justice?” and “Why do things happen as they do?” The citizen’s question is also central to our new Civic Studies major at Tufts.

However, insisting on this question may imply that everyone bears primary responsibility for addressing every issue. What if you are the victim of a social injustice that someone else has created or has the best opportunity to remedy? Then it is most important for them to decide what they are obliged to do to improve your situation. Not every problem is your problem.

Nevertheless, “What should we do?” remains an important question for virtually all of us. Even if the main moral responsibility lies with someone else, the only thing we can control is what we do.

We may decide that we should demand justice from another person or group, but making a demand is also a form of action that we choose to take. In fact, making demands on “target authorities” is the characteristic activity of social movements; and social movements are composed of people who ask “What should we do?” It’s just that their goal is to to compel other people to take more responsibility.

Finally, acting is not merely a price we must pay in order to improve the world. It can also be a benefit that we reap, since exercising agency can be an aspect of a good life. Although we should encourage–and sometimes even compel–other people to ask what they should do, it is also worth asking that question on our own behalf, regardless of our circumstances.

See also: a sketch of a theory of social movementswhat should we do?

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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