Privileges and Obligations

Many of us believe that privileged people should be given more obligations, and un-privileged people should be given more privileges.

So, for example, people with money should be obliged to give to charity, or volunteer their time. People with little money should be given more money, and are not obliged to give away the little money they have.

The issue is that, in real life, privileges and obligations are often bundled together.

Nobody would complain if a donor list for a charity was entirely composed of privileged people. Except for mutual aid societies, this is how charities are supposed to work.

But many people would be unhappy if a charity was staffed entirely by privileged people. It's interesting to examine that. At many charitable organisations, the people working there could make much more money doing something else: the staff at the organisation are only-partly compensated for the time they put in, and volunteering the other share. We want that under-paid labor to be done by privileged people, who can afford to give up the alternative opportunities.

But working for a non-profit also has psychological, social and status benefits; working at a non-profit is in some ways a sacrifice, in other ways a privilege.

(There are other reasons that we might think it's bad for a charity to be staffed entirely by privileged people, e.g. if they do a worse job of empathising and understanding the people they're meant to serve – nothing is as simple as a blogpost wants it to be).

At some point, if a role comes with enough benefits, things flip again: the low pay no longer becomes an obligation, but rather a fence that keeps those perks available only to people who don't need to spend their time making money.

The same situations come up in lots of other areas. For example, many of us are unhappy to see conference panels, award-judging panels or organisational committees composed entirely of privileged people. But many of those roles are also unpaid, and demand a bunch of people's time. Are they privileges or obligations? They're both, with opposite implications for who should be doing them.

When Barack Obama became President of the United States, the Onion ran a satirical piece titled Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job and the punchline "it just goes to show you that, in this country, a black man still can't catch a break." I think that's ultimately a joke about how being a politician is considered both an honor and a horror, a weird bundle of privileges and obligations.

Subscribe to Atoms vs Bits

Receive our weekly posts by email