Publisher’s Letter: Community and Duty

This will be my last issue as Publisher of the Princeton Tory. It’s been an honor to serve for the past year, and I’d like to thank all of our loyal readers and dedicated staff. I would also like to congratulate my successor, Toni Alimi. Toni has been a committed writer and editor for the Tory, and I look forward to seeing the magazine continue to grow and flourish under his tenure.

Since I’ll be graduating in a few months, I’ve started thinking recently about the kind of relationship I will maintain with Princeton University once I walk out FitzRandolph Gate. Other seniors, naturally, have this issue on their minds as well. In a recent edition of the Daily Princetonian, Emily Rutherford ’12 explained the reasons behind her decision not to contribute to Annual Giving. Without getting into the merits of her arguments, I think that her column provides a useful starting point for a broader discussion about our obligations toward one another, whether as Princetonians or as citizens of a particular nation.

There are two diametrically opposed sides in this debate. On the one hand are the egoists, who argue that we have no non-consensual obligations; all acts of beneficence are supererogatory. On the other are the cosmopolitans, who argue that we have obligations that apply equally to all human beings; thus, I have no special obligations to my countryman that do not apply to foreigners.

Each of these views seems flawed to me. The egoist claim denies any sense of shared humanity or shared responsibility. At the very least, I think that there exists an obligation to help those in dire need when we are in a unique position to help. For instance, if I encounter a man wandering about the desert dying of thirst, I should be obligated to provide him with water, since only my intervention can save his life. There are, of course, limits to this principle of rescue, but it does establish grounds for obligation in certain cases.

The cosmopolitan claim, in its universality, is both impractical and contrary to human nature. There is a valid reason why we are inclined to help those in our own backyards rather than those in distant places– we can have a greater impact at a lower cost. Taken to its logical extreme, cosmopolitanism demands that we refuse to spend large amounts of money caring for sick relatives, on the grounds that such resources might be better utilized elsewhere. I doubt whether anyone, when pressed, would be willing to make that decision.

I think that there is a middle ground between egoism and cosmopolitanism. Our obligations to others can be arranged hierarchically, on the basis of the intimacy of the relationship. This means that we have the strongest obligations to our immediate family and close friends, and minimal obligations (but not a lack of obligations) toward a person we’ve never met before.

In this schema, common identities, like a shared alma mater or nationality, provide a basis for obligations that exceed those owed to a complete stranger. Princeton University is not merely a collection of buildings scattered around 500 acres in Central New Jersey; it is a vibrant, dynamic institution with its own unique culture and ethos. In the same way, the United States of America is not merely a tract of land lying south of Canada and north of Mexico; it is an exceptional nation, proud of its history and its character. By choosing (implicitly or explicitly) to become students at Princeton or citizens of the United States, we enter into a bond with those who made the same choice. Out of this connection arises an obligation to take an interest in the well being of one another that goes above and beyond that which is owed solely on the basis of shared humanity.

With that in mind, we must look to our University and our country not simply as providers of services, but as objects of loyalty. Likewise, we must look to our fellow Princetonians– and fellow Americans– not merely as accidental neighbors, but as partners in a collective project. For this reason, I intend to continue cultivating ties with Princeton University after I depart from campus. I hope that the rest of the Class of 2012 will do so as well.


Sam Norton ‘12

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