The Disregarded

For every person breathing tainted air.

For every aspiring immigrant who can’t move to prosperity.

For every child who inherits an imperfect world.

For every animal suffering from a lack of compassion.

For all of the Disregarded, named and nameless, I hope to build a better world for you.

Who are the Disregarded? You are most certainly part of the Disregarded to some degree, but unfortunately, many of the others have it worse than you. They unite all of these problems, and more.

But what connects all of this suffering? What defines “the Disregarded”?

The Disregarded are the set of beings who are negatively affected by a decision, but who are not considered when making the decision, and hence, are disregarded1. The totality of these negative effects can be enormous, and warrants further consideration on how we might better represent these groups in our decision-making processes.

But first, let’s look at some examples of who the Disregarded are; it’s easiest to see by contrasting them with their opposite, The Regarded.

Meet Bob, who likes listening to loud music. He decides to buy a gigantic speaker and listen to Metallica through the night. Unfortunately, Bob’s neighbor Alice cannot sleep because of the loud music coming from next door. In this situation, Bob’s decisions to buy a large speaker and play loud music came about by considering Bob’s preferences and acting on them (almost by definition). Alice however, was not consulted when Bob decided to play loud music, and Bob bore none of the costs he incurred on Alice. This makes Bob a member of the ‘Regarded’ in this scenario, while Alice is a member of the ‘Disregarded’.

For another example, consider buying a meal. You go to a restaurant, look at the menu items and their prices, and order a hamburger. You and the restaurant owner make a mutually agreeable exchange of food for money. In order for the exchange to happen, your needs must be satisfied and the owner’s needs must be satisfied. Both of you are ‘Regarded’ in this case since your needs determine the outcome of the decision-making process. But what about the cow that was raised for your burger? Regardless of whether you believe the cow’s needs matter, they were certainly not considered when this transaction occurred, and neither party felt the repercussions of their decision on the cow2. Additionally, neither party feels the full costs of the greenhouse emissions produced by raising the cow. In my terminology, the cow and the people affected by climate change are ‘Disregarded’ in this case.

To be fair, the examples I give are somewhat contrived. Very few decisions are made which account for the needs of everyone involved, and this is usually okay! In many transactions, the needs of others are disregarded for good reason, since the consequences are often mild. Additionally, considering everyone’s needs imposes a cost which simply is not worth it in most cases.

Though the harm done by disregarding others is small in most situations, there are a few cases where ignoring others needs is very consequential.

Externalities are a classic example of a situation where disregarding others needs can have harmful effects. For example, a company may choose to pollute in order to make a product more cheaply. This company and it’s customers do not consider the people harmed by the pollution this produces. However, the harms from pollution (and other externalities) are large, which is why it is important for governments to regulate or tax these activities for the public good.

Government decisions weigh heavily on the Disregarded. For example, dictatorial regimes frequently ignore the needs of citizens when making choices.

But even in a democracy, it is staggering how many Disregarded there are. Current immigrants, potential immigrants, future generations, prisoners, citizens of other countries, and non-human animals are all heavily impacted by the decisions made by governments they cannot vote in. This is especially true for large, wealthy countries like the U.S., who influence trade, international treaties, and migration patterns.

If the U.S. government started taking into account the needs of it’s future citizens3, how would it change it’s approach to climate policy today? Or debt?

To state this more clearly, countries which choose to exclude potential immigrants, act against the interests of future citizens, and ignore the suffering of non-human animals are directly harming all of these members of the Disregarded. In all three cases, these choices have large, negative repercussions which the decision-makers themselves cannot feel.

I am not claiming that governments are beholden to these groups; the needs of their citizens are still important. But increasing people’s consideration for the Disregarded would lead to significant moral progress.

So what do we do?

From a policy standpoint, the needs of the Disregarded strongly favor climate change mitigation, reductions in pollution (and other negative externalities), looser immigration restrictions, animal welfare legislation, and long-termist policy.

From a more abstract standpoint, tools for thought such as counterfactual contracts can help us reason about making better decisions on behalf of the Disregarded. Considering the history of our expanding moral circle might help us empathize with distant people and animals. Old concepts like the golden rule should be reapplied in the context of all the ways our decisions can harm others without our knowledge.

People are becoming more aware of how their actions affect the individuals, animals, and ecosystems around us. But for things to improve, this awareness must translate into better decision-making. Fully considering the needs of the Disregarded can ameliorate their suffering, and better align collective decisions with collective desires. Simply seeing them is the first step.

  1. Essentially, this definition refers to the victims of negative externalities, but extends it to include non-economic cases, non-human animals, and future people. I find that having an actual name for this group helps connect many related problems and make them more visceral.
  2. Or, more precisely, the repercussions of their decision on the future cow which is created by the increased demand for hamburger.
  3. A common response to the idea that potential people matter is: “Why worry about future citizens? They don’t exist”. Debating this point is not the focus of this post, but I think there is a clear, appealing response. If we are entirely concerned with the welfare of current people, why worry about climate change, ecological damage, economic growth, innovation, or stable institutions? Or, for that matter, save money? Societies which ignore the needs of future citizens fall prey to the same problems myopic individuals do, and fail in the long term. I hope to elaborate on the importance of taking future generations into account in a later post.
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