In an old essay from the 70's, Peter Singer argued that most of us should be giving away most of our discretionary income. (He wrote a sort of updated version in The New York Times last year).
Part of the original argument went something like this: If you happened to walk by a child drowning in a dirty shallow pond, you'd rush in to rescue him. You'd rush in to rescue him, even if you were wearing a really expensive suit.
Since physical distance isn't morally significant (more on that later), the same principle shows that, as long as there are people starving somewhere, you should take the money you'd have spent going out to dinner tonight, buying Champagne for New Year's, and getting iPods and Playstations for all your loved ones, and you should send it to famine relief.
Now, there are lots of problems with this argument that I don't really want to get into. Like, for instance, it seems plausible that one reason we twenty-first century Americans have so much wealth to spare is that we have a good economy, which in turn is somehow related to the fact that we spend our discretionary funds going out to eat, buying Champagne, and amassing closets full of obsolete electronic gadgetry. Let's leave that stuff aside for now.
What I do want to get into instead is the distance question.
I think Singer is right that, strictly speaking, physical distance isn't morally significant in and of itself. I don't owe you less or more just because of where you happen to be standing.
His implementation does go too far, I think, in that it seems to me you can still draw a principled distinction between people you ought to care about more and people you're allowed to care about less. It's appropriate to care more about your family and loved ones than about strangers, and it's appropriate to care more about your fellow-citizens and countrymen than about others you share no loyalties with.
But Singer's point is still usefully corrective. Because the way people feel and behave varies much more with simple proximity than seems to make sense. We think about, care about, and help, the people we happen to see, far more than those we don't. Just because we happen to see them.
This would be fine and unexceptional, and maybe even reasonable, except for the fact that it creates an immediate and simple method of removing yourself from the moral calculations of life: just don't see a lot of people. Especially don't see a lot of people who need help.
And that's what Americans do. They move to the suburbs; they drive through the nice parts of town; they build their own in-ground pools and put exercise equipment in the spare room. Enough in that direction and you never see anyone who needs anything.
Convenient! It's like the moral equivalent of driving past the pond so you won't run into any drowning kids. Oops! Didn't see it happen! Wasn't there! So sorry!
I mean, it's fine to carve out your own space. But for all the difficulties with his line of thought, Singer is right to insist that doing so does not let you off any moral hooks. A screening room of one's own is not the answer to the crowds in the movie theater. At least, not a total answer.