“The Buddy System” as an Ethical Model

Sometimes when I think about the fact that “everybody matters the same and I should act accordingly”, it makes me want to stop worrying about my close friends and family and start enacting some global good.

Why would I sit here and listen to my friend or spend time with my relatives, when people are literally dying and I could do something about it?

The only justifications I could muster — before thinking about “the buddy system” — were somewhat weak:

  • In some ways I’m more positioned to care for those close to me than those far away
    • Yeah, but far away (or in larger-scale-care) a dollar (or an hour) can go a really long way…
  • Caring for those close to me refreshes me to better serve others on a larger scale
    • Yeah, but that only works when it’s actually refreshing! And only for a pretty limited amount.

Harsh! And maybe a little depressing. “utilitarian/humanitarian love”, loving ALL neighbors no less than myself, seemed to dwarf the impact of “local/relational love”, or at least, made it hard for me to mentally appreciate.

But then recently, and I don’t remember how, I thought about the Buddy System. Here’s what Wikipedia has for us on the subject:

The buddy system… [used by the armed forces, boy scouts, and field-trip students]… is a procedure in which two people, the “buddies”, operate together as a single unit so that they are able to monitor and help each other. …. The main benefit of the system is improved safety; each may be able to … rescue the other in a crisis.

Eureka! So that’s the value of giving special effort to taking care of the people within our own tight-knit communities! The buddy system exists to make sure that everybody has somebody watching out for them. It keeps people from falling through the cracks. Think about it; I’d never say to my buddy, “I know you’re my designated buddy, but I’m going to leave you to go see how I can help some more people elsewhere.” When the buddy system works well, I can trust that the other people in my context are being cared for as well as is possible by their own buddies.

What gets hard is when the buddy system breaks down — when I as a boy-scout or world-citizen know that some people somewhere are not being adequately cared for through this system.

There’ll be more on that next week. But what I still know is this: even if the buddy system is failing elsewhere (say, in another campsite or another country), it’s generally not advisable for me to abandon the buddies appointed to me in my attempts to help the people for whom the buddy system isn’t working.

In human terms, this means that no matter how badly hurting the people of the world are, I’m going look out first for my wife, family, and close friends. But it also means that I’m accountable to work WITH those same people to serve a hurting world, because the buddy system isn’t a justification for ignoring faraway pain, it’s merely a prerequisite to addressing it. The buddy system has limitations. I can’t very well watch a scout bleed and die in the interest of keeping watch over my perfectly safe appointed buddy. Again, more on this next week.

But I must say I was very glad to find the metaphor of the buddy system for why I really do care a lot more for the people closest to me than for the average inhabitant of this world, even though the average inhabitant is just as valuable as those I love most.

12 thoughts on ““The Buddy System” as an Ethical Model

  1. Dude. Intriguing. I have definitely often thought about the same conundrum, I will have to mull over this new development.


  2. What about following the example of Jesus?  As a Christian, surely it must be meaningful to you in SOME way that Jesus didn’t worry so much about globetrotting and eliminating global poverty, sending dollars elsewhere, and destroying a corrupt political system.  Rather, he spent LOTS of time with those who were physically close to him.


    1. @davidlick “Jesus didn’t worry so much about …eliminating global poverty… rather, he spent LOTS of time with those who were physically close to him.”Right, but his immediate command to his followers was to go to all the nations, to treat the poor like they would treat God.Things that Jesus did are legit, but don’t always make sense for me to do (quote O.T. when accused, or stay totally silent… attempt to walk on water, etc.), whereas the commands of Jesus to his followers tend to be more directly applicable to me.
      Jesus didn’t directly attack global poverty, but he did lay down big commands for us to attack poverty.
      Generals, Business Execs, and other leaders tend to ask their followers to embark on certain types of work that they themselves don’t dedicate themselves to, focusing instead on the leading/teaching. Not that they NEVER get down and dirty (bleeding on a tree is pretty down and dirty) but they don’t do ALL the kinds of down-and dirty missions they call us to.
      So I guess what I’m saying is that Jesus’s lack of personally directly attacking global poverty or corrupt structures doesn’t really mitigate his call (explicit or extrapolated) for us to do so.


      1. @DanielSchulzJackson Agree 100%.
        I was making the counterpoint.  While Jesus’ example definitely indicates that we must work against the evils of this world, it Jesus’ example ALSO doesn’t absolve us of working with those who immediately with him, including his friends – like healing Lazarus or teaching his disciples in private.  Those things were important, too, and to overbalance in one way OR THE OTHER is to neglect the example of Jesus.  That was my point, poorly made though it was.


      2. @DanielSchulzJackson  @davidlick Great clarifications, gents. Definitely added a lot to the discussion.


  3. I’m not actually sure if this is contributing anything new to the discussion, but I had a couple thoughts about different ways of phrasing this that might make it more distinctly Christian.  Rather than using the starting point, “everybody matters the same and I should act accordingly,” I would suggest saying “everyone is specially beloved by God and I should act accordingly.”  That way, relationality is already part of the premise.  And because relationality is already being emphasized, it would make perfect sense for the first step of living accordingly to be to live in relationship.  You can only do that with people with whom you actually have contact.  Thus, taking care of your nearby relatives and friends would be primary.  Perhaps you could think of it as a continual process of expanding this circle of friends to encompass more and more people, all the while combining relationship with service/care.  I think that Jesus’ own ministry generally follows this sort of pattern (although one could counter that he advocated people leaving their families… I’m not sure what to do with that right now).
    Again, I don’t know how helpful that is, but I am/was attempting to put some Christian theological language onto the secular term “Buddy System.”  I agree with you that it’s a very useful concept in this particular debate.


    1. @CarissaLick “everyone is specially beloved by God and I should act accordingly”
      ABSOLUTELY. Thanks for going there. I often say approximately that same thing, and you’re right, that’s WHY we matter. 
      So while I’m already with you on that starting point, what you extrapolate from that is very interesting: SINCE relationality (of/with God) is the foundation of human value, then relationship is fundamental to how we live in accordance with that value.
      “expanding this circle of friends to encompass more and more people, all the while combining relationship with service/care”
      I’m really liking how you’re talking about this, and will probably revisit to mull over this some more. Thanks for your contribution!
      “I’m not actually sure if this is contributing anything new to the discussion”
      pish tush.


    2. @CarissaLick likelikelikelikelikelike!!!
      (I figured there was no way I could match your eloquence, so I opted for a preteen emotispaz moment instead. I hope you enjoyed it.)


  4. What if the buddy system iterates outward?  So Brendan and I are buddies first.  And then we (as a unit) are buddies with you and Rebekah (as a unit.)  And then the four of us become buddies with… [insert population in need of buddy here].  What is particularly helpful about this model to me is that I’m often worried that by picking one ‘issue’ (right now, for me, community-building in the woods), I’m ignoring all the other important issues (climate change, women’s empowerment, food justice, homelessnes…. etcetcetc.)  But I just CAN’T be effective on all of those issues.  If I try to buddy them all, I’ll make a crap buddy.  Because I won’t KNOW my buddy well, be able to tell when something is going wrong or right, keep up with the comings and goings and potential dangers and victories.  And I’ll probably do less good as a sum total than if I have one (or maybe two or three.  I’m an overachiever.  I need grace for this.) buddies that I know really well and can do a real good job with. 
    Another possible implication of this model: what does it say about the ‘helper and helpee’ problem of global justice work?  Are we really being buddies if I’m just sending you money over my computer screen?  Can someone in dire straights really ever be a buddy back?  Do we  need that?


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