A recent news story clarified for me the fundamental need for society to provide, as much as possible, for the basic needs of all its members. By "society," I mean any group of people who interact with each other, which is effectively the entire world's population. "Basic needs" include what's necessary for survival (primarily air, food, water, protection from environmental extremes such as heat and cold, and health care), education (about how the world works, and minimal shared values that enable people to live together without harming, future generations, or the ability of life to be maximized over time), and security from any threats to the means for meeting the other needs.
The story that prompted this discussion is about an outbreak of totally drug-resistant tuberculosis in India which is 100% fatal. Drug-resistant TB has been around for several years, an evolutionary response to the global effort to wipe out TB. This response has been enabled by inadequate detection, treatment, and education about the disease, mostly in poor regions of the world where resources are limited to deal with these issues. Clearly. meeting basic needs for everyone would go a long way toward eliminating this disease, and very likely many other diseases as well. Not helping people who can't meet their basic needs forces the rest of us to deal with consequences that could be a lot more costly, such as: infectious diseases that are out of control and threaten everyone; and wars that threaten resources that are needed by many more people than those who are fighting over them.
Because we depend on Earth's natural processes for meeting both our needs and our wants, we have a strong self-interest in maintaining them; the alternative is to do everything ourselves, which is practically impossible. Other species already perform most of that maintenance, so from even such a narcissistic perspective we have a strong interest in keeping them healthy as well (beginning with not driving them to extinction). Again, the consequences are potentially horrific, among them: contaminated water, food, and air that kills millions; and climate changes that threaten our food, water supply, and physical security from natural disasters, and numerous other aspects of our lives.
When what we do – or don't do – causes people to be unable to meet their basic needs, or impacts the functioning of Earth's natural systems, or causes the death of other creatures without supporting the overall goal of life to be maximized over time, we are responsible for the consequences, whether we intend them or not. Our culpability is etched into history, whether or not someone recognizes it or holds us accountable for it. Responsibility, defined in this way, is absolute, as are the values it represents.