Duty, Charity, and Poor People

Has anyone thought to rename this era, “The Humanitarian Era”? World Vision, World Justice Organization, World Hope, World Faith, World Love, World Peace, Joy, Patience, Kindness, Gentleness, and Growth…how can a person keep the non-government world straight?1  To top that, our millionaires are not as stingy as many would imagine. Bill and Melinda, Oprah, Rockefeller, D. Macarthur, Eli Lilly, and so forth confront us daily with the image that we as a people are a compassionate and giving people. Although our society doesn’t customarily expose our financial incomes and rates of giving, I bet it would reveal a lot. Either it would reveal that our society is filled with philanthropists, or it would reveal that the majority of our people are lousy givers out to make a killing rather than a living. I’d be curious to see.

Regardless, the fact is that, in the area of communal giving, we live in an environment filled with smoke and mirrors. Are we to listen to the humanitarian agency that makes us appalled at how much we own in comparison to the starving children in Africa? Or are we to heed the impulse that would pat us on the back for our generous national giving? Are we to burn with anger and deplete our personal savings as we watch the myriad of images blitzing the screen of starving children, child soldiers, and fly encrusted faces. Or are we to advance the causes and morale of our society in the face of the generosity of the country’s millionaires, professional athletes, and philanthropists? For a person interested in doing their right part in helping humanity, where do I even begin?

It seems to me that we need to temporarily shut our eyes and ears to the constant hum drum of rhetoric and listen carefully to our hearts. Stop worrying about false guilt, and focus for a minute. You may find that you are on good footing to take a few steps forward. And if you find your foundation rests on shifty sands, you need to reevaluate your base. It may be the very reason why you care so much and make so little progress in righting the wrongs of the world.

“What are these foundations”, you may ask. Basic logic. We base our lives on so many unevaluated assumptions that we are often ignorant to the mixture of contradictions that operate in us daily. So, in the arena of giving money, we need to start at ground zero.

In his 1971 article, Famine, Affluence, and Morality, Peter Singer raises the important question of human responsibility for the impoverished world citizen. He implies that our fundamental obligations to humanity have often been masked as moments for optional charity.

“Generally Speaking, people have not given large sums to relief funds; they have not written to their parliamentary representatives demanding increased government assistance; they have not demonstrated in the streets, held symbolic fasts, or done anything else directed toward providing [the] refugees [of natural disasters] with the means to satisfy their essential needs.

Australia’s aid to the crisis in Bengal amounts to less than one-twelfth of the cost of Sydney’s new opera house.”

So we must begin, with Singer, at square one. Singer begins with the assumption that, “Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad”. If you disagree with this point, you can probably stop reading now. Go check your pulse.

Point two is this: “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance,” it is our human responsibility to do something about it.

Singer uses the metaphor of a shallow pond. If you see a child drowning in a deep puddle or a shallow pond, you ought to wade into it and pull the child to safety. You may get wet and dirty, but that is nothing in comparison with the possible death of that child. If you agree that the death of a child is worse that getting your clothes dirty, keep reading.

Of course we are now getting to square two or three, so naturally you may have begun to ask a number of questions. My biggest question is, “What if it is not in my power to prevent the drowning?” I cannot go to Africa and administer care for Malaria, because I live in the US and I have no medical training.

Let me offer another question. Do you accept a principle of impartiality, that all humans are created equal? If you do, you cannot discriminate against a person simply because they are far away from you or that you are far away from them, especially if there are doctors available or that exist at all. Distance does not lessen responsibility.

Another question you may be asking is: “Is it not the place of the government, rather than its citizens to make sure our taxes are going to needy parts of the country and world?” This question belongs to a whole web of questions that ask about responsibility: whose it is, what is the place of circumstantial judgment, and how much is required. Another question that belongs here is, “what if by helping a person to eat now, we are extending issues into the future, as in the case of booming populations; a mouth fed now will live to create four more hungry mouths”.  In a world full of drowning children, is it our responsibility to blindly work full time pulling them out? 

Concerning the question of governmental responsibility, I agree with Singer, that governments and elected leaders move by the winds of popular opinion. These want to get elected and stay elected. If they see their population investing their resources in one area, they will follow that perceived value and invest your taxes there to replace your personal giving. The tail does wag the dog, and it is our responsibility to put our money where our mouth is to highlight our values. In terms of the population control objection, your marvelous insight does not take your responsibility away. Instead of giving to the world food bank, you should give to organizations that teach birth control, abstinence, and general population awareness.

In regard to the larger question about how much we are to sacrifice and how full-time are we supposed to commit ourselves, we must keep in mind the principle of non-sacrifice.  For example, I should not devote myself to full-time unpaid humanitarian work leaving my family of three, five, or six at home without support. I need to work, and they need to eat. Our family should not give $1200 dollars per month to humanitarian work if it takes us $1000 per month to make a living. We must heed our physical, emotional, and thus moral limitations.

Yet, after traveling to square five or six, here is the main, personal, and heart issue. We need to re-evaluate what it is we need. Singer writes,” It follows from what I have said earlier that we ought to give money away, rather than spend it on clothes we do not need to keep us warm.” To do so is not charitable, or generous. This means more than “we ought to give the money away”; rather,  it is wrong not to give the money away.

St. Ambrosias once rightly said, “The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry; the clothing you shut away, to the naked; and the money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the penniless”. Ultimately the idea that it is an optional charity for a man or woman living in affluence to give to save someone else from starvation is fundamentally flawed. It is their duty.

But questions remain. “Just how much money are you suggesting I give”. “You don’t know what I’ve gone through to get financially stable. Are you asking me to go back to poverty?” “Even if you are right, how do you suggest that we turn a whole population living the American Dream toward the foundational values of duty?” “Your words and logic are nice, but what does God have to say about this?”…

1. This article, in essence, is a dialogue with Peter Singer’s article, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.”