Friday, July 22, 2011

Who Should We Care For?

Why do we care about people half-way around the world? Why do we feel that we have a moral duty to pick them up when they are downtrodden and to shower them with our largesse?

Why do we seem to care more for poor people in foreign countries than we do for our impoverished neighbors?

It seems so natural to care for those who are wretched, regardless of where they live that we lose sight of a fundamental point about caring.

Happily, John Derbyshire reminds us of it in a review of David Stove’s book: What’s Wrong With Benevolence.

The normal and natural condition for humans, Derbyshire explains, is to care for those who are closest to us, who rely most directly on us, who live in the same neighborhood or city or country.

In principle, you ought to care most about your family, because they depend on you directly, and then on your friends and neighbors, because they depend on you indirectly.

But, if you care for your family, and even your friends, your gesture does not count as charity. They count as a moral obligation. Apparently, true charity only occurs when you do not have to do it, and when you expect no return. When you are contributing to a relief effort in a foreign country, you are, effectively, giving charity. You do not have to, and you expect no real return.

Derbyshire raises the issue, and I second him on this, because there are people among us who care less for those near and dear to them than they do for those who are far away and anonymous.

It may be that they feel so completely alienated from family and friends, even from the local community, that they only way they can care is to bestow favors on people they do not know. But still, to care for someone who does not know you exists, or does not much care whether or not you exist, feels strange.

In principle, you can care for your family and care for poor people in Indonesia at the same time. Especially, if care is merely financial. You certainly can't spend time caring for your family and spend time caring for the poor people of Indonesia at the same time.

And yet, it does happen that people whose sense of moral self-worth derives from their ability to care for people who do not care about them deprive those who are close to them of their care.

They are much more dedicated to saving the world or the whales or disadvantaged than they are to helping their children finish a homework assignment or to attend the school play.

Derbyshire offers the fine example of Mrs. Jellyby, from Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.  She cares so much about African tribes that she neglects her own family.

Dickens described her: “It struck me that if Mrs. Jellyby had discharged her own natural duties and obligations before she swept the horizon with a telescope in search of others, she would have taken the best precautions against becoming absurd…”

Derbyshire follows David Stove in placing this all under the rubric of benevolence. To me they are talking about charity more than benevolence.

When you give charity you expect no return. When you are benevolent, you might invest in a nation, build an industry, and give local citizens a chance to work at it. You do expect a return on your investment, but that does not prevent your gesture from being benevolent. If you want to see people overcome poverty and unemployment, and you expect to benefit from the task, you are, effectively more benevolent than the charitable giver who sends a check or some goods and then forgets about the rest.

As I have said before, with Carlos Slim, charity does not alleviate poverty. Summarizing the views of Thomas Malthus, Derbyshire explains: “The truths which Malthus vainly strove to impart cannot be too often repeated. These are that widespread poverty cannot be relieved from the outside and, therefore, can be relieved (if at all) only by the industry, self-reliance, and prudence of the poor themselves. But the worldwide triumph of Enlightened benevolence has been at the expense of precisely these traits of character. … “

Whether this derives from the Enlightenment or some more esoteric source, the emphasis on charity tends to see the world in terms of a human universal. It tends to downgrade and downplay the notion that we owe our primary loyalty to our family and our nation, that is, to those who depend most directly on us.

It’s one thing to say that we should help people who have been harmed by a natural disaster. It is quite another to say that our charity can and should eradicate world hunger and poverty. The first is a singular event, an act of God. The second is an act of man, a place where our charity is less likely to produce the desired end.

The first involves sending in temporary logistical support. The second requires a sustained effort, one that engages the work of the local population.

As Derbyshire underscores, when you merely send in charity, you are telling the recipients of your largesse that you believe them to be incapable of doing it themselves.

If they are the victims of a tsunami, there is no shame involved in being unable to mount the kind of logistical effort that would be required to keep them alive. If they are merely impoverished, your efforts to enhance their living standard by giving them charity will demoralize them and rob them of their own initiative.

When charity is defined in terms of alleviating poverty, it counts more as a grandiose gesture whose primary beneficiary is the one who is giving it.

We consider ourselves a benevolent people, a generous people, and, above all else, a rich people. If you give away vast sums of money you are announcing to the world that you have far more money than you could ever use.

Wealthy nations often feel obliged to give charity to less fortunate or less successful nations. But not all wealthy countries are similarly inclined to redistribute their wealth. Some of them do not believe that charity solves problems.

If Derbyshire and Stove are correct here, this suggests that these countries believe that charity begins at home. And that we owe more to those who are near and dear to us than we do to those who are far away. The notion that we owe more to those who do not belong to our community seems to derive from the notion that nations and local communities have been or should be superseded by our loyalty to the human race.


LordSomber said...

Good points. But. I would still rather give aid to someone in a third-world hellhole than to a poor American. But only because I am differentiating between the "deserving poor" and the "undeserving poor," the former we find abroad in abundance, while the latter we have plenty of here. But I suppose this is a whole separate argument (beginning with how people define "poor" and "deserving").

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I hadn't thought of it, but surely when we give charity we want to give it to people who are deserving... but then, if we want to be benevolent, shouldn't that mean that we want to give people opportunity, not just a handout.

Happy walker said...

walking here with a smile.. have a nice day ~ =D

Regards, (A Growing Teenager Diary) ..

muebles malaga said...

It can't work in fact, that is exactly what I believe.