So, Bob is on his way to work one day when he passes a pond and sees a child drowning. He knows he can swim well enough to save the child, but he also knows the water is going to be cold and it will ruin his new suit. Should he jump in anyway and save the child?

This is an example used by Australian philosopher, Peter Singer to illustrate the moral obligation human beings have to help those less fortunate than they are.

I thought this would be an interesting question to consider on an individual level after the previous post where the comments discussed the question on a much more global level.

Singer believes that the needs of the poor are of much greater importance than any inconvenience it would cause us to provide the help. He believes not only that it’s our moral obligation to provide the help, but also that it’s immoral not to.

Do we care more about our new suit than the life of another human being? Should the money we would normally spend on luxuries like a meal in an expensive restaurant go instead to feed the poor?

According to the Jewish principle of tzedakah, people should willingly give at least 10% of their income to charity. For them it is a matter of religious duty.  

Another school of thought is that charity shouldn’t be an obligation or a duty, but something done out of a true sense of compassion. When a mother gives up the last bit of food in the house to feed her children, she is not doing it out of duty or obligation, but because she sees their welfare and her own welfare as part of a whole. In the same way we should see “the poor” as part of us – not something separate from us. Living among people in need and not helping, diminishes all of us as human beings.

And, although many people would never admit it in public, there is also a school of thought that says, “Hi, I’m Frank. I work hard for my money. I slogged through years of school. I’ve scrimped and saved and invested so that I could provide a good life for myself and my family. Why should I also be responsible for Ernie over there, who dropped out of school to hitchhike around the country, who can’t hold down a job for more than a couple of months and who can barely provide for himself and yet goes and has four kids?”

Should Frank’s kids do without a trip to Disneyland this year so that Frank can give their vacation money to Ernest instead?

Or, would we, perhaps agree with George Orwell, that all charity is evil? That it doesn’t solve any problems and only makes things worse for those living in poverty? That charity may be kind, but it isn’t practical. That government/society gives us charity as a “quack cure” for poverty and injustice.

What’s really happening is that charitable giver becomes the focus of the charity instead of the people in need. Because it makes us all feel good. It makes us feel like we’ve accomplished something worthwhile, and it diverts our attention away from the fact that what charity really does is allow government/society to abdicate its responsibilities to its citizens.

Because charity doesn’t really address the root problems of poverty, does it? But as long as we have food banks and the United Way and homeless shelters, et al, we work hard at promoting and supporting them and forget to force any real solution.

Orwell uses Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as an illustration:

…we are not aiming at the kind of world Dickens described, nor, probably, at any world he was capable of imagining. The Socialist objective is not a society where everything comes right in the end, because kind old gentlemen give away turkeys. In the end, there are not enough kind gentlemen to give away enough turkeys.

 I wonder what Orwell would have done about that child drowning in the pond?

What’s your school of thought on charity?


62 responses to “Charity

  1. FIRST!
    (Yah big deal)
    Charity is a wonderful thing. In some it gives a feeling of helping their fellow man. In others when they give its in the hope that at least it will show as a tickmark on the good side at the final tally. Charity from the heart is a wonderful thing.
    The analogy of saving a drowning child or saving your suit is awfully stupid.
    Would you save a drowning child if he was bleeding and swimming in Shark infested waters? Knowing that there is a very good chance that not only may the child be dinner but that you can be dessert?
    Thats one to ask yourself.
    (And is oddly appropriate to ask an Aussie)
    Personally however I prefer the axiom “If you give a man a fish he eats for a day if you teach a man to fish he will eventually commercialize the process and become a rich man.”

  2. Oh, yay. A post about objective morality. Where any comment where I say that I do charitable things comes across as an implied scorn of people who don’t.

    Tithing is common in various branches of Christianity, too. Being atheist, I don’t really know much about it.

    Speaking of which, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some schools of thought that claimed that atheists are incapable of charity!

    – RG>

  3. I like the charities that give a family some chickens or a pig or a cow and teach then how to raise and grow their on food and get with their neighbors to mate these animals, etc. as well as the charities that set up shops and teach the people how to market the goods they already have the skills to make.
    The bad thing about the charities that just feed people is the hungry people are not really learning any coping skills and then there’s all the corruption and graft that takes place in some countries just to get food to people.
    I was thinking about this the other day and I thought: Why don’t they take all this charity money and build electric companies and water companies and teach people how to run them and get some infrastructure going?
    It’s just wrong that people are still living dark ages lives where they have to march 7 miles to a water source with a tarred wicker bucket and if the water source goes bad they are just fucked.
    But how is the example of the child about charity? Maybe the drowning child is the child of a rich man and you will get a hefty reward. If nothing else you’d make the news and most people seem to be desperate for media attention.

    Something people forget is not all charity is about money. Sometimes all you need to give is your time.

  4. charity is important, but I don’t think that anyone should feel morally obligated to give time/money. If you believe in the cause and want to give, give if not don’t.

    We regularly tithe to our church, but we also randomly give to other causes, most recently unicef for Pakistan flood relief.

    I don’t give to beggers, but will give to organizations that help the poor – is it bad to do it that way since part of my donation goes to administrative costs? Maybe, but at least I know most of the money is helping people rather than buying a cheap bottle of booze and/or drugs.

  5. There are always going to be those who take advantage of your charitable giving when they don’t have a true need and those that have a genuine need to help them through a rough patch. I can’t worry about the former. They have to live with their own conscience and explain it when they meet their maker.

    I used to volunteer at a food kitchen. There was a guy who worked along side me that I later discovered was doing it to give back for the time that he was fed in his time of need. I learned a lot from him.

  6. I agree with Lebowski that the example asking us to choose between our costly suit and a drowning child is a poor one. I doubt that most of us have no difficulty placing the child above our suit in priority. I have no problem parting with material possessions in doing charity. The real test I think is when it requires a commitment of self and time. For example will we be willing to volunteer a day a week to physically care for an invalid or will we go to Africa and help build a well in some remote area. Or will we be happy to assuage our conscience just by giving money as long as someone else gets his/her hands dirty.

    As for the form of charity, food kitchens are important as it fills an urgent need. However, they cannot resolve the problem. That is where we need to empower people to get out of the poverty that they are trapped in. But both are required to get the job done.

    I have given money regularly for a shelter of abandoned/abused children. Many people and many companies give to this cause too. However, few ever answer the shelter’s call to come and help teach the kids and to give tuition so that they can improve themselves. Reason? It takes a big commitment of time.

  7. I put effort into deciding which charities I choose. Perhaps this is because I come from a relatively poor family, and I’ve seen what charity can cause.

    The good intentions of people better off can, through handouts, form into a sense of entitlement for the recipient. I thought this was wrong when my family was on the the receiving end, but as a child there was little I could do about it. There’s no doubt we were better off for receiving (it made the difference in what we might get to eat that week, or more correctly, how much my parents got to smoke and drink), so I can’t say it was all bad… but it’s clear that my parents had a sense of entitlement. They weren’t getting assistance from a benefactor – they were getting their rightful cut from some filthy rich people.

    I always found their attitude distasteful. Moreso, because there were lots of other people like us near where we lived and they all seemed to have a similar attitude. It motivated me greatly to not be like them.

    So I support charities that assist in ways that go beyond just a handout. Drug and alcohol rehab, for example, is something I support wholeheartedly as it improves people’s lives and, I hope, helps improve their chances of one day not needing charity. I support shelters as well because there’s always a chance anyone, even me, might need them one day.

    I don’t support throwing cash at poor people, however, and that includes our government welfare program. While I think it is important to ensure that the poor have food on their plates and roofs over their heads, I’ve never been convinced that they need cash from the government to get those things. I’ve seen how the money gets used, really close up. Personally, I’d fix it by issuing something a government assistance card that works like a credit card for food and shelter, except that the government pays it, not the person. It could have limits, and it wouldn’t work for everything. Bread: yes, beer: no. Telephone: yes, HD cable TV: no. On top of that they’d get a small stipend for incidentals, but quite a bit less than they get now.

    It may surprise everyone to know that I do support one religious-based charity as I feel their body of work is excellent, even if I don’t agree with their god-walloping message. I’d rather have a religious sober guy running around than a desperate drug addict.

  8. I support a lot of charities, not because I feel a moral obligation to do so, but because I believe in their causes and think that what they are trying to do is admirable. I give money to Heifer, for instance, because they provide families with a means of helping themselves now and in the future through providing animals and education. Plus, I like their policy that if you received animals from them, you must pass on offspring to others in need in your area. That helps by making people self-sufficient and gives them the resources to work and help themselves out of a bad situation.

    I don’t like to give to organizations that just throw money at problems because that rarely helps fix the actual problem. Often, I think it just exacerbates the problem in the long run and doesn’t help people to break the cycle of poverty or whatever that has them in need of charity.

    I also give money to an art museum, the colleges that my husband and I attended, science education and research, Goodwill, as well as a couple of random charities each year. It’s because I feel like these are all organizations that need some assistance and provide a great service or will do something really productive with my donations.

    But as others have said, it isn’t necessarily all about money. You can give your time or goods and do a lot of good too, if you don’t have the money to give. I was a volunteer at a YMCA branch for 10 years doing something very specific because it fit my skill set and could save them a lot of money. I’ve also worked on a couple of building projects for community centers and worked at an event taking donations for a charity that supplied older people with fans during hot weather. There are so many things people can do that don’t take a lot of time, maybe a day or even just a few hours. I mean, it’s not like I’ve got building skills or anything to help with things like that, but non-profit organizations will always find a way to use a willing volunteer.

    I was raised that you should help out if you can, not everyone was and that’s okay. I definitely get the other side of the argument too, that you worked hard for your stuff and don’t feel like you should help people that don’t want to help themselves. If you feel like giving time or money, great. If you don’t, that’s your prerogative. My only suggestion would be that if you aren’t giving because you don’t want to give to people that you don’t feel are putting any effort into fixing their situation, take a look at different types of non-profit organizations and try to find one that fits your hobbies or has a cause that you feel strongly about. There’s a non-profit for everything from education, to environment, to cell phones for abuse victims, to bullet proof vests for police dogs.

  9. A lot people seem to conveniently forget that holding down an honest job and paying one’s fair share of tax also contributes significantly to charity.

    100 years ago, there was no income tax. And there was no welfare, unemployment insurance, children’s aid, free health care, old-age pensions, disability pensions, women’ shelters, community centers, etc..

    Back in those times, people in need would be left to fend for themselves, or starve. Or maybe be lucky enough to be rescued by a church, that was supported by charity form the local community.

    Today all that stuff is paid for. By taxpayers.

    “Tax freedom day” is around the end of June. Meaning 50% of a Canadians’ salary typically goes to taxes.

    And if you look at the pie chart on Revenue Canada’s income tax form, about 30-40% taxes go towards social services.

    And that’s not counting foreign aid, and sending our troops to help out in Haiti and other places.

    Do the math. It can be argued that 15-20% of a taxpayers’s salary already goes to helping the less fortunate. But we don’t seem to get any credit for that.

    Say your friend Frank earns $200K a year. He gets to keep half, and the other $100K is taxed and put back into the system. Of which a big chunk goes to helping people like Ernie and his kids.

    Yet instead of saying “Thank you” to Frank, people will resent his trips to Disney Land, and tell him he shouldn’t be doing those extravagant things, but should be giving MORE money to Ernie.

    (Who, by the way, contributes nothing)

    Is it any wonder the Franks are fed up?

  10. Orwell probably would have attempted to save the drowing child: saving a drowing child is not a futile self-satisfying gesture that leads to a culture of dependency, which was his criticism of charity. He may have thought it futile if children were constantly drowning due to an underlying system or ethos that causes children to continually drown. He may have thought ‘a crazy system may limp on as it is for longer if some of its visible ill effects are ameliorated by individual acts of charity’.

    A charitable spirit permits of no gross luxuriousness nor of any preventable privations which diminish a person and cause him misery and ignorance. A charitable spirit is not the same thing as a charitable institution or a charitable donation. If people embraced a culture of generosity and kindness there would be little need for a political debate about welfare or charity, or ‘what to do about poor people’.

  11. Wow… Great post… and great comments today. Good job XUP!

    So… Charity does not solve the problem but it helps. In an ideal world, there should be no poverty because the Government takes good care of that. But this is not an ideal world, as you may have seen already. If you think you can help, if you really give more for someone;s life than for a suit, then go ahead and do your small part. May be with every one of us giving a little we can reach enough turkeys today.

    Have a great day everybody!

  12. Peter Singer is insane. His “logical conclusions” (following a sort of utilitarian philosophy) do not follow human nature, or Nature of any kind. The more you read of what he has written, the more you come to this conclusion. So occasionally, like the monkeys at keyboards, he comes up with some argument you can buy into, but I would use a different philosopher when prompting discussions on anything.

    [I define “insane” as someone who has lost perspective.]

  13. Squid, I have made the same observations about a crass, lazy sense of entitlement but are the super-wealthy any better? They do all kinds of harm in the cause of their own accumulation of wealth and prestige. The poor can be massed under this one label of ‘the scrounging poor’ whereas lawyers, hollywood moguls, oil-magnates, cosmetic surgeons, journalists – they are all criticized separately even though they have in common that the worst of them do great harm to people and society for their own profit.

    And they consume more natural resources than they need to. That is what rich people do. Money is nothing other than a ticket allowing one to use a certain portion of the human-controlled resources of the Earth. Generations from now, if and when our planet is depleted and barren, we will not look back in anger at the poor people eating refried beans and living in shacks; we will look back in anger at those who squandered the richness of the Earth in order to drive around in Hummers and eat individually-wrapped sandwiches.

  14. Going back to that analogy of jumping into the water to save a drowning person.

    What do you do when the person keeps jumping in, again and again. And refuses to learn to swim, or wear a life jacket?

  15. Anyway, there’s a basic lack of perspective going on here. People are psychologically disconnected from the physical environment they depend upon and only think in terms of the human ‘ecosystem’. What I mean is, making money and paying taxes is somehow deemed to be ‘contributing to society’ but is this necessarily so? Most of what humans need to live could be produced with minimal time and effort – in fact, this has been the case ever since industrialization. The reason people do not live the lives of luxury and leisure that we once looked forward to in sci-fi fantasies is that 90% of our labour is a) dedicated to producing things that are at best frivolous and at worst harmful, and b) we work to compete against each other, not to ‘contribute to society’.

  16. You know “G” its a funny thing that maybe some people who are poor sometimes do just that? If they really ARE trying to get “un-poor” but they keep trying to get “un-poor” the same way again and again then maybe it no longer needs to be the responsibility of the rich person?

  17. @G

    Nice answer, but if you’ll notice, I never said that. Stop putting words in m my mouth.

    I asked a rhetorical question. To make an analogy, that SOME (not all) people might be misfortunate, because of their own actions and choices. And it gets to a point where THEY should be held responsible, not the rescuer.

    And I apologize on the behalf of those of us who pay tax and by frivolous things, which employ other people and put food on THEIR table.

    We should all be living in one-bedroom Soviet-era block apartments, and live off rice and beans. Food and shelter. That’s all we really need.

    Any extra money we earn shouldn’t go towards enjoying life. We should give it away instead, so everyone’s at the lowest common denominator.

    I think they tried that in a few countries. And it seemed to have worked out well.

  18. @Friar – you have an excellent point about paying taxes. That does get totally overlooked as making a contribution to charity.

    And I love your reply to G too!

  19. “Because charity doesn’t really address the root problems of poverty, does it? But as long as we have food banks and the United Way and homeless shelters, et al, we work hard at promoting and supporting them and forget to force any real solution.”

    Actually, I read a story in the paper recently about a former homeless man who saw a posting in a shelter for a group that advertised counseling, job and psychological wise, and he ended up back in school with a job and plans on going to college.

    Many shelters provide job training and placement as well as addiction counselling and treatment. And if not, they can refer these people to agencies, like this man found.

    When people put money into these organizations, they are often actively help people help themselves.:)

  20. Bleh. It’s like you barely even glanced at what I wrote. Nothing I can do, in that case. I didn’t say we should live Soviet-style – it’s a sure sign that someone has a slavishly conditioned mind when they think that there are only two polarized choices to be made, as promoted by the mainstream media and political demagogues. Life isn’t just ‘capitalism vs communism’. I never signed up to either.

    Even foolish people who make the wrong choices over and over are products of the society they live in. This is obviously true, yet even intelligent atheists try to get around this by proposing a mystical doctrine of ‘free will and responsibility’.

    Again, let me preempt a particularly pea-brained type of rebuttal right now: I did not say that we should endlessly throw money at junkies or other inveterate losers. But I don’t think we should loathe and blame losers for their own predicament. Blame doesn’t help anything except your ego. Many people who seem hopeless now can turn around with the right stimulus; many people who seem to have it all figured out one day end up as losers – and maybe they climb back up again somehow. This is life.

  21. I think externalities are a much bigger problem than a lack of charity. That is to say, situations where we make choices that harm other people who are not party to the agreement or transaction.

    There are masses of examples: everything from the perverse consequences of agricultural subsidies to greenhouse gas emissions.

    Getting rid of externalities probably has more potential for improving the world than voluntary charity does. Furthermore, there is a much stronger moral case that it is your duty to stop harming innocent people than that you need to give money to someone who has no direct moral claim upon you.

  22. Most of these arguments come down to the same old crap. Poor people are somehow to blame for the problems they have. They are lazy or stupid or wasteful etc, so why should we bright educated morally superior people have to help out.

    We should have to help out because they are humans in need.

    We should help because we can.

    We should help because all of us are one stroke, one car wreck, one disease away from needing that same helping spirit of our fellow humans.

    We should help because humans should be humane.

  23. Milan, I agree with your raising of the issue of externalities. This is just part of the dark side of industry. We ‘contribute’ in one way, but in our tunnel-vision drive toward profit we overlook the collateral damage we do. We could in theory have a much better world for everyone if we continued to do our capitalistic thing but without so much free reign to exploit and despoil – and not just in poor countries; look at what the pharma industry does in rich countries.

    However, I feel that the spirit of charity, as discoursed on by St Paul, is indispensible to human existence.

    I don’t want to get bogged down in sterile arguments about ideology: it always becomes like football hooliganism because it’s a clash, not a dialogue. I want to dissolve people’s fixed ideologies so they can see reality for what it is without an ideological filter. If you say to someone ‘you are a moron for believing in capitalism/communism’ they just harden up defensively and cling tighter to their convictions because you have threatened the foundation of their ego. Every minute of work one does is supported by their convicions, and one usually wants to ‘get through the day’ more than one wants to learn the truth.

  24. Statistically speaking the less affluent give more to charity than the more affluent ever do This applies to time AND money. I think its because they tend to be in a position where they give continually in small ways at the community level.

    I think in real life beyond televised pleas and workplace pledges and online petitions we are more likely to be charitable when we know the recipient even on the most peripheral level (would anyone REALLY walk past a drowning child and not help them???) When you abstract it (a commercial about drowning children) it is easier for people to turn a blind eye.

    For me? You help those less fortunate because you can, and that is just part of what being human is about. Social species and all. We’ve currently taken in an extra kid because she needed a stable home. That’s what you do when someone is in need. How is it affecting us? Financially we’ll tighten our belts a bit to be able to afford the extra kid. What does that look like here, we’ll put off needed renovations awhile.

    I know from experience what you give out in time, money, heart comes back to you many times over.

  25. I think that we all should give to help others. I don’t want to be part of a society that doesn’t care about others with less fortune. My difficulty is deciding who to give to because there are so many worthwhile causes out there. That part is the personal decision part. I believe in programs that help people get back on their feet (i.e. teach them to fish), but I think we also have to help out while they are learning to fish.

  26. Ive been reading for a long time now, and seldom comment (as you know). I want to thank you for the excellent thoughtful topics and I also want to thank all the regular commentators, who seem to bring up most perspectives and make this blog such a pleasure to read. cheers!

  27. Finola, the philosopher Toby Ord came up with a sort of formula for determining which charity to give to; I have a link to his website here:

    He was often asked as a postgraduate student of ethics, “if you believe in charity, why don’t you give all your money away?” – he came to consider the question seriously and started an organization that signs people up to a committment to give away all of their surplus income to the most efficient charities that benefit the very poorest people.

    I respect his earnestness but do not know whether he is right to say that everyone has this obligation. In spite of this uncertainty, I have more respect for that choice than the choice to squander wealth on luxury – one only becomes accustomed to luxury, anyway; the word for this used to be ‘decadence’, before it was misappropriated by chocolate-advertisers to mean ‘harmless fun that we refuse to feel shame for’.

  28. Yeah, that was a poor example by Peter Singer; he’s a philosopher? Could be a rich kid in the water? I give to charity when I feel inspired to; not as an obligation. I don’t think it has anything to do with morals, which in my mind distinguishes between right and wrong.

    PS How many people holding down honest jobs are blogging from those jobs?

  29. @G

    Ooh. Nice.

    I disagree with you, and you basically tell me I have a “slavishly controlled mind”.

    I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were the resident authority on how intelligent and informed the rest of us are.

    But please, DO continue to resort to personal insults.

    That’s always the sign of a good debater.

  30. what an incredible dialogue going on here. well done xup.

    friar definately has an interesting observation about the taxes we pay. i never really thought about it that way.

    i try to give when/what i can, to charities that seem to do more for helping the less fortunate find their own way, so that they are no longer dragging down a system that can barely sustain itself, even with all of those taxe payers money.

  31. Don’t worry Friar! You should know that that type of debater never really loses. I often lose many debates with guys like that because in the end I agree with them. Unfortunately their last comments are usually “Know what Lebowski? YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE!”
    I never disagree.

  32. There are obviously different ways to approach the topic of charity: from a personal moral perspective and from a business perspective.

    I personally don’t equate taxes with charity (to relate back to the original example in this post and the idea of moral obligation) in the sense that to me, helping another human being isn’t about the money… it’s about the intent. Unfortunately, money seems to be the big talker here.

  33. I heard somewhere that a single cross-continent flight uses about the same amount of energy (obviously in a different format) that the poorest people in poor countries will use in their entire lifetime. Ever since I heard that, I’ve never considered it worthwhile to fly somewhere, just for a week or two of my (attempted) enjoyment. So I guess that is analagous to the “new suit” comparison.

    Sean – if a panhandler is an alcoholic and isn’t bothering people, what’s wrong with them buying alcohol? Even if they wanted to stop (and we shouldn’t take it for granted that they do), you think they can go cold turkey just because people won’t give them money? At least make them happy for a little while, and maybe they’ll feel good long enough to want to change their life. There are plenty of panhandlers with problems out there, and there aren’t nearly enough social agencies to help them all attain our white-bread standards of ‘normalcy’.

    In other words, if a panhandler is a drug or alcohol addict, do you think they’re really going to care about your morality when you decide whether or not to give them change?

    Friar – I’m calling your bluff on extending the analogy (and ignoring the conversation between you and G). “What do you do when the person keeps jumping in, again and again. And refuses to learn to swim, or wear a life jacket?”

    Did you ever actually get them out of the water, or did you just toss them a flotation device which they weren’t able to use to swim ashore, and they let go of?

    If you did manage to get them out of the water, and they keep going back in, what you need to, in reply to your question, is prevent them from jumping back in. How do you translate that back out of the analogy? Can you prevent someone from becoming poor again? (They try to prevent criminals from reoffending, and try to keep drug addicts and alcoholics from their substances, but are those easier or harder goals than keeping someone from becoming poor again?)

    Life isn’t a free-market economy; you can’t just let people drown because they’re unsuccessful. If we as a society can’t bring to the shore everyone who can’t swim there, we at least should throw them life preservers to keep them afloat until we can. And if they let those life preservers go, I think we should still give them more until they can either swim against the current back to shore, or we can pull them out.

    – RG>

  34. @Real Grouchy

    You make a good point. But if you allow me to extend the analogy….

    We decide it’s no longer the average passer-by’s responsibility to keep having to jump and rescue the would-be drowners.

    That’s not his job.

    But we take some of the money he pays in tax, and pool it in with other taxpayers, and hire a full-time life-guard.

  35. Lebowski – It’s not a stupid analogy if you think about it. Charities ask youto give some of your money and/or time to save the life of someone who is hungry or needs medical care. Most of the time we’re too busy or wrapped up in our own problems or would rather use our money for things we want. If you look at that, it is an attitude just as heartless as the guy who doesn’t save the drowning child. Singer does go on to ask if it makes any difference if there are other people around who could save the kid — is it okay then for you to walk away? Or if you can’t actually see the child, but are told that there is a drowning child that needs help on the next block?

    Grouchy – I think everyone has their own moral compass when it comes to giving of themselves or their time or their possessions — that’s what makes a discussion like this interesting. There should be no scorn involved. Opinions like Orwell’s is just as valid as Dickens’ who thought we’d all be happier if the rich shared their wealth equally with the poor. I don’t think there is any absolute answer. The important thing is being aware of the problem and doing what you feel you can.

    Geewits – You’re right that not all charity is about money. In fact, it’s often easier to just give money than to volunteer your time. The idea of teaching people to fend for themselves is an interesting one. It seems to make a lot of sense on the surface, but apparently, in practice it’s not always easy. You can send a bunch of livestock to Africa and teach them how to care for them, but if they’re living in a place with little water and poor soil they’ll have no way to keep feeding that livestock. And you can set up some sort of industry to teach people skills and keep them employed, but if there’s a corrupt government they’ll find a way to exploit that and keep their people as oppressed and poor as ever. And then there are situations like here in Canada with Davis Inlet. Back in the 1960s the federal government built a village to help tribes of nomadic aboriginals who lived way up north on the east coast. For all sorts of reasons the village deteriorated into a ghetto of drunks, violence, destruction, ignorance, etc. The government decided they’d learned their lesson and a few years ago began a relocation/education/rehabilitation program for and with these people. They taught them skills and engaged them in working to rebuild their own community. The new community had adequate schools and wasn’t as isolated. All the people learned new marketable skills and built their houses, established businesses, etc and received ongoing support. Everyone was happy. Less than six months later that new community was once again a ghetto of destruction, addiction, violence and despair. For once the government did everything right — the best thing we knew. And it didn’t work. (Also, I explained to Lebowski above how the drowning child analogy is about charity)

    Sean – That’s an interesting point — if we give our money do we have a right to say how it’s going to be used? I guess that depends on how we view charity and what motivates us. If we give money to a panhandler are we giving it to him to give him a little of the independence we enjoy or are we giving it to him to make sure he gets a healthy meal? If it’s the former and as an adult human being he should be allowed to do whatever he wants with the money. If he’d rather drink than eat, so what? But then are we contributing to his addiction which is also not right?

    Skye – I think you almost have to have an attitude that doesn’t try to figure out exactly where your money is going to be used in a way you think it should be used. You can make yourself crazy like that and even talk yourself out of giving anything at all.

    LGS – Very well said. I

    Squid – Orwell also said, “A man receiving charity always hates his benefactor- it is a fixed characteristic of human nature”. Perhaps this is where this attitude of entitlement you speak of comes from? It has to be damaging to a person in so many ways to be completely dependent on charity and a tenuous welfare system. I suppose there are people who think it’s great fun to do nothing and let others pay their way in life, but you lose so damn much. Being able to go to a grocery store and buying what appeals to you rather than what’s the cheapest and most filling. Being able to plan anything for your future – saving for a house or car or trip. Going out to a nice restaurant. Buying a new pair of shoes just because they catch your eye as you walk by. All these little things that make life a little more fun instead of day after day of the same old grind. I don’t think government sponsored credit card things are the answer. A social support system that provides a liveable income to those who can’t work is important – one without restrictions so they can be as independent as possible. And jobs, retraining, education whatever for those who are capable of earning their own living. And for the very few that will refuse to participate and enjoy living off the system – as you suggest your parents did? I don’t know if we owe them anything more.

    Kimberly – Wow! You’re a busy person. And an excellent spokesperson for volunteering!!

    Friar – You are something of an Orwellian then! George would very likely agree with you. And then he’d be asking why, with all this money the government is taking from us and theoretically assigning to social services – why are there still so damn many social problems? Why are there so many homeless; so many addicts; so many children in Canada living way below the poverty line; so many seniors living on cat food; so many people with disabilities without the support they need? Where is that social services piece of the pie going? Not to mention the millions raked in through lotteries and casinos which were supposed to support some social services as well? Government is depending on us to fill that gap. Look at the food banks which were established during ONE crisis to help tide people over. A few tables and some donated canned goods. Now it’s an entire industry with employees and warehouses and trucks and boards of directors. And we get shit when the food supplies start dwindling because we’re not doing our bit to keep their shelves stocked. How did a stop gap measure — a food bank — become THE lifeline for so damn many in this supposedly wealthy, wealthy country? The whole concept of a food bank industry in this country outrages me. I think government is happy to hand over more and more of the responsibility for social services to the public at large. And we take it on because we can’t allow our fellow human beings to starve to death.

    Jazz – Friar often has a point, but we try not to tell him so it doesn’t go to his head. Who wants a pointy head, right?

    G – Yes, I think the “charitable spirit” goes along the same lines as the example of the mother and her children. I don’t know how that’s accomplished though — it’s either something you have or something you don’t have isn’t it?

    Mr G – I think you’re saying the same thing as G — we don’t need 5 turkeys, do we? Why not give one away?

    julia – Just because a person is insane doesn’t mean he might not have a valid point occasionally -lol. I liked his drowning child analogy as a jumping off point.

    Friar – Someone else asked that question about what we do if the kid keeps jumping/falling into that same damn pond over and over. Perhaps we should drain the pond? Or teach them to swim?

    G – Oh boy. I know where you’re coming from and yes of course, it doesn’t seem right at all that the western world, and North America in particular is using up 80% of the world’s resources while so many people are struggling just to stay alive. And maybe we are at least partially to blame for keeping those struggling people struggling. But I think there is also something to those who have a more Darwinian view of all this. Some people – whether on a global scale or on an individiual scale – are just smarter; cleverer; more adept at survival/accumulating wealth. Those people also need to be applauded and rewarded. They are the ones who keep things ticking along so we’re not all dying of the plague because our sewer system is the sidewalk. They are the ones create, invent, build, think. On an individual scale, like Frank – he really shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for making something of himself. We can hope that he is moved to give a little back to others – especially those who are genuinely unable to help themselves, but I don’t think it’s right to beat Frank over the head with it as an obligation.

    Pauline – Good point – because yes, many of these organizations do a lot more than simply providing food or a bed for the night. It’s worrying though still that they have to depend on private donations in order to keep functioning, isn’t it? Shouldn’t they receive enough funding via our taxes to keep going with private donations helping to add value maybe??

    Milan – That’s true in a “big picture” way. And we definitely have to look at the big picture. But meanwhile there’s also the little picture — people who need something immediately.

    Dave – Ya, we can’t seem to think of it that simply.

    Mudmama – That’s the point. We wouldn’t like to think people could walk by a drowning child, or as I said to somebody before, even if we just hear about a drowning child a few blocks away; or even if there are 20 other people around who could save the child. But when it comes to saving a child from starvation, for instance, many of us walk on by because it’s inconvenient or because we don’t want to lose our “nice suit”. And thanks to you and Dave for bringing this discussion back to the you-and-me. We can get really bogged down with politics and philosphy when what it really boils down to is just giving a helping hand to a fellow human being because you happen to be in a position to give the help and they happed to be in a position to need it.

    Finola – Very nicely put!!

    Gokalie – Thank you. And I have to agree that I probably have some of the most interesting commenters around. They’re never afraid to express and opinion no matter how many people disagree with them or how vehemently. I think that’s the fun of the whole blog for me — reading the responses and discussions and arguments.

    G – To illustrate, I took a 5-year leave when I had my daughter. Though I had some savings and downsized considerably and did some freelance work, my income plummeted significantly during those 5 years.(Not exactly how I had originally planned it, but he who was to be the primary breadwinner during this time, bailed — what can you do?) Anyway, we were well fed, comfortably housed, adequately clothed. We had money for modest entertainment, etc. By all standards we were poor and we did without a lot, but I had a wonderful 5 years watching my child grow and wouldn’t have traded it for the world. Now, pretty much every year when I do my taxes, I remember those years because what I pay in taxes every year is more than what I was living on each year during those 5 years. It always amazes me and I wonder exactly I’m spending all that extra money on. I still don’t have a lot of stuff

    Davina – The reason I haven’t commented all day is because my blog is blocked by our firewall now, so I can’t blog from work anymore. This means I’m ethical and moral now, right?

    Smothermother – Yes, Friar is certainly getting a lot of attention today. His comment about the taxes is very much along the lines of what Orwell was saying, too. Somehow, the taxes aren’t doing their job though, are they?

    Davina – I think there is a general frustration from everyone involved. I don’t everyone would agree that those who are able should do something to help those that are not able. The disagreements are about what form that help should take and whether or not the help is really helpful.

    Grouchy – Ya, actually when you start breaking down everything we consume it’s pretty humbling. As I mentioned before, North Americans consume 80% of the world’s resources. And we have a very small fraction of the world’s population. And I agree with your other points and have sort of made them among some of my other responses.

  36. @XUP

    Then, the problem isn’t that “rich” people don’t give enough to charity through taxes.

    But it’s that the govt. mismanages and squanders all that cash. And it often doesn’t go to the people who really need it.

    Then perhaps we should lighten up on the “rich” taxpayers, stop making them look like the bad guys and demanding that the give MORE.

    And re-direct that energy to call the goverment to task, and demand they apply some fiscal accountability to the money they already have.

  37. Friar, Lebowski, you did not address my arguments and instead jumped on the opportunity to grab a cheap moral high-ground by going ‘ooh, you used an ad hominem – you lose’. But I stand by what I said. It was a fair comment. You really did try to reduce a nuanced situation into a capitalist vs communist dichotomy. That really is the sort of thing done by Fox News and the Sarah Palins of the world. This kind of slavish, unoriginal thinking prevents the flowering of new solutions to real problems. It ensures an intractable, eternal argument. It ensures a collision, not a meeting, of minds.

    XUP, a spirit of charity can prevail if people stop clinging to their defensive, angry, reductive worldviews that ultimately seek only to justify all their everyday moral failures. When people stop finding ways of blaming the poor for their predicament then they can directly experience the guilt that naturally arises when one has plenty while one’s neighbour has nothing. Rich people live with this guilt all the time; rich liberal people, instead of blaming the poor like the conservatives, feel self-loathing and make occasional kind gestures. The conservatives pretend that refusal to feel this guilt is a virtue (perhaps in the heroic, Greek sense) but they are in fact even worse than the ineffectual liberal in their cruelty, hypocrisy and self-deception.

    We think now that people need to be rewarded with wealth in order to do anything innovative or useful, but that is because our minds are stuck between the two poles of stultifying forms of socialism at one end, and deregulated capitalism at the other end. I think the whole thing is an edifice of stupidity and we should throw it all away. We think we are so different from Communist China, but look – they make and buy the same crap as we do, have the same banal desires, have many of the same social problems and have many shared assumptions in spite of being a distant, alien culture.

  38. @Xup: Pretty sure most of the money you pay in taxes gets sucked up by administration and green energy projects before it even makes it to social services. Then the employees and administrators take their share and we get what’s left. Compound that with the government’s by default “big picture” view of what they’re doing and how it’s supposedly helping us out. They measure their accomplishments in millions of dollars, we measure it in extra bill payments, extra trips to the grocery store, extra cab money.

    During an exchange of letters with the Ontario government a few months back, I received what amounts to a glowing praise letter from the minister for community and social services on the subject. After picking it apart quite a bit, I think I’m a little more educated on how at least the current government seems to view issues of poverty etc. If you’re interested, I posted my take on it here, including the letter I received from MCSS.

  39. Davina – I’d protest, but I don’t think I have a leg to stand on.

    Frair – Exactly what Orwell was suggesting. I suspect that even though they distribute a big chunk of the pie to social services that the money is going mainly into administration type stuff. But don’t worry. Once we have no more census, there won’t be any more poor people!

    G – I don’t know that I like the idea of those of us who are not poor being filled with guilt, which prompts us to share our success with the poor. If I give something or help someone it’s not because I feel guilty for being employed or healthy or educated. I share because I feel compassion. Although part of the reason I’m not poor is down to luck, I believe most of it is because I have worked at educating myself and securing a job and keeping myself healthy. So, I’m pleased at these accomplishments. Perhaps someone who was born rich and never had to lift a finger to keep getting richer feels this guilt, I don’t know. I also don’t agree that people need to be rewarded with wealth to do anything innovative or useful. Anyone who creates anything truly innovative and useful does it because they are talented or gifted or intelligent or creative. The things people produce who are only interested in monetary gain are, generally speaking, devoid of creativity, intelligence, innovation or usefulness (e.g.: most of Hollywood, banking, Dan Brown).

    James – Ya, that’s what I figured. Administering those social services has to suck up a huge chunk of that piece of pie. I know what it takes to administer government programs and it’s big and cumbersome and bottomless

  40. XUP, Okay… let’s call it frustration. Thanks for clarifying. I had missed that, actually; it’s rather noisy here today. 🙂 How’s the blog traffic? Heh, heh.

    G… I appreciated this: “a spirit of charity can prevail if people stop clinging to their defensive, angry, reductive worldviews” and “…thinking prevents the flowering of new solutions to real problems. It ensures an intractable, eternal argument. It ensures a collision, not a meeting, of minds.”

    I wonder how this type of conversation would go face-to-face where people can actually *see* each other’s facial expression and hear the tone of their voice…

  41. People certainly shouldn’t be starving or living on the street, regardless of the choices they have made.

    Together, government programs and private charity should be at a sufficiently high level to prevent that. Providing assistance to vulnerable groups is a basic requirement within a decent society, in this day and age.

  42. Friar – you, too make a good point. So long as we also ensure that the government is hiring an adequate supply of lifeguards (instead of assuming everything’s taken care of because we pay taxes). You suggest this in your subsequent comment, so I assume we have found common ground.

    – RG>

  43. XUP, I wasn’t particularly trying to tie those guilt/incentive descriptions to you.

    Tell you what though, you say: “Although part of the reason I’m not poor is down to luck, I believe most of it is because I have worked at educating myself and securing a job and keeping myself healthy.”

    But I say that your capacity and drive to do so is luck. You did not chose to be such a person; Fate made you that way.

    Now, it is impossible for Man to create an entirely just world – he cannot create an entirely just country or town, much less a just universe! But we can eliminate many of our delusions which make the world needlessly unjust. One of those illusions is that there are people who choose to be life’s losers. This is a ridiculous superstition at the heart of Western culture (and possibly some other cultures).

    I know many of the people that conservative commenters like to characterise as faceless, feckless parasites. In fact, I grew up as one of them and understand their struggles first-hand. I know what it is like to work earnestly and get stiffed through no fault of your own, just because you are lowly and disposable. I know what it is like to be ignorant, without any sense of how to ‘better oneself’; to have no realistic or tangible prospect of anything better; to feel that a job is just meaningless exploitation and not a meaningful contribution. I understand that there is limited space among the ranks of the comfortable and educated and that there are gatekeepers who prevent the poor from rising up to share in the abundance of technological civilisation.

    On the TV, all the time, you see people who have made it having come from nothing. You also see people who have won the lottery: it convinces you to play, thinking, ‘well someone has to win’. Yes, there are winners, but few winners and many losers. The game is rigged – it is not this pure, sacrosanct thing, so you can’t entirely blame those who give up and opt for indolence. The state makes it very difficult to be indolent; it is not a comfortable choice – even where one manages to do it for a while it comes with a great personal cost – people who say it is ‘the easy way’ do not understand. No one, when they were a kid, dreamed of living on a meagre state handout watching TV all day. Even the dumbest people are not ‘blissfully’ ignorant in that situation – meet them, they are stressed and unhappy; they feel the world judging them and they are often quite resentful. Their life is grey and empty. They give up altogether. Any job they can look forward to will be burger-flipping drudgery, often overseen by an uncaring corporate robot or even a sadistic tyrant. These sufferings are commonplace but go undocumented.

    I have known many people with intelligence, social ethics and a hard-won education who have never been able to rise up out of dull low-paid jobs. Rich people do not need any great personal qualities to be ‘successful’. This should be obvious. I have done various temp jobs and at first I thought I would be embarrassed to be a graduate doing low-level admin work. To my honest-to-god astonishment I was usually surrounded by other graduates. Social mobility in the UK has been at a standstill for a generation. Go look it up if you like, the figures don’t lie.

  44. @Milan: I suppose that depends on your definition of vulnerable. I don’t see myself, for instance, as particularly vulnerable–in spite of the fact I’m statistically well below the poverty line. Uncomfortable, spread a little thin, perhaps. I could certainly do with a little more financial maneuvering room, but it’s not like I’m 24 hours from ending up at one of those food banks.

    Now, that having been said, Ontario and other places have a minimum wage for a reason and at the moment, even social services programs are well below that minimum wage. Which, to me anyway, seems contrary to their original intent–that is to give folks enough wiggle room to eventually get themselves off it. Of course I’d submit that at their current levels folks can probably barely aford what little the programs as they stand now actually allow them to make use of, nevermind getting any further ahead than they were when they had to fall back onto the system.b

  45. Davina – I would love to have the whole gang over sometime for a hearty discussion. That would be a wild night.

    Milan – I cannot argue with that.

    G – Hmmm, actually I think I did choose to drive myself to accomplish what I have. Certainly where I’ve come from there was no expectation or support for me other than I would grow up to be a housewife. I suppose fate was involved insofar as my innate character, but I don’t think any of us are wherever we are largely because of some random shuffling of the cards. I DO believe that those who you call “life’s losers” have made some bad choices. Yes, they probably came from a bad place to begin with and maybe had no advantages, but I know a lot of people who are their own worst enemies when it comes to making some helpful decisions for themselves. I don’t see life as a lottery where it’s all rigged. And I do believe that most successful people are successful because of their personal qualities. A person who has gotten rich because he has the fortitude and single-mindedness to work 16 hour days for years; who will risk everything they have because they believe in something – and has the smarts to know that that something is worthwhile – those are special qualities. I know the whole social mobility thing has always been different in the UK than in the “anything-is-possible” new world, so that might inform the differences in our perceptions of this.

  46. XUP, I am the first person in my family to have gone to university, but I do not try to claim that this is due to some magical ‘free choice’ that I exercised unlike my ancestors – it is because of demographic factors and other actual concrete causes. Yes, I may have personal qualities that stopped me from becoming a drunk or petty criminal like others in my neighbourhood, but I did not CHOOSE those qualities, did I? I just turned out that way.

    Ask a poor American or Canadian if he thinks there is real egalitarianism in his country. Those who are on top say everything’s fine; those at the bottom say everything is rotten – who, if anyone, is right?

  47. This vid explains that pain drives effort, not a magical will to succeed. Poor people learn early to have humble goals and adjust to poverty, otherwise the pain of living would be unbearable. They ameliorate the hard knocks of being lowlife with alcohol, junk food and other consolations.

    People from aspirational backgrounds, even if they are not really wealthy, feel too much of a weight of expectation on them to be seen to fail – this would be unendurable, unless they were to instead reject their family’s and social-circle’s values, which is always costly.

    People from wealthy backgrounds can do what they like; they are ‘winners’ from birth unless they screw up massively.

    There are exceptions to all of these, but they are determined by causes – there was no magical ‘free choice’ involved. If you dig into the background or genes of every outlier, every unusual success of disaster-story, there is a cause. For example, some people have become successful because of mental illness expressing itself via a ‘productive’ coping-mechanism.

    Here is the nub of the problem: if one’s position in life is determined by Fate (and I assure you, it is – there is no other non-magical explanation), then we can only have compassion for those who are unfortunate. We cannot blame and punish them, and must feel obliged to help. But on the other hand, if it requires sufficient pain to motivate people to endure the pain of hard work (they weigh up two pains and choose the lesser) then it makes no sense to always cushion people from the consequences of indolence – this only guarantees continued indolence.

    Our charitable well-wishing conflicts with our human nature; our need to maintain productivity. But if we discard compassion, we undermine the meaning and value of productivity itself. We become wolves to each other.

    I suggest that we cannot solve this with our current social model; too many things must be changed for any one new policy to undo this knot.

    There’s another thing to bear in mind though, in order to have a realistic picture of things: although conservatives tend to think purely in terms of incentives, there are many other factors in the mix. The poorest in the world obviously endure great pain, but simply have no way out. Charity in this case can give them something to aspire to. If you think about these border-hopping Mexicans – they take great personal risk and show great initiative in order to reap what seems like small rewards to us, but they are less painful than life on their local earnings. They are a better example of America’s prized quality of ‘self-determination’ than someone who follows a traditional low-risk career path.

    But I don’t especially praise them for that – as I keep trying to explain, it’s just maths! There’s a cause for the effect, always; in human behaviour, not just nature and inanimate objects.

  48. I don’t always agree with G, but I’ll grant him this.

    I’ve never seen any other blogger put so much work and thought put into their comments.



  49. @Friar: Always been that way; my text-messages had to have abstracts until they phased out buttons and replaced them with those horrible little touchscreen keypads.

  50. dave1949 is right.

    Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.

    For no matter how mighty we think we are, most of us are one serious illness away from a major life change, and needing the charity of others.

    I’ve seen it, and I’m sure many of you have as well.

    Kurt Vonnegut’s son once said to him, “Father, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”

    Yes, a good portion of our taxes do go to these programs.

    But… with successive government programs cutting taxes for all of us (yay!), where do they get the money?

    I am not too familiar with the effects of this on charities, but (having four kids, and a long memory), I do know what less money in the education coffers has meant over the last 30 years.

    When I was going into Grade 4, they gave me all the pencils I needed at my school.

    My oldest will be going into Grade 4 this September – same school.

    I am paying for the pencils.

    I can easily afford to pay for the pencils, but some families might not be so lucky.

    We live in the poorest county in Ontario, with very few opportunities for a really good wage.

    Enjoy your tax breaks. Have fun spending more of your “hard earned wages” on your own pursuits.

    Perhaps the kid who didn’t have a pencil (or a sandwich) will remember you when you ask him to wipe your ass in the old age home.

    Then again, with all the tax cuts, there might not be toilet paper in the old age homes by then.

  51. James – You betcha. No mean drunks allowed, though.

    G – “We cannot blame and punish them, and must feel obliged to help. But on the other hand, if it requires sufficient pain to motivate people to endure the pain of hard work (they weigh up two pains and choose the lesser) then it makes no sense to always cushion people from the consequences of indolence – this only guarantees continued indolence.”
    I think it’s true that fate determines a great deal of our lot in life, so we must feel compassion for those born into poverty. I also think it’s true that the right combination of determination and intelligence can alter that fate. And I also think it’s true that attempting to cushion people from pain leads to indolence. There are certainly no easy answers. Sometimes I think it’s like those old National Geographic shows they used to have on TV, where the wildlife photographers would follow the new-born gazelle as it grew and learned and frolicked with the other gazelles. Then one day a pack of lions comes along and eats it. As kids we’d always wonder why the dumb photographers didn’t just chase the lions away. We were so crushed about the brutal death of that poor gazelle. But I guess those wildlife guys knew that sometimes messing with a social structure causes more problems than it solves.

    Friar – I know, eh? He must have a government job.

    Brett – If you only have to buy pencils you’re doing pretty well. We used to get a list several pages long of supplies. And we would always be instructed to buy extra supplies for those kids who couldn’t afford it and/or those whose parents couldn’t be bothered to go shopping for school supplies (many of whom could well afford it)

  52. Something else to consider. It may not necessarily be fate or whatever that puts you, and keeps you, below the poverty line, but I can about guarantee you it’s not entirely on you either. If you throw a dozen applications out in a week and still don’t have a job, at least for that week you’re no better off than the guy across the street who hasn’t worked a day in his life. Granted, eventually, somehow, something’ll click. But in the meantime, you’re scraping together grocery money where you can and waiting on a callback. And the kicker is, when you’re in that situation, you don’t often have the resources to just up and move somewhere where there’s more job activity–in fact, depending on how it is you ended up below the poverty line, you may have been forced to leave an area known for its higher job activity simply because without employment, you couldn’t aford to continue living there. Short version, if you’re poor, you’re poor. How poor and why doesn’t make a whole lot of difference–you’re still poor. And that’s what a lot of folks don’t get.

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