Half a loaf

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19 January 2012

The conviction is widespread that people who profess to have concern for the condition of the poor should – they too – keep their coal in the bath.

Unless these “do-gooders” live their own lives at the minimum level of subsistence, it is claimed, they have no business preaching about the need to alleviate poverty.

It is true that money spent on anything above basic necessities could be used, alternatively, to alleviate the plight of the less well-off.

But are we supposed to believe then that because we are not all fashioned from the stuff of saints we must resign ourselves to being out-and-out sinners?

Those who give up everything to aid the poor, as did St Francis of Assisi, are indeed admirable. But does that mean that those who give up something but not everything are brazen hypocrites? Surely, it is better to do something than to do nothing?

Aristotle coined the world entelechy to mean the complete realization or expression of a potential.

If  one applies this to human development, it can be considered as the duty of each individual to realise their potential. In other words, we have the duty to develop our own potential and this duty must be balanced against what duties we have towards others.

If one accepts this argument, then it goes some way to justify to the view that one is not obliged to sacrifice one’s personal interests entirely to the interests of others. Charity, on this basis, begins at home.

Those who condemn “do-gooders” as hypocrites, would they prefer that they did nothing at all? Logically, the disadvantaged benefit from some help, however, limited, even if they would benefit more from more help.

It seems to us that the distinguishing mark of a civilized human being is a wish to share the benefits of existence with others. Even if one does not do this perfectly, that is no reason for doing nothing at all.

In many countries, philanthropists gain tax advantages. So what? If their philanthropy benefits those who are not so fortunate in life, then good has been done. The tax advantages are irrelevant.

Another criticism of “do-gooders” is that they only do good to salve their consciences – consciences guilty because of the consciousness of relative advantage in life. Again, so what? If good is done, it is good done. If to help others salves people’s consciences, where is the harm?

A question that often arises in this time of galloping widespread poverty is whether one should give alms to beggars.

There are people on both right and left who are vehemently against this.

Some people on the right believe that people who are poor have necessarily become so through their own fault. To give alms to such persons, they believe, would be “morally reprehensible” (sic). It would be rewarding the culpable for vice. Let them starve. They deserve it.

We make no comment.

Those on the left  tend to believe that the state should ensure that everyone is provided with life’s necessities.  Some of those on the left deduce from this that it is wrong to give money to beggars. From this viewpoint, charity usurps the role of the state. By refusing to give anything to beggars, you are encouraging them to rise up and demand from the state what is theirs of right.

The latter view, it seems to us, is both extremely harsh and a tad unrealistic. Is it likely that that tattered broken-down disease-ridden hulk in front of you will rise up and demand their due of the state as a result of your “principled” refusal to hand over a few coppers?

And so what if the poor wretches spend their baksheesh on drink or drugs? Are they not as much entitled as anyone else to a few moments of fleeting pleasure?

Methinks our Christian friends will hardly object if we atheists conclude with a citation from the Scriptures, so let us reflect on this text from the First Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians (Chapter 13, Verse 1) in the Gove version of the New Testament: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”

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