It's been almost a decade since my evil twin Ricardo last posted on this blog. I invite him back today to share a horribly misguided speech that he recently gave as part of a debate in St Andrews on the topic 'Charity begins at home'. (They needed someone to defend that awful claim, and I wasn't entirely comfortable about it myself, so sent along my evil twin to do the job. Here's what he came up with...)
Charity begins at home… but that’s not to say it ends there!
So let me begin by clarifying what is and is not at stake in this debate. It’s common ground that we should do more to help others (and the global poor in particular).
Our core thesis is just that we should not focus exclusively on the global poor, neglecting significant needs closer to home.
To establish this thesis, consider the following scenario: Upon learning that the Against Malaria Foundation can save a life for around £2000, you go to the bank and withdraw £4000, intending to save two lives with it. But on the way to the post office, you come across a young child drowning in a shallow pond. You are the only person around, and her only chance at survival is if you jump in immediately to rescue her -- ruining the money in your pocket. What should you do?
Obviously, you should save the child. This remains true even though the alternative -- were you willing to watch her drown in order to keep your money safe -- would have led to your later saving two lives instead. The rule of rescue bars us from making such tradeoffs. When we see great needs, right before our eyes, we morally must act. We can’t just sit back and coldly calculate for the greater good. If you share this moral judgment, then you, too, agree that charity begins at home. We cannot neglect the needs around us for the sake of some distant greater good.
What is the explanation for this? One way to get at this is to ask where one goes wrong in acting otherwise. Suppose your neighbour would watch the child drown, for the greater good. What would you think of this, and why? Well, most naturally, I think you would worry that your neighbour is a disturbingly callous person. What sort of person can just sit by and watch as a young child drowns right before his eyes? He would seem a kind of moral monster. If his reason is that he wants to save two lives instead, then that adds a complication. He isn’t obviously ill-meaning; he wants to do what’s best. But it’s still monstrous in the sense of being inhuman -- perhaps robotic, in this case, is the better description.
We think that part of what it takes to be a morally decent person, is to be sensitive to the needs and interests of those around you. To be willing to watch a child drown displays a special kind of moral insensitivity, even if it’s done for putatively moral reasons. Such an agent, we feel, fails to be sensitive to human suffering in the right way -- in the emotionally engaged kind of way that we think a properly sympathetic, decent human being, ought to be. Of course there remains a sense in which your robotic neighbour wants to minimize suffering, and that’s certainly a good aim as far as it goes. But one can’t help but feel that your robotic neighbour here is being more moved by math than by sympathy; they have an over-intellectualized concern for humanity in the abstract, but seem troublingly lacking in empathy for the concrete, individual child in front of them.
So -- need it be said -- this concretely misanthropic lover of abstract humanity should not be our moral ideal. To deny, in this way, that charity begins at home; to insist that we must watch a child drown before our eyes if the greater good calls for it, is a morality for robots, not for human beings.
Another way to get at this idea is to ask yourself: Don’t you think there’s moral value to empathy? To spontaneous expressions of love and concern for one’s fellow human beings? Would you wish to live in a world where such feelings had to be suppressed in favour of cold calculation? That you mustn’t reach out to the person in need beside you, if you could instead have served a greater good far away?
Again, to deny that charity begins at home is implicitly to advocate for a soulless -- if chillingly efficient -- society, where spontaneous caring and affection is frowned upon as a distraction from the greater good. Where your role, as a moral agent, is nothing more than to be a well-oiled cog in a utility-maximizing machine. To be the sort of inhuman machine part -- or moral robot -- who could watch a child drown before your eyes if the math called for it.
We argue that such a chillingly impersonal and inhuman approach to morality must be rejected. Morality stems from empathy, and empathy engages us -- in the first instance -- with our immediate surroundings. Charity begins at home. It’s common sense. Look after your friends; look after your family; support those in need in your local community. Rescue that poor drowning child. You’ve got to start there. You can’t ignore this stuff. But don’t stop there, either. By all means, expand your circle of concern to also help those in the most desperately poor regions of the world. We’re not opposing that at all.
All we’re opposing is the sort of moral extremism that tells you that philanthropy must be 100% efficient, and that your home -- your friends, your family -- are nothing special; that the needs all around you, that most easily engage your natural human sympathy, are nothing special; that the child drowning before your eyes is nothing special.
We argue, by contrast, that morality must contain at least some room for these special relationships to matter. It makes a difference if it’s your friends and family on the line. It makes a difference if you would have to suppress your empathetic impulses -- the very basis for moral behaviour in the first place! -- in order to serve the greater good. And so it makes a difference if the drowning child is right before your eyes. Don’t neglect those that are far away -- of course! But use your common sense. Charity begins at home.
[Feel free to leave a comment diagnosing Ricardo's mistakes!]