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How much should a person give up to help others in need?
This is a question I’ve been thinking about for quite some time. I’ve arrived at a position that seems right to me, but it’s very possible that more thought, time, and discussion may lead me to modify my opinion somehow. I hope you will share your thoughts with me toward that end.
As a starting point, common sense suggests that the answer to the question “How much should a person give up to help others in need?” lies somewhere between “everything” (because then the helper would become in need of help herself) and “nothing” (because making a point of refusing to help people in need would be cruel). Given those parameters, then, where on the spectrum is the best place to be?
For the sake of clarity I ought to define my terms a little better, particularly the term “should”: what is the basis for morality that I am working from? I subscribe to the worldview called humanism, which basically says that this life is the only one we’ve got, so we should try to live it as well (responsibly, healthily, peacefully, compassionately, effectively, and so forth) as we can. So that’s my grounds for morality—in general, things that make life truly better for people (and animals) are good, and things that make life worse for people are bad. (It’s a consequentialist ethic, for those of you who like fancy words. Also, I recommend Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape, in which he explains how science can increasingly tell us what is right and wrong, based on its finding out what is good and bad for the wellbeing of conscious creatures.) I will also go ahead and define a term I’ll be using shortly: “self-interest.” By that, I simply mean concern for one’s own wellbeing.
Back to the question. Let me bring it into sharper focus by bringing back some of those quotes I recently posted from The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck:
“And all their love was thinned with money.”
“For the quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I’, and cuts you off forever from the ‘we.’”
“If you’re in trouble or hurt or need—go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help—the only ones.”
The mindset there, if we take a leap and apply it to modern life, essentially divides the world into two categories of people: those who have what they need, and those who don’t. And it’s saying that those who have what they need are fundamentally corrupted as a result—they feel they must protect what they have to lose, so they are unwilling to go to any trouble or loss to help others in need. Meanwhile, the needy have nothing to lose and understand the pain of desperation, so they are willing to help others in need, like themselves, even though they may not be able to do much to help.
I can see truth in this mindset, though I think it’s an excessively black-and-white way to view things—there are people who have what they need who are nevertheless willing to make sacrifices for those in need who come across their path, and there are people who devote significant portions of their energy and resources to helping charitable organizations.
But let’s assume that this black-and-white construct is true—that those of us who have perfectly adequate food, water, shelter, medical care, safety, security, and more are by default numbed to the suffering of those in desperate need—because I do think this is true to some extent. What then can/should we do about it?
In a wholly rational world, with some sort of fascist world government or other force dictating the rules, it might make sense for there to be a system in place, based on an established hierarchy of needs, that forbids non-needy people the freedom to pursue their own interests until all the needy have been helped and there is no more desperate suffering from lack of basic needs being met. For example, no more new cars and clothes allowed until there are no more chronically hungry people; no more new births allowed until there are no more foster children; no more new books or movies allowed until there are no more shortages of access to medical care, clean water, and secure living conditions.
This sounds good in one sense—that there would be no more unmet needs. In another sense it sounds pretty wretched, because if you take away freedom to pursue self-interest, you take away basic life force (more on this in a moment). It also would not actually work, anyway, because of this very reason: people are going to pursue their self-interests first, no matter what. It’s the famous “tragedy of the commons” problem: even if we all voluntarily got together and agreed to live by those rules, there would still be some who would break them. (And then this would likely lead to violence, which would lead to a lack of safety, which would land us right back in basic-needs territory.)
Self-interest is the basic mechanism of survival for all creatures. When people do not feel free to pursue their own self-interest—whether because they are literally not allowed to by some tyrannical regime like I described above, or because they’ve been trained by their culture to think they don’t matter or that they must deny their own desires for some religious or psychological reason, or because they have become so broken down by suffering and need that they feel there is no hope of fulfilling their own self-interests anyway—then life-force just withers. There is no forward-driving energy, except perhaps a substitute mission such as living for a dependent or to try to help others in need, but even then living is not much more than marking time until death, if not hastening it through the breakdown of mental and thus physical health.
Life works best when self-interest is allowed to be the primary motivator for life. This principle doesn’t guarantee that all needy people, who do not have the means to fulfill their self-interests, will be helped. But it also does not exclude that as a possibility, because while everyone pursues self-interest first, there are people who pursue not just physical self-interest but also true emotional wellbeing and maturity, and these are the people who value compassion, who hold their possessions and lifestyle loosely, and who are willing to inconvenience themselves to help people in need who come across their path.
Maybe it’s true that once they’ve crossed over into the non-needy category, these kind people will not have the same fervor for altruism that they may have had in the needy category. But they also will not go to extremes of materialism and hard-heartedness, because they have higher values. They genuinely want to help people—and that means that helping people is actually in their own self-interest, because it makes them happy. (Most of us include helping our family and friends with pursuing our own self-interest, since their wellbeing is tied up with our own. But the most enlightened among us develop an extended sense of clan.)
Further, I have come to believe that the freedom to pursue one’s own self-interests can lead people from a point of basic selfishness to a place of greater maturity, compassion, and awareness.
For example, in Thomas Moore’s brilliant book Care of the Soul, he describes his psychology with his counseling clients who live in the chains of narcissism and egotism: he doesn’t try to cure them by breaking down their inflated sense of self and insisting on the reality that they aren’t the center of the universe. Instead, he encourages them to explore their egotistic passions as fully as possible, because only by going through the narcissism can people reach a point of more mature enlightenment. And really, this is how most of us grow up (narcissism is basically being a childish adult, after all): we live solely for our own pleasures as children, we launch headfirst into ego-centric follies in our youth, and emerge tempered, wiser, and more aware of others as we age.
Freeing ourselves to be self-centered, then, is the necessary path toward becoming not self-centered (which is also known as maturity). Dogmatic insistence on self-denial and self-suppression serves only to heighten self-centeredness, though it may take on a disguise such as excessive humility or quirky insecurity.
Also, if we are freed from a sense of moral obligation that we ought to be doing more to help people in need, and we believe that we don’t have to help anyone and are free to pursue our own self-interest, then we may feel less defensive and thus more willing to open our eyes and look at the plights of suffering people—and then, we may feel moved to help them out of genuine desire, which means that helping them would then be in our own self-interest, because it would make us feel happy and fulfilled.
I haven’t yet mentioned one obvious point in favor of pursuing self-interest: as I’ve said on this blog many times, when we take care of ourselves, we are better able to take care of others; and it’s because people are free to pursue their own interests that we have modern medicine, funding for thousands of charitable organizations, and so on. I haven’t focused on this point because the issue of capability is secondary to the issue of motivation.
In conclusion, I think that self-interest, a concern for our own wellbeing, must always be the principal motivator in our lives; and that if we truly pursue our inner wellbeing in the sense of full emotional and moral development, we will be more likely to want to help others with whatever resources we can possibly spare.
My short answer to my opening question, then, is that we should give up however much we want to for helping those in need. But my personal emphasis is on becoming the most mature person I can be and hoping I might inspire others toward the same goal.
This is my moral philosophy, at least until I can find a better one. Please, tell me: what do you think of it?