In “Is It Wrong Not to Help? Part I,” from Psychology Today, Professor Peter Singer has this interesting chain of logic:
- First premise: Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.
- Second premise: If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.
- Third premise: By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.
- Conclusion: Therefore if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong.
He continues the thought in his next entry, “Is It Wrong Not to Help? Part 2,” if you’re interested, but his logic, as presented at the end of the first in the series and as printed in Psychology Today, is what interested me.
My conclusion is that it’s wrong, but not very, and not enough to conclude that it’s “wrong” to not donate to aid agencies. There are simply too many diffusing elements. Consider:
- Which aid agency? If it’s wrong – as compared to right – to donate, should I not consider it wrong to not donate to the agency through which the most aid is offered?
- How much? If it’s wrong for me to enjoy largesse when others are doing without, should I not offer as much as I can, until I’m at a satisfactorily subsistence level myself?
- To whom? If my uncle is hungry, and a child in Africa is hungry, to whom do I offer food? After all, I can give my uncle a sum of money, and he would get all of it; a child in Africa gets a portion of the aid I offer, and that portion may not be enough to satisfy him; further, the administrative costs of the aid through an agency reduce the aid even further.
Whoa, wait – I may have just assigned a relative value to people! That doesn’t mean that the child in Africa is not extraordinarily valuable, but that I value some people over others. Everyone may be equal before the law, but if I’m honest, they’re not equal before me; I’d help my child with a minor problem long before I’d help my idiot neighbor with a major problem. (My other neighbors are great people; it’s the one idiot that can languish until I can, you know, get around to helping her, which will be right after I finish dusting the fans in the house.)
Is assigning a relative value to people wrong? I don’t know. I think it’s pretty natural, though; one cares for one’s children before caring about strangers, and the further the stranger is removed from you geographically, the less he matters to you, especially in comparison to one with much less psychological distance.
If a natural process is wrong, then we’re wired to be wrong; so much for beneficience or, for that matter, survival. I say that it isn’t wrong; it’s how we survive as a freakin’ species.
So back to not donating to aid agencies. Is it wrong? Yes, I can agree that it’s wrong – but it’s not wrong in a way that should assign any individual guilt worth measuring. Vague discomfort, I suppose, because I think one should help if one can – but guilt? No.
Leave that for the people who eat twinkies.
BTW, PT’s tagline is great: “Psychology Today: Health, Help, Happiness + Find a Therapist.” Nice segue, folks.
Author’s note: another repost.