It is morally bankrupt to give less than you can

Gregory Lewis 26 October 2009

Suppose one morning you wake to find a starving child by your door. For the cost of a few pounds, and perhaps a missed appointment, you could avert this child’s imminent demise.

To ignore them and go on with the rest of your day would be monstrous.

This verdict doesn’t change if the cost is a couple of hundred or even a few thousand pounds. So long as you have that money to spare, the child’s need obviously trumps yours.

The differences between the child on your doorstep and the one on your television are non-existent. In either instance, a minor contribution on your part could save someone’s life.

By giving several hundred pounds to a charity like Oxfam or UNICEF, you can ensure that children who would otherwise die in infancy survive into adulthood. Yet, when the urgent appeal or news of the latest catastrophe reaches us, most give nothing, and those that do, give far less than they could.

The received opinion is that although it would be good to give generously, it isn’t that bad to give little or nothing at all. Really, however, giving less than one can spare is horribly wrong.

Perhaps we are focusing on the wrong aspects of life. Fast cars, big houses and exotic holidays are not justifiable. Even time and money spent cultivating interests in the arts are, perhaps, better spent elsewhere.

Yet virtue need not be vapid – the people who do give greatly of themselves for others seldom lead dull lives.

They are far more interesting, I’d wager, than that of a well-paid but otherwise anonymous functionary of the British service industry – even one who dabbles in ennui and Dostoevsky.

Can we be confident that philanthropy works?

 Yes. Many charities take their governance seriously, and emphasise both transparency and accountability about how they use their money (especially when compared to your average bank or hedge-fund.)

A conservative estimate for how much money you need to give to UNICEF to prevent a child dying before the age of five is two hundred dollars.

 By giving away your surplus income, you can be confident that you are saving many lives.

We should take care that our aid is actually helping but it would take the spawn of an ideological love-in between Ayn Rand and Margaret Thatcher to seriously contemplate that disaster relief, childhood immunisation and Oral Rehydration Therapy are worse than doing nothing whatsoever.

Even if we restrict ourselves to just these causes (ignoring, I guess, the success of social programmes in reducing death and affliction since the Poor Law) there is still plenty of desperate need for all of your spare money.

Philanthropy is not a moral virtue but rather a moral obligation.

It is a pre-requisite for being a good person. Students can excuse themselves as they have little money of their own.

Yet most anticipate getting good jobs, and being paid far more than they require to ensure a modest standard of living for themselves and their families, and barely anyone intends to give the rest away.

 I hope people are broadly good, so I suspect they are led astray: they aren’t intimately acquainted with those in great need, and that everyone else behaves in a similar way provides a heady mix of diffusion of responsibility and mutual appeasement.

 Understandable, but not excusable. With barely any reflection, it is clear that it is not just unacceptable but obscene that we can spend a couple of hundred pounds each for a night’s entertainment in May Week whilst other human beings die for want of a twenty pence sachet of Oral Rehydration Salts, or we surround ourselves with superfluous trinkets whilst others struggle for safe drinking water.

We can do better than moral myopia.

Gregory Lewis