Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Ethics of Charity

Lewis Carroll, from the virtually unreadable Sylvie and Bruno;
Arthur continued, “When we come to consider the divine law, then measured by that standard, a man is undoubtedly doing wrong, if he fails to use, for the good of those in need, the strength or the skill, that God has given him. That strength and skill do not belong to the community, to be paid to them as a debt: they do not belong to the man himself, to be used for his own enjoyment: they do belong to God, to be used according to His will; and we are not left in doubt as to what this will is. ‘Do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again.’ “

“Anyhow,” I said, “an ‘idle mouth’ very often gives away a great deal in charity.”

“In so-called ’charity’,” he corrected me. “Excuse me if I seem to speak uncharitably. I would not dream of applying the term to any individual. But I would say, generally, that a man who gratifies every fancy that occurs to him-- denying himself in nothing--and merely gives to the poor some part, or even all, of his superfluous wealth, is only deceiving himself if he calls it charity.”

“But, even in giving away superfluous wealth, he may be denying himself the miser’s pleasure in hoarding?”

“I grant you that, gladly,” said Arthur. “Given that he has that morbid craving, he is doing a good deed in restraining it.”

“But, even in spending on himself”, I persisted, “our typical rich man often does good, by employing people who would otherwise be out of work: and that is often better than pauperizing them by giving the money. "

“I’m glad you’ve said that!” said Arthur. “I would not like to quit the subject without exposing the two fallacies of that statement--which have gone so long uncontradicted that Society now accepts it as an axiom!”

“What are they?” I said. “I don’t even see one, myself.”

“One is merely the fallacy of ambiguity--the assumption that ’doing good’ (that is, benefiting somebody) is necessarily a good thing to do (that is, a right thing). The other is the assumption that, if one of two specified acts is better than another, it is necessarily a good act in itself. I should like to call this the fallacy of comparison--meaning that it assumes that what is comparatively good is therefore positively good.”

“Then what is your test of a good act?”

“That it shall be our best,” Arthur confidently replied. “And even then ‘we are ‘unprofitable servants’. But let me illustrate the two fallacies. Nothing illustrates a fallacy so well as an extreme case, which fairly comes under it. Suppose I find two children drowning in a pond. I rush in, and save one of the children, and then walk away, leaving the other to drown. Clearly I have ’done good’, in saving a child’s life? But--Again, supposing I meet an inoffensive stranger, and knock him down and walk on. Clearly that is ’better’ than if I had proceeded to jump upon him and break his ribs? But--”

“Those ‘buts’ are quite unanswerable,” I said. “But I should like an instance from real life.”

“Well, let us take one of those abominations of modern Society, a Charity-Bazaar. It’s an interesting question to think out--how much of the money, that reaches the object in view, is genuine charity; and whether even that is spent in the best way. But the subject needs regular classification, and analysis, to understand it properly.”

“I should be glad to have it analysed,” I said: “it has often puzzled me.”

“Well, if I am really not boring you. Let us suppose our Charity-Bazaar to have been organized to aid the funds of some Hospital: and that A, B, C give their services in making articles to sell, and in acting as salesmen, while X, Y, Z buy the articles, and the money so paid goes to the Hospital.

“There are two distinct species of such Bazaars: one, where the payment exacted is merely the market-value of the goods supplied, that is, exactly what you would have to pay at a shop: the other, where fancy-prices are asked. We must take these separately.

“First, the ‘market-value’ case. Here A, B, C are exactly in the same position as ordinary shopkeepers; the only difference being that they give the proceeds to the Hospital. Practically, they are giving their skilled labour for the benefit of the Hospital. This seems to me to be genuine charity. And I don’t see how they could use it better. But X, Y, Z are exactly in the same position as any ordinary purchasers of goods. To talk of ‘charity’ in connection with their share of the business, is sheer nonsense. Yet they are very likely to do so.

“Secondly, the case of ‘fancy-prices’. Here I think the simplest plan is to divide the payment into two parts, the ‘market-value’ and the excess over that. The ‘market-value’ part is on the same footing as in the first case: the excess is all we have to consider. Well, A, B, C do not earn it; so we may put them out of the question: it is a gift, from X, Y, Z, to the Hospital. And my opinion is that it is not given in the best way: far better buy what they choose to buy, and give what they choose to give, as two separate transactions: then there is some chance that their motive in giving may be real charity, instead of a mixed motive--half charity, half self-pleasing. ‘The trail of the serpent is over it all.’ And therefore it is that I hold all such spurious ‘Charities’ in utter abomination!” He ended with unusual energy, and savagely beheaded, with his stick, a tall thistle at the road-side

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