October 31, 2008

Give a little bit

We cheat ourselves if we don’t give at least a few cents, wallet permitting, to every beggar we encounter.

[img id="76905" align="alignleft"] “Say NO to panhandling,” screams a website run by the Center City Commission of Memphis. “Say yes to charities that help the homeless and the needy.” In New Haven, CT, a campaign named “Real Change Takes More Than Spare Change” sprung up last year to encourage that city’s residents to give their pennies and nickels to established homeless shelters rather than beggars who may spend their daily harvest not on wholesome meals but on alcohol and other drugs. These efforts to redirect the compassion of well meaning pedestrians are honorable but misguided. Saying yes to charities, but no to panhandling is foolish and wrong.

In a better world, panhandlers would leave us alone and seek help from institutions rather than individuals. And indeed, someone who is prudent as well as generous should set aside the overwhelming majority of his charity budget for official institutions. But true ethics demands that we confront the world as it is, not as we would like it be, and the fact is that panhandlers are out there, imploring us for help. Let’s not kid ourselves: Most of them are frauds, neither homeless nor in dire straits, and, increasingly, many have the audacity to admit as much to passersby yet continue to reel in a fair catch every day. Still, we cheat ourselves if we don’t give at least a few cents, wallet permitting, to every beggar we encounter.

Far more often than not, giving money to a panhandler will increase his short-term pleasure but do nothing to maximize his long-term happiness. But so what? Ethics requires that we consider what matters to us when seeking the good for others; it is in fact a very rare human being who thinks nothing of short-term comfort and everything of future flourishing in his quest for a good life.

Of course, for beggars as for everyone, short-sightedness has profound risks. According to one former panhandler, like many once a drug addict, “Giving money to a panhandler is like giving a gun to someone who is suicidal.” He now resents the people who gave him the money he needed to sustain his soul-numbing addiction.

Understood. On the other hand, that is easy for him to say now that he has improved. Paternalism also carries risks. It is a touch too glib to say to the panhandler, “I won’t give to you now because your future self will be glad that I left you deprived,” just as it is for the child abuser to justify his crimes by telling himself that pain now equals strength and character later. We ought to treat people according to who they are now, not who we would like them to be. Although one hopes that the beggar one gives money to will use it for oranges rather than orange vodka, either one will relieve his pain.

If the argument so far is not entirely convincing, it is because it is ultimately better to teach a man to fish than to hand him a flopping sea creature. Real change does take more than spare change. And yet, sometimes spare change helps. What many panhandlers and especially drug addicts have in common is the belief that society has turned its back on them and that therefore it would be pointless to try to rejoin it. Giving them a cold shoulder when they ask for help can only reinforce this destructive attitude. The number of people who give is thus potentially far more important than the amount that they give.

This is true not only because giving is good for the recipient but because it is beneficial for the giver as well—not just because giving feels good, which it should, but because refusing to give also feels good, which it should not. To refuse to give is to pat oneself on the back and say: I am fundamentally different. My life is in order, and this beggar’s is not. This is a pleasant fiction. So what if he may be an addict? Everyone is addicted to something. Why does blowing hundreds of dollars a year on alcohol count as substance abuse but blowing hundreds of dollars a year on Starbucks coffee does not?

To give to a panhandler, on the other hand, is to identify with him, to say: I am not so very different from this person. It is one thing to think in the abstract about all men being created equal and quite another to physically break down the wall of separation between soul and soul by extending a helping hand. One doesn’t become humble by thinking humble thoughts but by acting in humble ways. Even if giving money to a panhandler isn’t actually good, it’s certainly good practice. As Aristotle, one of humanity’s first great ethicists, wrote, “Moral virtue is formed by habit.” Repeatedly lifting one’s chin and turning one’s back to people who are needy but less than deserving makes it far easier down the road to turn away those who are deserving. Think of the “broken windows” theory: Even trivial wrongs, if they are common enough, can create a climate in which even the gravest become feasible.

Nathan Bloom is a fourth-year in the College majoring in NELC.