Every once in a while, I do something rash. I do something so reckless and unpredictable that I even frighten myself. This has recently happened again: I just got Twitter. Oh my, how could you, Jeff?
Well, despite my objections to the watering down of human communication to 140 characters, I was finally worn down and persuaded by a number of people mentioning the cool things happening on it. I decided that I’d set up an account primarily just to “follow” a few people that I had heard about, but I can already pretty much tell that I’m going to be addicted to this thing forever. Well, maybe not addicted. But I have so many random thoughts that come to me throughout the day, and Twitter is pretty much the perfect medium to tell other people about those thoughts. I suppose that most of these thoughts are ones that no one else in the entire world really cares about, but still – they are mildly amusing at times and need to be shared. So, at least for the near future, it appears that I am “on Twitter”. So, any person who actually reads my blog should head over there and follow me, and then I will be happy because the number will go up by one, making me seem like less of a loser.
I’ve also put links to it on the side of my blog, along with my independent music project called Aletheia. There’s not much to see (or hear) there, but I have a few of my rough demo tracks from me just playing around a bit. So check it out. There – that’s the only advertising for these things that I will ever do on this blog. I will only be a shameless advertiser once per website.
Anyway, with that said, I want to talk about charity for a minute. I’ve been thinking about this a little bit lately, and it’s been bothering me. Often, when I am walking to the bus to go to class, there are people standing on the corner of the main intersection that I go by. Some days, the people have red vests on, working for the Red Cross. Other times, the vests are green, with the people working for Greenpeace. There have been others as well, but these are the main ones. They stand out there and talk to anyone going by, asking them if they “have a minute.” Usually I try to avoid them, but sometimes I get trapped and end up having to lie and say “no I don’t”, then proceed to walk 30 feet and stand at a bus stop.
Now, I have nothing against these charities, or against charitable organizations in general. I donate to a couple regularly, and if I weren’t a poor, starving student, I’d donate to more. I’ve been the co-chair of “Community Contributions” for the residence I lived in, and we spent lots of time and effort coming up with creative fundraisers. So don’t get me wrong here – I heartily recommend that everyone donate to charities. What I don’t like are the methods. We live in a charity generation; Charity Navigator (a great site, by the way) lists over 5,500 charitable organizations in the United States alone. We have advertisements from World Vision and the World Wildlife Fund on TV regularly. North Americans donate billions of dollars to charity each year. And that’s all well and good. But let’s take a step back here for a second.
When I attempt to avoid the charity goons on the street corner, what happens? I feel a little guilty for avoiding them. The same thing happens for the people that actually talk to them. When they’ve listened to the person’s pitch, they feel like they need to give something back, since they’ve just spent this person’s time, right? Or what about those ads on television? The pictures of sad African children with distended bellies and flies buzzing around them make us feel guilty, as we view their morose faces on our crystal clear HDTV. Somehow the juxtaposition between the child sitting in the dust and us sitting on our couches makes us feel guilty.
And we should feel guilty when faced with these scenes. But what am I trying to get at here? These charities are relying on emotional appeals to get our money from us. They try to get us to feel bad about ourselves so that we’ll reach into our wallet and pull out a few dollars. They do this instead of appealing to our rational mind. For instance, they could say, “These people are human beings and deserve to have the basic necessities of life. Moreover, their rights to these necessities come prior to your right to enjoy luxury goods. Therefore, the ethical course of action is to distribute your wealth to them in order to save their lives, before spending money on unnecessary, trivial items.” Of course, this probably wouldn’t generate as much money, and charities know this, so they don’t use this method. Instead, they bypass it and show pictures of sad children. (Here’s a hint for you: Children in Africa do not spend all day sitting in heaps of trash crying. They run and play like other children. Yes, they need your money, but not because it will make them happy – rather, because it will keep them alive.)
Now, of course, there’s nothing wrong with emotions. It’s perfectly human to experience emotions. And I’m not saying that we should ignore our empathy for others. It’s a powerful motivation to correct the mistreatment of others. But my problem is that these emotional appeals are not appealing to empathy – they’re appealing to guilt. And guilt makes us motivated to relieve ourselves from our guilt. So, these charities say, “Hey, look at these sad children – don’t you feel guilty about this? Here’s how to fix things so you don’t feel guilty anymore.” Giving a few dollars to charity becomes not a way to help the plight of others, but rather a way to satisfy our own selfish desire to feel good. It suddenly isn’t about the people in need anymore at all. It’s all about us. So when we are reminded about our guilt, we reach into our pockets and give money as a payment for relief from that guilt. Transaction complete, and then we can enjoy our purchase of ease of mind for a while until the next time we feel guilty again.
This is a sad, sorry state of affairs. I don’t completely fault the charities. Their goals is to raise money to help people, and any method short of robbing people to get money has a worthy end product. The fact that North American culture has developed a continent full of selfish, wealthy pigs is not their fault. They simply use the methods that work on the individuals who have the cash. But it certainly is sad that we seem content to let these methods work on us. I suppose we operate on guilt so often that it seems an easy solution to simply throw money at the problem. If only all our guilt trips could be relieved so well! So we allow charitable organizations to flash terrible pictures at us and then we pull money out of our wallet to make us feel better.
The fact is that there are real, rational reasons to help the poor. A recognition of others as autonomous moral agents that deserve respect and dignity is the hallmark of a healthy society. A society that is content to reduce these beings to guilt-producing and guilt-reducing mechanisms should be diagnosed with serious illness. If we understand – truly understand! – that there are people out there whom we will never meet, yet nevertheless deserve to be treated with dignity, then our attitude changes. When we realize that the basic necessities of others must come before the useless junk that will be outdated in six months anyway, then it is reasonable and indeed obligatory of us to give what we can (understanding that we are only part of a larger, broader solution) to fix the huge, glaring discrepancy. Heck, when Joe Schmoe realizes that the world doesn’t revolve around him and his iPhone, that’s progress. The point is that when we make decisions based on nothing but emotion and impulse (whether guilt or otherwise), we rob our own intellect of the ability to make wise decisions, and we treat others as simply objects to make ourselves feel good. While on the surface, a guilt-reducing choice may provide positive benefit, the negative toll on society as a whole looms large.
This is why I advocate a reasonable examination of moral choices. This is why I am disappointed that rational discourse on ethics and moral obligations remains non-existent (outside of perhaps some philosophy journals). These discussions need to be taking place on a popular level within society. When I ask what someone’s ethical views are, I want an enthusiastic explanation, I don’t want to get blank stares. Such a change is critical if our society is to make meaningful progress (and no, economic progress really doesn’t count) and create a more just world. But hey – I’ll try not to make you feel guilty about it.