Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Charity Begins At Home?

Simon Heffer is an odious man with unpleasant beliefs (pro-death penalty, pro-section 28, anti-abortion and divorce), the sort of person who drains me of hope for humanity in general and this society in particular. Yet in his controversial attack on the government’s decision to ringfence the aid budget, Heffer surpassed himself, managing to dispirit me twice in four words: “charity begins at home”. The obvious sentiment behind that statement, the parochial idea that British people come first, is depressing enough. The insidious notion that foreign aid is “charity” – that it is not fulfilment of a moral obligation, but an act of superegoratory benevolence, above and beyond the call of duty, compounds the effect.
The idea that charity begins at home is often alluded to, but rarely examined or defended. It is far from obvious what it means and why it should be the case. I can think of three interpretations and justifications of starting our charity at home. The simplest, and most compelling way to take the idea is as an exhortation to be consistent in our dealings with all people near or far. I imagine this as a rebuke to the absent-minded and insensitive philanthropist, who cares deeply for the plight of strangers, but who is unpleasant or cruel in their dealings with those around them: for instance, someone who gives lots of money to charity, but who bullies their family or colleagues. Telling them that charity begins at home is a way of reminding them that the people they see on a day-to-day basis are humans worthy of the same consideration as those that they seek to help.
A second reason why charity begins at home is because of our greater ability to help those we know best. Not only is it easier for me to help my brother than a stranger, I am more likely to be successful in helping him. There are a number of reasons for this, including opportunity (I see my brother more than I see most strangers) and specific knowledge (I know better what he wants, needs and likes). Indeed, the extension of this logic suggests that this sort of moral man-marking, with all looking out for those immediately around them is the solution to many ethical problems (see Frank Jackson for a statement of such reasoning).
Thirdly, some people think charity should begin at home because it is natural and desirable that we should give greater consideration to some people than others. We should be nicer, more generous and have stronger moral obligations to our family or our countrymen simply because they are our family or our countrymen. This is not an argument I have any sympathy for, but to go into further detail would draw us into a deep and strongly contested debate I do not wish to visit here. Suffice to say, I have yet to come across an argument to shake me from my presumption that all humans are morally equivalent.

It may seem as though I am ducking the issue: surely Heffer’s key point is that Britain ought to look after its own in these troubled times, and that is precisely the issue I am refusing to dispute. But even if we concede all three of these interpretations of the idea that charity begins at home, it still does not mean that Britain has no moral obligations to the rest of the world. For even if charity begins at home, there is no reason for it to end there.
The first version of charity begins at home is satisfied merely if we give all humans equal consideration: this clearly does not support the preferential treatment for Britons that Heffer seeks. The second version only supports Heffer if the British government can do more good in Britain than abroad. But the fact of the matter is that the most dire need and the most easily alleviated suffering on the planet is to be found far away from Britain. Heffer’s supposed concern for the vulnerability of the worst-off in British society at this trying time is laudable, but let’s get a sense of perspective: a person on jobseeker’s allowance is still within the richest 20% of humanity. (For a sense of perspective as humbling as the Total Perspective Vortex see this)
So much for the first two versions of the charity begins at home thesis, but what of the third, that it is legitimate to look out for our countrymen above others? Again, the principle needs clearing up. If it is taken to mean that we should care only for our countrymen and care nothing for foreigners, then Heffer is vindicated. Yet this appears to be too callous even for Heffer, who accepts that emergency aid for natural disasters is legitimate, and so betrays some concern for others.

This implies that the needs of Britons can be traded off against foreigners. I presume that Heffer believes that if natural disasters of equal magnitude hit Britain and, say, Kenya at the same time, it would be inappropriate to divert resources from the British relief effort to the Kenyan one. But presumably if the UK government had a choice between buying all its citizens Ferraris and aiding Kenyans, it should do the latter. This suggests there is a point, somewhere, where the good that can be done abroad is so much greater than the good that can be done domestically as to legitimate aid. Heffer clearly thinks Britain has not reached that point. I would disagree, and I find it hard to conceive how anyone that has seen the global income distribution can fail to disagree with Heffer.
Next to this, my objection to Heffer’s reference to charity might seem like a semantic quibble. However, it is indicative of a deeper problem regarding the framing of the question of foreign aid. I do not object to the concept of ‘charity’ – in its original sense, it is entirely positive, representing consideration and care towards others. However, in its modern sense, charity has come to represent supererogatory action: good but not required, ‘beyond the call of duty’. That this is Heffer’s meaning is clear from his branding of DFID as a “£7 billion luxury”.

Clement Attlee accurately summarised the problem of seeing redistribution of wealth as charity: “it tends to make the charitable think that he has done his duty by giving away some trifling sum, his conscience is put to sleep and he takes no trouble to consider the social problem any further”. The relationship between the global rich and the global poor is akin to that of the rich and poor in early twentieth century Britain. The rich feel precious little responsibility towards the poor, who expect, at best, handouts dependent on capricious goodwill.

The solution then was the Welfare state. I have no idea what the global equivalent is. However, there are a few key features of our domestic relationships that need to be carried over onto the global stage. The rich must begin to see aid to the poor as a moral imperative, not as an optional extra for ethical brownie points. The poor must be seen to have entitlements, which it is the responsibility of the rich to fulfil.

Unfortunately, that seems a long way off, and Heffer’s mode of thinking still dominates. But the only way to move forward is to challenge it at every turn.

1 comment:

  1. An honorable cause, giving back to the community. Please make more events that have the same purpose as this one.
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