There are a few places around town–on the sidewalks at a busy square I often pass through near my work, and in the middle of the road at certain intersections–where I can count on someone with a cardboard sign describing their troubles asking for monetary assistance. If I happen to have some spare change at hand or a loose dollar or two within reach I’ll usually help out. Why do I do this? My dollar or two isn’t going to do much to help that person out in the long term. Much less is it going to make any difference to the poverty rate in my city or country or the world. So am I really doing it to help that person? To alleviate poverty? Maybe just to avoid guilt if I didn’t give? To show off my generosity to those around me? To feel good about myself?
When it comes down to it, the reason why I give (when I give) is because my faith teaches that it is the right thing to do. King Benjamin, whose words are recorded in the Book of Mormon, teaches this more clearly and specifically than anywhere else I know of in scripture:
“. . . and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.”
But what about the possibility that the man is probably homeless because he’s on drugs, and he’ll probably just use the money to fuel his addiction? By giving him money maybe I’m just perpetuating his incentive to keep begging–let him suffer the consequences of his choices and maybe that will encourage him to change his life? King Benjamin is one step ahead:
“Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just— But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; . . . For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have? . . . And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.”
The way I understand this passage, it doesn’t matter how the person came to be in that position, and it doesn’t really matter how we think our donation might be used–here is someone asking for our help in a very small way, and the right thing to do is help.
That doesn’t change the likelihood that what the person really needs is not my handful of change, or even the burger that I sometimes duck into McDs for to give instead of money. The person might really need a friend, a sponsor, a support network, counseling, medicine, schooling, a place to live. What would truly be charitable would be to find out what is really needed, and give that. I admire people who make just this their life’s work. But barring drastically changing my career path on my way to work, a dollar in the proffered cup is an okay start.
But if the spare change isn’t really going to make a difference, why, then, is scripture so insistent on us giving it anyway? First of all, it does help, a little. Second, maybe just the fact of giving as proof that someone cares makes a difference to that person. But maybe, it’s the right thing to do because of how it affects the giver. Maybe the exercise of suspending judgment, breaking my self-absorbed stride, and showing even the tiniest bit of selflessness, is as much about teaching and changing me as it is about the person I’m giving to.
Does this make even giving to the poor a selfish act? Is this twisting charity into something self-serving, along the lines of a recent read, The Beggars’ Strike? I think the answer is no. Economists like to incorporate altruism into the standard model for self-interested behavior by simply having a person’s “utility function” (or preferences) depend not only on his own consumption, but also on others’. So then when homo economicus is found to be giving money to the poor, he can still be considered to be maximizing his own well-being, it’s just that his own well-being happens to depend on other people as well. So is this just formally confirming that giving charity is selfish after all? Well, perhaps on some level it is, but any selfishness that leads to people doing more to help those in need is a kind I wouldn’t mind seeing more of in the world.