Rebirth of Reason


by Joseph Rowlands

There are two radically different views of altruism that are dominant in the culture. One of them sees helping other people as a form of generosity and charity. The other views it as a form of entitlement of the recipient. These views are incompatible, and have very different moral implications.


The charitable view is more commonly and explicitly accepted. In this view, the money you give to charity belongs to you. You earned it, and you have the right to spend it on whatever you want to. If you choose to give it to the poor, it is indicative of your desire to help others. It is proof of your moral commitment. It reflects well on you because you didn't need to do it. You chose to, and the only explanation for that choice is that you were interested in helping another person.


The entitlement view says that the poor deserve to have more money. In this view, the money or wealth actually belongs to the poor. If you give money to the poor, you aren't being generous. You are giving back what is rightfully theirs. And if you choose not to give it, you are guilty of a grave injustice. It is essentially a form of the theft to keep the money. It belongs to them.


The entitlement view is less common and unnatural to many people. It says that if you give money to help the poor, you don't deserve any credit for it. It wasn't your money in the first place. Returning what doesn't belong to you is not morally virtuous. At best, it cancels out a previous crime. But there's nothing generous about it.


Why does the money belong to them instead of you? You are the one that worked all week at your job. You are the one that trained and educated yourself so you could do the job. You're the one that acts responsibly. So why is it their money?


One possible answer is "social justice". The idea pulls some conclusions from the wider world of justice. If two individuals have acted equally appropriate, it would be unjust to reward one more than the other. If one acted poorly and one acted well, it would be unjust to reward the one who acted poorly. Add to this the idea that society as a whole should treat people by these principle, and the rewards of society are the wealth that it produces, and it becomes clear. 'Society' creates wealth, and should distribute it based on moral worth. If someone is honest, but unproductive, he should be treated the same as someone who is honest and productive. In this case, honesty is the indicator of morality, and productiveness is discarded.


There are problems with this approach, besides the obvious problem of the anthropomorphizing of society. The first one is what kinds of actions or behaviors count in determining whether people are equally moral? If society is treated as a collective, what virtues among individuals matter? It's not clear, except maybe a willingness to sacrifice for "society". And if someone does behave worse than others, it's not clear how much less he deserves.


Another problem with the social justice view is that it would still justify unequal treatment. If the poor actual behave badly, then it would suggest that they don't really deserve the money. If you have to actually earn your money in some way, then it becomes a legitimate question about how it is properly earned.


A different justification for entitlement is the egalitarian ideal. It suggests that all people are members of society, and so should receive an equal share of the wealth created by society. Consequently, if you have more money than someone else and you give it to them, you aren't being charitable. You are only being just.


An interesting question is how an entitlement view of altruism allows for moral expression. If you give to the poor, you are only returning what belongs to them. How would you prove your moral worth? Perhaps you have to give until they have more than you? But this would be incompatible with the justifications. If you gave more, social justice might say that you deserve more, in which case you are create an immoral situation. In the egalitarian view if you give too much you will again create an unjust situation. It's not clear that you can act morally or gain moral credit under the entitlement system. You can be "just", based on that strange view of justice, but you can't ever be altruistic. You can't sacrifice since it isn't yours to sacrifice.


The charitable view of altruism is compatible with proving your moral worth through self-sacrifice. There is no limit to how much you can give, because it will always show your concern for others and it doesn't create an 'unjust' situation. So you can give till you drop.


It has its own problems, though. It suggests that the right thing for you to do is to help others, and it would be wrong not to. But it also tries to hold onto the idea that it is a purely option choice on your part. It rests on the assumption that you have no obligation to give, and yet that it would be wrong not to. How is that possible? How can you be morally obligated to do something while not morally obligated to do something?


The entitlement view is arbitrary, ambiguous, and destructive. It is superior to the charitable view only in its consistency.


There is a different approach to the entitlement view. Instead of trying to justify entitlement, it simply adopts it. The motivation is twofold. First, it removes the stigma associated with receiving charity, with the intention of reaching more people with charity instead of having people refuse it out of principle or dignity. The fact that it creates a permanent dependent class of people is ignored.


The second motivation for the entitlement view is to strengthen the argument for charity. The charitable view tries to accept the premise that it is your money, and you can choose to give it to charity or not. An entitlement view removes the option of keeping the money of yourself. Perhaps it is a recognition of the contradictions in the charitable view, and seeks to eliminate the premise least consistent with the moral goal.



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