Giving and Gaining: Thoughts on Charity in Light of Japan’s Disaster

From being asked to spare some change, to major disasters like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, we often face the question: should we give to charity? If so, to whom and how much?

For many, the answer to the first is treated as self-evident: of course we should give. As to whom we should give, many claim that we are obligated to lend our money, time and effort in whatever way we can to whomever needs it most. For example, responding to the outpouring of aid that has gone to help Japan recover, many call for us not to “lose sight of Haiti.”

After being hit by an earthquake more than a year ago, Haiti is still in shambles. Some claim that we are even more obligated to help Haiti than Japan because Haiti is much poorer and less able to recover on its own. A similar argument is frequently made in more familiar contexts. By the same standard, it is better to give our money to the homeless than to lend a friend money to buy a suit for his new job; or better to help in a soup kitchen than to help a friend build his backyard deck. And we have all heard that it is immoral to supplement our wardrobe with the latest designer clothes while “people are starving in Africa.”

Of course, whatever help we choose to give comes at a price: our limited time and resources. What would it mean to give aid based solely on need? Giving to Haiti because they are poor means that time and money will not go to aid Japan. Every dollar given to charity is one less dollar for you to spend, and every minute served in a soup kitchen is one minute that you can’t spend with your friends or pursuing your career.

Notice that a morality in which need is the standard gives short shrift to one’s own values and desires. In other words, it declares that one must sacrifice, to give up something important and gain little or nothing in return. This idea that needs impose obligations ends up pitting oneself against the need of one’s beneficiaries. Philosopher Ayn Rand illustrates the conflict this creates:

The first thing he learns is that morality is his enemy: he has nothing to gain from it, he can only lose; self-inflicted loss, self-inflicted pain and the gray, debilitating pall of an incomprehensible duty is all that he can expect. He may hope that others might occasionally sacrifice themselves for his benefit, as he grudgingly sacrifices himself for theirs, but he knows that the relationship will bring mutual resentment, not pleasure-and that, morally, their pursuit of values will be like an exchange of unwanted, unchosen Christmas presents, which neither is morally permitted to buy for himself.

But there is an alternative to sacrifice, an approach that questions the supposedly “self-evident” obligation to give. Instead of disregarding our own goals and needs and considering the needs of others, any giving we do ought to be determined on the basis of our values, i.e. the things personally important to us.

Consider this in everyday practice. We might give money to a newly-married friend as a wedding present, or patronize a struggling restaurant that has excellent service. We may volunteer our time to help a friend build his backyard deck and strengthen our friendship in the process. We might even give an enormous sum to a young inventor we don’t personally know on the premise that his success will improve our lives with innovative products.

And consider the case of Japan again. The Japanese people are of enormous value to many Americans. Just a few examples include the incredible innovations produced by the Japanese in engineering, computer programing, finance and other industries. Thus, Americans’ livelihood and success depends in many ways upon the relationships we share with Japan. And while Japan was a wealthy and productive country before its catastrophe and will continue to be as they recover, many of us have a crucial interest in their expedited recovery.

In such cases, we are serving our interests in helping those whom we value. By contrast, we can only begrudge those who stake a claim on our lives and yet are nothing but strangers to us. Only in self-interested, not self-sacrificial giving can we maintain genuine good will towards our fellow men.

Haiti was barely productive before their earthquake, and has little to no impact to most of our lives. There is nothing inherently wrong with giving to Haitians—there may be ways in which Haiti is valuable to certain Americans. But charity is not morally obligatory. Sacrificing our time and money to non-values would mean neglecting the values we do have. This is what sacrifice really demands of us.

When our values are at stake we ought to give and give generously to safeguard them. But we need to think hard about whether we face one of those situations before giving. Our values and those of our closest friends hang in the balance.

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