I concluded my recent refutation of Peter Singer’s “Good Charity/Bad Charity” with the assertion “I believe that altruists don’t choose between, they choose both.” A subsequent experience seemingly refutes but then supports that statement. A friend, not a particularly close friend, fell on some hard times, some of his own doing, and some out of his control. Evicted, his belongings stolen from a vehicle on the street, he had nothing: no money, no place to stay, and eventually no food. I learned of these problems second-hand over the course of two months. He wanted to travel to another region where he had family who could support him while he gets back on his feet. Eventually connecting directly, I offered to buy him food to last the week and a plane ticket for the end of that week.
This was a friend in desperate need. I didn’t think about it, I didn’t rationalize it, and I certainly didn’t think about the opportunity costs – at least not until I was standing with him in a grocery store parking lot with four bags of groceries and a receipt from the airline. Then, my rational thinking kicked in and I considered what I wouldn’t be able to do because I had done what some might call a “good deed” (or what I explained to my own family as the enactment of Jewish ethics). My list of things I wouldn’t be able to do included: buy a plane ticket for myself to go see my own extended family, register my son for an extra-curricular educational opportunity, or give to the theatre companies I usually support annually with small gifts, the combined size of which just about equals the money I had spent helping a friend. That’s when it hit me: without realizing it, I may have made an intuitive “either/or” decision — the very kind of either/or decision I argued it was not necessary to make. Instead of basking in the warm glow of charitable giving, I felt the heated charge of hypocrisy. Hence, the refutation. But, my rational side saved me (for now) from being overwhelmed by guilt. I am but one person, one of the ten thousand donors I referenced in the earlier post. In the aggregate, that group can give to both, both the charity that will save a life (even if it’s the life of one individual friend) and the charity that will enrich the lives of many.
[Thomas Gainsborough: Charity relieving Distress]