We live in a world where the media can inform us immediately of catastrophic global events, a world where money can be donated instantly through sophisticated banking, and a world where aid can be distributed promptly with modern day transportation. We basically have no excuses – if people are in need, we can help them. So why aren’t we giving more money to charities, especially when we know that we can reduce our own standard of selfish living to save lives. We should be striving for equality among all human beings by maximising happiness and reducing suffering. This is the general consensus on how we should treat other human beings, so why aren’t we doing it?
Imagine you are on your way to work. You are wearing your very best, most expensive business suit, and making great time too. As you stroll through the park, your morning takes an unexpected turn when you spot a small child drowning in a nearby muddy pond. Bystanders callously refuse to intervene, and it seems only your intervention can save the child’s life. Of course, the majority of us would agree that we should save the child from drowning, even at the expense of ruined clothes (a small price to pay to save the life of an innocent child).
Now let us compare this idea to another - a child dying in a distant country. Due to famine, a child is extremely ill and in desperate need of aid. Financial intervention is required in the next few seconds, otherwise the child will undoubtedly starve to death. What could you do? Of course, I don’t need to remind anyone that the latter scenario is an actuality. So why are we not reaching for our pockets? We were prepared to do so much more just a moment ago. Are the two situations not similar?
This example was famously proposed by the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, who believes that we should be striving to act more generously to help our fellow species. So why aren't we doing it? The problem is that the scenario in the park is a very real, sensory encounter, and the other is not. With a real human drowning our natural instinct would be to intervene, without question. In the event of saving a life via a donation is not the same experience. There is no sudden urgency. We cannot witness the child’s life being saved. There may not even be a thank you, whereas with the first incident a parent may praise us for such a vigilant act, we’d be hailed as a hero, appear in the local newspaper, etc. Subconsciously we may be discouraged from acting generously to those who can’t even thank us. Selfish of us to say the least! A common practice for charities is to reward donators with a gift, a cuddly toy, photographs, or even letters from the person who has directly benefited from donation. This gives the donator a sense or feeling that they have done something rewarding.
Charity telethons tend to showcase stories of those living in poverty and how aid has made such a drastic difference to their lives. In 2005, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Kylie Minogue, Justin Timberlake, and several other celebrities made a promotional video for the charity Make Poverty History. Every 3 seconds they each clicked their fingers to symbolise the fact that on each click a child unnecessarily dies as a result of extreme poverty. These are the kind of techniques that are used to help alert people of the seriousness of global poverty and how we can directly help through donation. Although these techniques can be successful, we still on the larger scale refuse contributing.
Perhaps this is due to the people who are suffering – they are far away and culturally different. Our government policies and values in Britain are often different to those in the middle-east or Africa. Therefore it may be difficult to relate and respond to people’s problems accordingly, especially when we are so patriotic. This is why charities such as Children in Need will emphasise strongly that a majority of donations will contribute to children in the UK.
It is also worth noting that it is generally innate to care about one’s own family first. Kin altruism is the evolutionary notion that altruistic behaviour is found generally within kinship. Parents put their children first, we tend to our grandparents needs, elder siblings care for their younger siblings, we look after our parents when they get old, etc. It is in our genes to fend for our own families - charity begins at home. We also have a hierarchy of personal relationships with friends, lovers, and neighbours. We could perhaps even suggest that we care more about those in our town, village, or community (as previously mentioned, we are more inclined to help those on our own doorstep). But it seems we are not yet ready to stretch our altruism to a global level.
The continuation of poverty is also why we might not intervene – saving one life or several lives will not end the problem at large. The child drowning example may demonstrate that once a child is saved from drowning, they will go on to live a happy, healthy life; the inconvenience of ruined clothes is minute. It is unlikely the child will again face such a death defying situation. However, the problem with a child in a third world country is different – the price of our clothes may only feed the mouth of a starving child for a few days. The burden of a child in poverty may be a continuing one – are we to single handily account for the child’s welfare for the rest of its life? We are hardly presented with the full set of facts when contributing aid, whereas saving a child from drowning is a problem we can clearly solve. Therefore perhaps we need to change our way of thinking and focus on eliminating poverty in the long run. Charities such as Oxfam engage in strategies for development and enforce practices which tackle government problems head on in third world countries. So if one does contribute to famine, it is important to distinguish the difference between charities and recognise that some may be politically contributing to the overall reduction of poverty.
So how much money should we be giving? Well, to give too much is to decrease one’s own standard of living and neglect one’s own needs, however selfish those needs may be. For example, if Tom (a fairly affluent businessman who has a nice big house and a BMW) was conformed to a reduced standard of living in order to help others, this may reduce his happiness and well-being. Of course, we all wish that Tom was less selfish. But that’s the point – we are Tom. We all could easily reduce our lifestyle choices and donate to charity – people’s lives are at stake, what could be more important?
Our society is unfortunately a selfish one that is focused on self-interest, financial gain, and wealth. There is undoubtedly a common notion that to be successful in life is to achieve affluence, which in turn enables us to live out a flamboyant lifestyle where materialistic possessions (that are constantly being advertised) are attainable. Giving away our hard earned money to others in far-away places does not conform to the way our society thinks - we do not work towards helping humanity, we work towards self-improvement, self-indulgence, and the best possible life for us.
It is simply the way our capitalised, westernised society has nurtured us and we are a long way away from changing. Indeed, I agree change is needed, but the idea of helping others and achieving equality is a long way down our to-do list, and our society just wouldn’t be the society it is today if we thought differently. I can only suggest we take on board the discrepancies I have mentioned, think about those who are less fortunate, and act generously towards those charities who are pushing the boundaries on ending poverty once and for all.