Faith & Reason: Utilitarianism has no place in the alms trade

Giving to charity is not meant to be some kind of financial self- flagellation. We need to find ways to make it rewarding to be generous to the poor

ONE OF the few things on which all of the world's major religions agree is that true charity is not only good in itself, it is good for you. The wisdom that has come down to us is that the practical expression of compassion can ennoble both the giver and the given-to. Magnanimity enlarges the spirit.

Yet something appears to have gone wrong. The simple dynamics of the Good Samaritan don't seem to work any more. For one thing, the alms-giver today rarely has any direct encounter with the person he is helping.

The parable of Dives and Lazarus has the poor man sitting at the rich man's gate; but nowadays most of the soliciting is handled by middlemen. Our response to their fund-raising techniques is necessarily a kind of virtual compassion. Victims of hunger or cruelty or disease are presented to us not in person but in carefully chosen images and nicely calculated turns of phrase. We cannot hear them or touch them or speak to them. We will never know them. Indeed, it is not their comfort or healing that our money will pay for, but that of "others like them", who are even less real to us.

Of course, there are beggars on our streets we can meet face to face, but here we are confused. The media tell us they may be bogus - and anyway we know that even the poorest of them is only comparatively so. The absolutely destitute live overseas. Real charity begins abroad.

Clare Short has questioned the way that the media, prompted and assisted by the aid agencies, continue to confront us with pictures of stick-thin children. If their purpose is to provoke us to give more help to the poor, she maintains, they are in the long run defeating themselves: these images only encourage the belief that the people of the Third World are perennial failures and victims, which is not only untrue but damaging to their cause.

She could have said more. The harrowing scenes we are shown both exploit and obstruct our natural emotional reflexes. It is like hearing terrible screams from the house next door and being asked, "Would you like to help prevent domestic violence?" Of course we say yes, but there is no catharsis in it. Some might say that charitable ends justify such means. So what if it hurts the rich when you pull at their heart-strings? They will survive; the poor may not. But - if the practical outcome is all that matters - compassion that finds no satisfaction in giving is likely to become bitter and mean. Frustration is not good for the heart.

There is a second problem. The contraction of the world to a global village is overwhelming us with its suffering. When Jesus said that everyone is my neighbour, was he thinking of 5.5 billion people? Once, it was not impossible for a rich man to attend to the worst distress of the poor he encountered. The source of the "compassion fatigue" people experience today is not so much the frequency of the demands that are made on our wallets as the fact that they can never actually be met.

However much money I give to relieve hunger in Sudan, it will make no discernible difference. The awful images will continue to plead with me from my television screen, as if I had done nothing at all. In fact, the more one gives to some agencies the more likely they are to come back. Sooner or later I will have to steel myself to say no. Somehow, the whole business of charity seems to lead inexorably to a hardening of the heart.

There is a third consideration which may seem to contradict the last. The disparity between the rich and the poor is far, far greater now than it has ever been. In the past, the sacrifice the one had to make to relieve the suffering of the other was usually not inconsiderable. Today, by contrast, the differential is so huge that even a small amount of our money can do a great deal of good. Every pounds 10 I can spare, a mailshot tells me, could save someone's sight.

How can I refuse? The teeth on the ratchet of charity are set so close together that there is no point at which I can say with a clear conscience, "I have done all I can." Every time I buy myself a CD, I am more or less condemning someone to blindness.

Are the middlemen at fault? Much of their work is impeccably moral, as long as one's morality is utilitarian. They do their utmost to alleviate as much suffering as possible, and to that end extract as much money from us as they can without causing us real distress. If the easiest way to prise open our wallets is to make us feel guilty, they do so; and if we can never put our consciences at rest, that is not their concern. If their efforts to touch our hearts in the end only harden them, they'll find a more shocking image.

But it is not just the material consequences of our giving that matter but the spiritual effects, too, on the rich as well as the poor. And we should not be deceived: however our culture may encourage us to envy our neighbours, almost everyone in the West today is, by objective, historical standards, very rich indeed.

Charity should be more than a joyless burden, made heavier by feelings of impotence, guilt and frustration. This is an issue that agencies that are inspired by something more than utilitarian ethics need to think about. Of course, it will require some expenditure of time, and time costs money. Perhaps they could launch an appeal.

Huw Spanner is Editor of the monthly magazine `Third Way'

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness