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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'