Simon Carr: Shall I have another doughnut - or feed a starving baby? Decisions, decisions...

Virtue isn't its own reward at all. Doing good makes you poignantly aware of how little good you want to do
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The Independent Online

That little hand on the front of the paper this week, the little fingers of the hungry girl - I found them very disturbing, very disturbing indeed. The bulk of it was shame at how little it disturbed me.

Actually, that's not true, I didn't feel ashamed. What was disturbing me profoundly was that I wasn't ashamed. No, hang on, even that's not true. I reproached myself for not being more disturbed at my shamelessness. So there we are. Millions starve, children die, writer chides himself sternly but gently in kitchen.

It's very hard to work out whether one cares about things or not. The evidence is that we don't care about anything much except ourselves and certain parts of our immediate family. That's what the structure of household spending tells us. That's what the annual reports of Tescos and the Woolwich and Krispy Kreme International tells us.

The choice is put to us daily: shall I have a doughnut with industrial kreme and chocolate-style sprinkles? Or shall I have a starving baby fed? Doughnut? Baby? Decisions, decisions. I think it'll be (little fingers, big eyes, shrunken breasts, flies) ... doughnut. To all intents and purposes, it's always the doughnut. There are occasions when the British public opens its heart in an outpouring of emotion and sends off its millions to a photogenic disaster, but generally it's doughnuts. Life must go on.

If we cared, in fact, we'd do something, wouldn't we? There's nothing much we can do about these things, apart from give money. So if we care, why don't we give money? And, just to forestall your response, not the £30 a month that charities ask for, why not half our income? We don't need it, after all, except for cappuccinos, Krispy doughnuts and ever larger houses? If we cared, wouldn't we live modestly and give our surplus to people who really needed it?

The trouble is, giving money doesn't make you feel better, it makes you feel worse. Virtue works like that (it's why it isn't more popular). Look: I was filling out a charity form for the £30 a month and feeling good about it. At last I had a child of my own. It was going to write to me on its birthday and so forth. Thank you letters and crayon pictures. There was a small disclaimer suggesting that the letter might not actually and exactly be from my own personal child that I was caring about, but good manners had been socialised and generalised and I was going to have myself a grateful Third World baby and do my bit.

My pen hovered over the box which denominated the amount of my commitment. The how-much-do-you-care box. And when confronted with it, at the point of demonstrating how much I cared, I realised I don't care very much at all. Thirty pounds worth, in fact. You save a baby, but you could save two.

Oh, go on! Won't you? Please? You won't notice, and if you were feeling really, really nice, you could get a mouthful of milk sent to mama. Just a little mouthful? Just one more little mouthful so she doesn't die tonight?

But if you give in and make it £60 you find yourself on a slippery slope. Why not twice £60? This child has brothers and sisters. They're hungry, they're dying tonight. There's a tribe of them dying tonight, whole countries of them. Do they want looking after as well? Why can't they look after themselves? There's so much food in the world! If you feed one, they'll all start expecting it. No, you won't succumb to this blackmail!

It quickly gets uncomfortable, giving. Virtue isn't its own reward at all. It's the opposite. It carries increasingly heavy penalties. Doing good makes you poignantly aware of how little good you want to do. That's the start of the virtuous circle, and it hurts as it tightens. The more you do, the more you realise you ought to do, the more you realise you haven't done.

If you really cared - emotionally rather than sentimentally - the world would be intolerable. If you actually summoned the concentration to confront the world's pain and suffering - if, that is, you actually cared - you'd be changed for ever. You couldn't live in your nice big house (you could pay to house a whole tribe). You couldn't eat meat (ever been in a slaughterhouse?). You couldn't work in your paper-shuffling office. You'd go and get a degree in engineering and build sewers in the Sudan.

It's the difference between an emotional reaction and a sentimental one. Our reactions to all sorts of disasters - Diana's death, toddlers being kidnapped, school girls being murdered, millions starving to death on television - are essentially sentimental. I speak for myself, if you insist. The sentimental is always a pleasure. To be scandalised, horrified, shocked, appalled - it's a luxury.

But emotional reactions are very different: they change us from the inside. Diana's death didn't change us at all; 11 September 2001 did change us a bit. Millions dying of starvation doesn't change us, the threat of dying in a terrorist explosion - that works on us. Mourning the death of someone we don't know is a sentimental pleasure; visceral fear of an Underground bomb is an emotional reality (depending, of course, on how much we allow ourselves to feel the fear).

Sentiment has its place. It may lead us to consider behaving differently; and as we try it out we may try more of it; if we allow virtue its purchase on our smooth exterior.

The civilising effects of hypocrisy are well known; we act better than we are and we end up being better, when the habit takes hold. But no wonder we take it gently, when virtue leads on to destroy not only our careful psychological constructs but our entire way of life.