Doing Right, Helping Others

By Paul Adams
Paul Adams
Paul Adams
Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i, and was professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of "Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is," and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.
October 10, 2019Updated: October 16, 2019


There are two aspects to the traditional way we think about helping those in need.

One is that we ought to give of our own time, treasure, and talent, and not rely entirely on the state and the paying of taxes. The other is that we must give for the right reasons.

We err, in this view, by refusing to help others—beyond our own family—who clearly need our help. But we also err by helping them for the wrong reasons. For example, we may do it out of concern for our own reputation, as a kind of personal or corporate public relations exercise. Or we may do it to build our resume for a college application.

Today, both the helping—charitable giving of all kinds—and its motivation are under closer scrutiny than ever.

Charles Dickens, the 19th-century novelist, condemns both the refusal to give and the wrong kind of giving. He was severely critical of those—like his character Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” (1843)—who paid their taxes and thought that this took care of any obligation to give.

But he also warns against “telescopic philanthropy.” That’s the term Dickens applies to one of his most memorable and ridiculous characters, Mrs. Jellyby, in his novel “Bleak House” (1852–53). Mrs. Jellyby throws all her efforts into advocating for people who live thousands of miles away and whom she has never met. As she does this, she grossly neglects the need in front of her nose, of her own children.

Mrs. Jellyby devotes all her energy and attention to helping the natives in a (fictional) colony in Africa by supporting a coffee-growing scheme there. She writes letters promoting her cause from dawn to dusk, while her children suffer various accidents that she ignores, and are at all times dirty and ill-fed.

All is subordinated to her charitable project, not least the needs of her own family, to whom she has a primary and direct duty to minister.

Reasons Not to Give

Today, we are particularly sensitive to the wrong reasons for giving and the ways in which even well-meaning “helping” can hurt more than it helps. This readily becomes a rationale for not giving at all.

We don’t know whether a beggar will misuse our gift and spend it on drink or drugs; or whether one agency will spend a gift more fruitfully than another; or whether a mission trip to help a poor community in a less-developed country will create dependency or destroy a local market and the initiative that built it. Safer not to give at all.

The Charity Organization Societies of the 19th century and the United Way in the 20th addressed these issues by “organizing charity” and making it “scientific.” In doing so, they created a gap between donor and recipient, so donors could rely on experts to divide up contributions among what they determined to be deserving agencies. Under such an arrangement, we don’t have to make such decisions or ever personally meet a poor or needy person.

Governmental tax systems do something similar on a larger scale, removing the element of personal choice altogether. Bureaucrats and professionals decide who gets what, swallowing up charitable agencies that become almost entirely dependent on public grants and contracts. Their own missions become subordinated to the government’s.

Masters of Suspicion

Since the time of Dickens, we have armed ourselves with many more reasons not to give. Those great masters of suspicion, Darwin, Marx, and Freud, have taught us in different ways not to trust our own motivations or those of others.

We start to doubt whether genuine, altruistic, disinterested care for others beyond our family is even possible. Is it, as “social Darwinists” argued, either a futile or a harmful attempt to defeat the “survival of the fittest” by subsidizing the unfit?

Marx saw charity as a substitute for justice, gratuitous and condescending, or as a “cost of representation,” a way for rich and powerful capitalists to show that they really cared for those they exploited and oppressed.

And Freud taught us about the unconscious motives, of which we ourselves are unaware, that drive us to act in ways that only appear noble on the surface.

Why We Should Give

We can and should recognize that helping others requires knowledge and skill—being prudent in discerning what actually helps and what might make matters worse. We can recognize that motives and intentions are seldom pure or simple. Or that many of today’s social problems can’t be solved by personal acts of charity alone, or even by the corporate charity of faith communities and voluntary associations.

But given all that, do we still not have a personal duty to give to those in need of our help? We are not autonomous, unencumbered individual citizens with no obligations that we don’t choose, other than as citizens who pay taxes. We are fundamentally relational—born into and dependent on relations with others—with debts to our parents, family, community, culture, and nation. Government programs may meet some common needs and may be necessary. But they—and the taxes we are legally obliged to pay to support them—can’t substitute for personal caring and giving.

Such giving, out of love, of our own resources of time, money, and skills, expresses our sense of belonging, of gratitude for the many blessings we enjoy. Public programs too easily defeat this sense of personal responsibility and caring on which community is built. It replaces the personal decision to give freely or, as and when we become dependent, to receive gratefully.

Government can’t love, and families and communities can’t thrive without it.

Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is,” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.