Recently I was listening to an episode of my favorite radio show, Philosophy Talk. If I remember correctly it was “The Demands of Morality”. (I listen to several at a time as downloaded podcast since the live broadcast in San Francisco doesn’t reach me.) During the episode the philosophers and their guest began to discuss whether one is obligated to give a begging person their spare change.
Of course, the utilitarian perspective on the matter was debated: should you give money to someone who may feed their addiction to drugs or alcohol? Wouldn’t it be wiser to buy them food instead? As someone who has lived in San Francisco, where I used a lot of public transportation and walked everywhere (contra San Antonio, where you need a car to get from point A to point B), this was particularly relevant for me, because I never found peace as regards how to live in relation to the many people who are homeless in that city.
Ken Taylor’s response grabbed my attention. He said that he used to keep a limited amount of spare change on him so that he could give the money, and he didn’t feel obligated to know how the money would be used because the money itself was a secondary matter. Instead, the primary virtue of giving away that spare change had little to do with financial charity and everything to do with honoring human dignity. Often the impoverished people of our society are treated as less than human. When Taylor would give them change he would make sure to look them in the eye, greet them, and then give them the money. Why? Because in a world where you are ignored by thousands of people, and where people want to avoid you are an inconvenience, the mere act of eye-to-eye contact, of being addresses as a person, may mean more than we realize.
I was struck by this answer. I know that human dignity is something that factored into my thinking as I wrestled with the wisdom of giving my spare change to someone who may use it wrongly, but Taylor reminded me that there may be something more to the matter than trying to determine whether the money will be used wisely, there is the reality that the person who in shame is having to ask you for their daily income may have a million reasons for being where they are in life, a million reasons of which we are unaware, and every time a person passes them as if they are less than human it adds another reason to just survive. Whether or not our spare change–or even greater deeds like giving away a meal, or working in a shelter–places a person on the path toward recovery shouldn’t be our primary motivator, since there is no way to know how a person may respond to an act of kindness, but instead, human dignity should be our motivator.
As a Christian informed by ideas like the imago Dei, and the second greatest commandment, it would seem that I would wrestle less with utilitarian ethics and embrace the virtue of honoring another human as human. This isn’t to downplay the importance of societies wrestling with how to best serve and care for their population of people who are homeless, but it does challenge the excuse that I have given myself in the past that I don’t need to give because the gift will be misused. I was challenged by Taylor’s response and it reminded me that the gift is secondary, the receiver is primary.