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Giving money to the homeless

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The Wrath
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I live in downtown Washington, where there are homeless people everywhere. I usually just try to avoid them because I don't want to be accosted but, occasionally, I can't avoid walking past them.

If they ask for money, I usually just tell them that I don't carry cash. Which is actually true...I don't carry cash if I can avoid it, because I find that I am very prone to spend it on junk food. Occasionally, however, I'll have some change in my pocket which I will give them if they seem polite.

There's this one guy who looks a lot like Charles Manson (minus the swastika tattoo) who I've actually talked to a number of times. He told me he used to be in a mental hospital but that they let him go because they didn't think he needed to be there. Well, after interacting with him a few times, it is clear to me that he absolutely needed to be there. I honestly think this guy is unable to function in society. He's very nice, however, and I usually give him a little money if I have some.

What do you think of this practice?

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... who I've actually talked to a number of times. ... I honestly think this guy is unable to function in society. He's very nice, however, and I usually give him a little money if I have some.

What do you think of this practice?

It is your judgement that he is unable to function without charity from someone else. If we take that judgement as major premise, giving him charity is an optional value. There are many optional values, and many charities within those, that compete for your money, and you're the only one who can decide how it fits into the scheme of other things on which you can spend your money.
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I'm actually surprised that that's your response. I figured people would be telling me it is immoral and altruistic. I would even agree with this opinion, if I were giving him significant amounts of money. I certainly would not give him an amount of money that would really affect my personal finances, but I don't find myself missing the 24 cents in my pocket.

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I'm actually surprised that that's your response. I figured people would be telling me it is immoral and altruistic. I would even agree with this opinion, if I were giving him significant amounts of money. I certainly would not give him an amount of money that would really affect my personal finances, but I don't find myself missing the 24 cents in my pocket.

Ayn Rand actually referenced this directly

Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: “No.” Altruism says: “Yes.”
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I don't think I'm obligated to give money to anyone, so I have no problem with that passage. I just figured someone would tell me it's immoral, since most homeless people are actually homeless by choice. When I think of charity, I think of giving money to help people who are truly helpless. In the case of the Charles Manson-looking homeless guy, I think he probably is. But I've also given spare change to guys who seem perfectly sane and who could probably help themselves, if they chose to.

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I'm actually surprised that that's your response. I figured people would be telling me it is immoral and altruistic.
I'm surprised at the first assumption, but not at the second.

I would even agree with this opinion, if I were giving him significant amounts of money. I certainly would not give him an amount of money that would really affect my personal finances, but I don't find myself missing the 24 cents in my pocket.
Obviously 24 cents has to judged within the scope of 24 cents. Since your question was asked in the vein of: "should I be spending my 24 cents this way", the answer should be viewed as having just as much importance as your question. Perhaps you feel that thinking through 24 cents is itself not worth the time and effort; if so, you should take it up with the guy who started the thread. :)
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It is amoral. Neither good nor bad.

I don't understand how this can be true. The act of such charity generally has to be good or bad, but it depends on the state of mind of the giver, and the circumstances of the recipient.

You have to ask yourself, why do you care? You don't know him really beyond a minor acquaintance. Why does alleviating the suffering of a stranger make you feel positive? It clearly does as you are making a rational choice to donate 24 cents. Is it guilt, or general concern for his well being as a man?

Now consider that you may be providing short term happiness (booze/drugs) but contributing to the long term decline of his mental state, and thus his ability to care for himself to the small extent he presently is.

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I'm curious why you even asked the question if you already assumed you knew what the answer would be. Did you want to be told that it was immoral? Not trying to be a smartass, but you seem to express that you feel fine and moral with giving the man your 24 cents, so why ask then?

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The act of such charity generally has to be good or bad, but it depends on the state of mind of the giver, and the circumstances of the recipient.

Nah. It's no more significant than the decision to get chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla. It's his 24 cents, he decided to spend it the way he wanted, that's the end of it.

There's a difference between being concerned with principles and turning yourself into a hysterical reactionary who can't enjoy a piece of chocolate or a sunset (or a simple act of benevolence) without frantically calculating profit and loss.

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I'm curious why you even asked the question if you already assumed you knew what the answer would be. Did you want to be told that it was immoral? Not trying to be a smartass, but you seem to express that you feel fine and moral with giving the man your 24 cents, so why ask then?

Obviously, I didn't know what the answer would be, because I got an answer I wasn't expecting. I don't feel guilty or think there's anything wrong with giving a homeless man my pocket change. Is it hard to believe that I just wanted to know how others saw it?

If you'll read my posting history, you'll find that I don't generally let myself worry about what other poster think of me, but I still like to ask how they see things. It lets me consider other points of view and hear the arguments for them, even if I don't ultimately agree. If someone were in here saying that it was immoral (which there hasn't been, so far), I would argue my case and tell them why I disagree. I'm not looking for approval...just a conversation.

You have to ask yourself, why do you care? You don't know him really beyond a minor acquaintance. Why does alleviating the suffering of a stranger make you feel positive? It clearly does as you are making a rational choice to donate 24 cents. Is it guilt, or general concern for his well being as a man?

Now consider that you may be providing short term happiness (booze/drugs) but contributing to the long term decline of his mental state, and thus his ability to care for himself to the small extent he presently is.

When people give to the homeless, I don't think it's generally out of guilt so much as it's because they feel awkward if they don't. I don't feel guilty, but it is a bit awkward when an obviously poor person asks for your pocket change. Giving them something that is ultimately inconsequential is often worth it, just to make the awkwardness go away.

As for the Charles Manson guy...I don't really know him, but he seems to me to be a genuinely unfortunate individual who is in his present situation because someone misjudged his mental state and his ability to function in society. I don't know if he has any friends or family, but I suspect not.

My question was more about the people who can probably help themselves but choose not to. I can't imagine anyone objecting to me giving pocket change to the Charles Manson guy.

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If you got an answer that you weren't expecting, then you were obviously expecting something. ("I figured people would be telling me it is immoral and altruistic.") I wasn't trying to come off hostile and I don't think there's anything at all wrong with being curious about other perspectives, but your assumption that the people of this Board would tell you that it was "immoral and altruistic" caught my attention and made me curious. There's no reason to assume that I would find it "hard to believe" that you would be interested in other perspectives. It was a simple question. I obviously don't know you and don't have the time or the interest to look through your posting history to see whether you care about other peoples' image of you. Anyhow, I got my answer and it seems legitimate to me. Like I said, the statement of yours that I quoted is what prompted my question. My next question is: Why did you expect such an answer? What reasons do you think people here would give for calling such an act as giving to the homeless "immoral and altruistic"?

Now I'm curious about why you think that people give to the homeless out of awkwardness? Why should they feel awkward (unless they do, in fact, feel guilty)?

EDIT: BTW, I think that your posting avatar is hilarious. I love that commercial.

Edited by Kori
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I expected it because of the nature of the person receiving charity. No one here will tell you that giving money to charity is altruistic, but I figured someone would think that giving money to the homeless is somewhat akin to donating my money to the welfare office, where it will probably be spent on people who don't deserve it.

I'm no psychologist, but it's always awkward to deny someone a small favor, even a complete stranger. If you're at Home Depot and a small, frail woman asks you for help loading a bag of concrete into her trunk, it would feel awkward to say no. When a homeless person asks me for spare change, it's the same feeling. Both are complete strangers and the favors they are asking of me are so inconsequential that it just makes it awkward to deny. In fact, giving spare change to a homeless person is perhaps more inconsequential for me, since I have a bad back, and picking up a bag of cement could cause me pain for months.

I think it comes down to the fact that human beings like to help each other, and we want people to do favors for us, so we feel awkward refusing them to other people. Whether it's justified to feel that way is another question. I just think it's a part of human psychology that most people exhibit.

EDIT: BTW, I think that your posting avatar is hilarious. I love that commercial.

Haha, yeah. That commercial has become something of an ongoing joke inside my office.

I didn't think you were being hostile, by the way...I just have a terse posting style.

Edited by Moose
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In general it would only be an altruistic action if this man meant absolutely nothing to you. Does he? Is it that you value him simply because he is a man? Then again your free to spend or give away your money as you please.

Edited by EC
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I don't give a cent to the ones who try to use guilt or pity to get money out of me. But if someone asks me, "Excuse me, can you spare some change?" I'm much more generous.

~Q

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In general it would only be an altruistic action if this man meant absolutely nothing to you. Does he? Is it that you value him simply because he is a man? Then again your free to spend or give away your money as you please.

I generally value all people unless they demonstrate that they don't deserve it. I like to assume the best about strangers. Able-bodied people of sound mind who are on welfare because they spend their money on cigarettes, booze, and who had 3 children that they couldn't afford do not deserve my compassion.

I prefer to look at strangers as though they are deserving of my compassion unless proven otherwise. It's a tough call with homeless people. I read some study in my college abnormal psychology class that showed that a rather large percentage of homeless people suffered from schizophrenia. When I give money to homeless people, I may very well be giving it to an undeserving leech who's just going to spend the money on booze. But since I'm not going to ask each one of them to tell me his life story, I prefer to assume that they are deserving of a favor that, ultimately, is not inconvenient and does not impact my life in an adverse way.

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... but it's always awkward to deny someone a small favor, even a complete stranger.
It's probably an automatized low-grade goodwill, which is a good thing. One might therefore feel awkward when a bum asks for money, since it doesn't seem worth the while to stop and ponder if he is really a bum. However, if it's worth the 24 cents, it is easy enough to end such uneasiness when it comes to those you think are undeserving. What is required is to make the explicit evaluations to oneself, and then act on them a couple of times. For a 24 cent situation, that should be enough to remove all awkwardness. I know I never give money to bums and never feel an iota of awkwardness. Edited by softwareNerd
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Why does alleviating the suffering of a stranger make you feel positive?

I don't think there is anything in conflict with Objectivism to have some general benevolence for other human beings. The key here, as was mentioned previously, is that one recognize that one does not have

an obligation to contribute to the welfare of another human being. Speaking for myself, I'd have a hard time questioning some small benevolent act (.24 cents here and there) on the part of a person who had become familiar enough with a person to understand his situation and recognize that the person is amicable yet beyond his own ability to help himself.

I don't think it bodes well for the perception of this philosophy if one thinks that it is in some way wrong to find some small value (in general) in other human beings, assuming that any specific person has not acted in such a manner as to have diminished any reason to have that small value.

Having been to Seattle, which seems to be the Mecca of the Homeless, I've noticed that quite a few of them add 'color' to the city. Unlike the homeless people I'm used to in the city where I work, many of this homeless folks do some interesting street performances and add life to the atmosphere.

Edited by RationalBiker
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Having been to Seattle, which seems to be the Mecca of the Homeless, I've noticed that quite a few of them add 'color' to the city. Unlike the homeless people I'm used to in the city where I work, many of this homeless folks do some interesting street performances and add life to the atmosphere.

I've definitely found this to be true in New Orleans and Nashville. In Washington, however, most of them tend to be eyesores.

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I like to reserve my charity for Kiva, which lets you loan money at 0% interest to entrepreneurs.

Thanks for the link. Very interesting. I may do this as well. They claim a default rate of 2%, but I plan on assuming I may not see the money again.

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In Philadelphia, most of the homeless are aggressive and obnoxious. I remember one of them started yelling at a kid for being racist because the kid told him to get a job. It was pretty funny.

I would never outright give money to any of them simply because although I may value a human life more than 25 cents, odds are that if I give that person 25 cents he isn't going to use it rationally. I'd much rather donate that money to an organization helping them get off the street and get jobs. At least that way the money isn't going towards drugs.

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