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Voluntary work hurts the poor

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There was a requirement to serve volunteer hours as part of my (public high school) 12th grade AP Biology class. When I objected, my teacher told me that my only recourse was to drop his class and find another.

I found an open Biology class for that period (only honors was available), and went through the process of dropping my AP class and enrolling in the honors class -- both teachers and my counselor signed off on the change. Then the head counselor intervened. On the pretext of honoring the AP "contract" I had signed to enter AP classes in the first place, I would not be allowed to transfer classes. Instead of taking the honors class, I would have to TA in the counselor's office during that period and take a drop fail in biology instead. The only fail I've ever received.

She didn't know that I was a senior (typically biology is taken in 10th grade), as she had never looked at my file prior to her intervention and ruling. When I brought that up in my appeal, and the fact that, sans biology credit, I could not graduate, her response was something along the lines of "tough titties -- life isn't fair."

So I wound up taking biology at night at a local community college that year. I got an A and graduated on time. I wasn't yet an Objectivist, but I was certainly learning a lot...

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  • 3 months later...

Some of what has been said in this thread has been surprising, given that the people participating are supposedly rationally minded. Reidy has the right of it, and has explained it well, so not much else needs to be said. Still, I'd like to share my personal experiences, with the hope that someone might better understand how choosing volunteer work can be one of the most incredibly selfish things a person can do.

I was born to dysfunctional parents, who divorced when I was 3 years old. My father disappeared, leaving my brother and I to be raised solely by an emotionally unstable mother who would later bring an abusive, drug dealing, adulterous father-figure into our lives. When the two of them would leave us (getting drugged out of their minds, reappearing days later) with our alcoholic grandfather, we were lucky enough that he despised us so much that we were encouraged to play outside a lot (We were put outside early in the morning, and the door was locked. We would wander the area, playing with whoever could come out that day. He would whistle at lunch time, we'd go eat, and then we were put outside again, and the door was locked until sunset. Sometimes, we'd wander for miles, get lost, and have to beg for change so we could use the payphone to call him. Then, we'd wait several hours until he was sober enough to drive.), which taught me a great deal about the world at a very young age. Luckier still, when we came in at night, he'd sit us down, give us a book, and tell us to read. I doubt I have to tell anyone the kind of hope books can give to people.

As for my teenage years, I'll be brief, so as to not bore you with a story you've probably heard over and over again: I spent my teenage years stoned or rolling on ecstasy, in and out of jail (shoplifting, assault, serving time for warrants granted because I never showed up to court), and had resigned myself to the life of my mother, and her father, and his father before him (normally, this type of dysfunction is passed down as dysfunction breeds dysfunction breeds dysfunction).

The reason I say I was lucky to have the alcoholic grandfather that I had is because most of my friends were not fortunate enough to have someone in their life who forced them to read for hours on end, and it's the reading that gave me the tools to change my life. Reading taught me that there was more out there, that there were happy people in the world, and that I didn't have to be so unhappy. I just didn't realize it until I hit rock bottom. I began spending most of my days thinking about the best way to kill myself and about how sorry everyone would be when I was gone. And then I came across a book (http://www.amazon.co...s/dp/0932194532) that changed my life. I got into therapy and then into college, where I met the love of my life. I'm still in therapy now, but I won't need it for much longer. Through therapy, I've been able to acquire the skills and tools that people born into health families take for granted, but are absolutely necessary for a successful and happy life, and I am happy most days. It's been a hard road, but I'm almost at the end of it.

I haven't told this story so that I can appeal to anyone's emotions. I don't want to make anyone feel bad. But I do want the full impact of what I'm about to say to be felt: my story is not rare; what is rare is becoming happy and productive in spite of it. It's no wonder that I find incredible happiness in volunteering to help children who are in similar circumstances. These children are frightened, incredibly suspicious, and, a lot of the time, hostile towards anyone who attempts to help them. I doubt I have to discuss the difference it makes when I, having actually been in their shoes, tell them my story and then tell them that I want to help them. It is a unique gift that I have to offer, and I can't imagine being happy without being there for these kids. That's why I volunteer.

Edit: I forgot to respond to the initial claim, that volunteering hurts the poor.

It isn't just their families that have failed them, but also their schools. Unless something external (e.g., a volunteer) comes into their lives, they will never learn skills and mental tools that are essential to them having a successful and happy life. It is not, contrary to what so many people believe, simply a matter of adults just getting their lives together and doing what they need to do. You can't build a house without the right tools; the same goes for being happy. The tools I'm talking about are learned and internalized during childhood, and there are a lot of kids who will never acquire them unless someone volunteers to help them. These are the facts.

I hope I've been able to clear some things up.

Edited by Alexandros
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It's usually people who either have the potential for greatness, or think they have that potential, but are nowhere near achieving it and in fact well on their way to wasting it, who claim to be "choosing" a menial task instead.

Do you have examples of this? Have you run into it a lot? I'm probably an example...I'm a janitor, working for minimum wage...but I got a 1460 on my SATs and I left college with a 3.82 GPA, mainly due to psychological issues. (Part of it was alienation from everyone around me, which I kind of chose, because I was a hard-core Rand subscriber who thought that lots of people I interacted with were "evil".)

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Does my theory have any flaws or is it true like I think it is?

Your theory reminds me of the "give a man a fish, or teach a man to fish" premise, and in that context I believe you're correct. Working for profit beats working without profit, AND allows for greater acts of charity if that is what one wishes to accomplish.

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I think what you are referring to is philanthropy. One's efforts to help their fellow man irrespective of their accumulated wealth or earning power is simply an act of benevolence. A person's voluntary efforts on their time to help the truly poor cannot be deemed hurtful where this philanthropist has not used the levers of the state to confiscate other peoples' income or compel others to act through coercive or subtly manipulative means. 

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  • 3 weeks later...

To add an end of life perspective, I saw my family essentially cause my grandfather's death recently by interfering with his rehabilitation and doing 150% for him so that his skills and desires atrophied. When you ask for a small food item and then are badgered into accepting being spoon-fed far more food than you wanted (when you are capable of choosing your own portions and feeding yourself) it is very debilitating and depressing. My late grandpa ate far more with me giving him bread, a knife, and an open jar of peanut butter than he ever did being spoon fed something already made. He essentially died from depression and elderly anorexia.

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I think what you are referring to is philanthropy. One's efforts to help their fellow man irrespective of their accumulated wealth or earning power is simply an act of benevolence. A person's voluntary efforts on their time to help the truly poor cannot be deemed hurtful where this philanthropist has not used the levers of the state to confiscate other peoples' income or compel others to act through coercive or subtly manipulative means.

Well said.

I have never understood why this issue seems controversial to O'ists.

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Over the last thirty years I've spent considerable time, energy and money as a volunteer building guide. In fact the photo at left (as I write) comes from one such tour (and at a church at that). How do I encourage the culture of entitlement by doing this? What exactly do I make the main pillar of morality? What do I do during these tours that is immoral or destructive?

Most people can get back on their feet after short-term help. Others, such as the brain-damaged, never will. What's immoral or destructive about helping them?

Your question answers itself, Reidy. There is nothing immoral or destructive about your actions.

In fact, if it makes others feel better, one might even discern a "selfish" motive for your actions, i.e., that, over the course of 30 years, you have learned to enjoy them.

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