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Is it irrational to give to charity?

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BrentRolfe
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Again I am obviously missing something here and am looking for help/clarification. I agree with you that "our sense of justice does not demand that we turn away".......are you saying that our (Objectivist) sense of justice encourages us/leaves room for us to donate our earnings to "those less fortunate" even though there is no exchange of value for value?

Or am I mis-interpreting value by viewing it only as an "economic" transaction?.....i.e. one gives something concrete and gets something concrete in return.

How much is justice worth, in concrete terms? Material values are important to our lives, but non-material values even more so. Also, perhaps the very way you set up the situation, "those less fortunate," may be part of the problem. It is not simply the "less fortunate" in life whom you may respond to, but the real value of correcting an injustice, or making right a wrong.

But, in a way this whole issue is being blown way out of proportion to its significance in life. Any help we provide to innocent and deserving others is a peripheral issue, not anything at the heart of living. The fact of the matter is, in a truly free capitalist society, there would be so much wealth created that those whom you now think of as the "less fortunate" will be swept up in and carried along by the benefit from and generosity of the productive.

Let me give you a somewhat callous example, on the extreme edge. When I lived in the fashionable upper east-side of Manhattan many years ago, I was disgusted to have to encounter the pathetic sight of street people doing some of the revolting things they do. I would have been happy to donate to a group that took these people off my street and provided a place for them. I say this to illustrate that even the lowest of the low stand to benefit from a society where the government does not control and regulate our every action while simultaneously taking the money from our pockets. Give us a truly free society and the issue of "charity" will not really be an issue at all.

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....then, in an Objectivist world,  I as the father am reliant on "irrational" capitalists (i.e. capitalists who voluntarily give away their money to others) for the support of my daughter.

Why is benevolence "irrational"?? I don't believe that "giving" when I have an abundance is irrational.. It would be irrational to give to a cause that is *detrimental* to myself; perhaps also to give to a cause for which I did not care.

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I think a lot of Objectivists (and advocates of laissez faire in general) seem to have grossly deluded ideas regarding how much the average person is going to be prepared to donate. In the past few weeks, I've seen it claimed that the entire military, legal system, education/health care for poor children, and now the supporting the disabled, is all going to be adequately funded by private donations (or 'lottery tickets' and other similar schemes). Does this not seem rather unrealistic?

I think privately managed and privately funded charities would do a MUCH better job, and at a much lower cost, than what the government is providing. Government has no business in education, so scratch that bit altogether (look at California, where the teachers are the highest paid, the state spends the highest amount, and the high school grads have the 3rd LOWEST scores in the nation!)

It is government's rightful function to provide for the Defense of Rights (courts, police, military, etc.) And they are already empowered under our constitution to collect taxes for that purpose.

I suggest researching a bit about countries that have already abolished the Welfare State and have done quite well! Google is your friend :D

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RationalCop, I just don't see how the advertising analogy works here.....or how those providers could raise funds for their services, other than from the public purse....

Trust funds come to mind.. They set up investments which generate dividends, which is then usable money (leaving the initial investment capital untouched.) A lot of charities already do this.

As far as how advertising would work.. You sell ad space, you make money.. Just look at all the websites with ads. They are making money for every hit on their website because of the ads. So maybe charities should start their own porno sites, they make lots of money, believe me :D

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  • 1 year later...

I assume most if not all people here have heard of the terms 'rational self-interest' and 'enlightened self-interest'. I am asking the members of this forum to explain to what extent they believe compassion is encompassed by these terms. Ayn Rand often spoke of altruism as the great evil, and with this I agree - putting others existence before your own negates the entire point of existing. Compassion is defined as "suffering with another; a sensation of sorrow excited by the distress or misfortunes of another" (from BrainyDictionary.com), or "a sense of shared suffering, most often combined with a desire to alleviate or reduce such suffering." (from Wikipedia).

Now there is a great deal of suffering in this world for which the sufferers are responsible in some way, shape or form. Then there are those for whom there is no clear cut cause of suffering - born into an abyss of suffering, which is both futile and pointless. Now if there were things each of us could do, out of our own volition, to alleviate these peoples suffering so as to make their fate their own, without any mortal threat to ourselves and the stability of our government (assuming, idealistically, it's only acting in its true role as protector of rights), would an individual not be rationally obliged to offer that help?

The distinction between those responsible for their suffering and those who are not would therefore equate to the difference between irrational and rational compassion.

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Compassion is defined as "suffering with another; a sensation of sorrow excited by the distress or misfortunes of another" (from BrainyDictionary.com), or "a sense of shared suffering, most often combined with a desire to alleviate or reduce such suffering." (from Wikipedia). 

[...] Now if there were things each of us could do, out of our own volition, to alleviate these peoples suffering so as to make their fate their own, without any mortal threat to ourselves and the stability of our government (assuming, idealistically, it's only acting in its true role as protector of rights), would an individual not be rationally obliged to offer that help? 

[bold added for emphasis.]

If the only obligations in one's life, are chosen obligations, then the question is: Why would I choose to help suffering Mr. X, rather than take some action to advance my own selfish personal values?

To answer that requires knowing one's hierarchy of values, the circumstances, and nature of Mr. X, at least. (In an emergency, the situation would be different, but you have not specified an emergency.)

If I chose to help Mr. X, it would be because I believe that he is an innocent person, that he is of value to me, and that my effort would not prevent me from achieving any of my values, whether basic ("mortal") or not. I have absolutely no unchosen obligation to help anyone.

Edited by BurgessLau
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If the only obligations in one's life, are chosen obligations, then the question is: Why would I choose to help suffering Mr. X, rather than take some action to advance my own selfish personal values?

But you then justifiably qualify that with:

(In an emergency, the situation would be different, but you have not specified an emergency.)

I did in fact have an emergency in mind. Emergencies can be on a small or large scale in terms of people involved. An example of the small being you noticing a young child being seriously abused by a parent, is not the rational decision to take some form of action for the child? I realize the operative word I used was 'obliged' in my opening post, Ill explain what I mean: the decision must be yours, but you are still accountable to reason, you can still make a good decision or a bad decision; a right decision or a wrong decision. So I mean 'Obligated by reason; by reality' NOT by other people. The child's need has no demand over you - you can walk away and in an ideal Objectivist state, perhaps not even be legally accountable for not choosing to help. But morally, you still made an unethical judgement, no*?

*in terms of specifics - i.e. what action taken, your suddenly in a continuum - it might be wiser to call law enforcement that to get directly involved and put your life at risk - your presence could in fact raise the stakes, where as the presence of the law might have a different effect on the father etc etc. For the purposes of this ethical argument I'm talking about intentions and the raw decision to help or not to help.

Now, I did have a larger emergency in mind. Though I'll wait for the go ahead in case you want to take issue with anything I've said here. Thankyou for your response.

Edited by Charles
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What precisely does it mean to be 'rationally obliged' or 'morally obliged' to help someone? I know what the word means in the context of 'obligations you have chosen' (as Burgess says), but I'm unsure how you are using it here.

edit: oops, I was distracted halfway through writing that and didnt notice you'd sort of answered this question in the time it took me to reply.

Edited by Hal
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But morally, you still made an unethical judgement, no*?

Unethical by what standard? Thus far you've asked whether such an obligation exists, redefined obligation, and then stated, circularly, that not fulfilling said obligation would be unethical. It doesn't add up.

First of all, an emergency is an immediate disaster of finite duration that makes life as a human being impossible for everyone involved. Observing a parent smacking their kid around is not an emergency.

There is no such thing as an obligation to reality; you can choose to act in accordance with reality or not, but obligations cannot exist between you and inanimate, mindless causality.

As Burgess said, choosing to intervene in the lives of others requires a complicated context. Since life properly does not consist of an endless series of problems, emergencies, and disasters, this is, at best, a secondary consequence of the type of benevolence of spirit created by living in a rational society, where men are a benefit to you, not a threat.

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Unethical by what standard?  Thus far you've asked whether such an obligation exists, redefined obligation, and then stated, circularly, that not fulfilling said obligation would be unethical.  It doesn't add up.

So obligation may be an inappropriate word, but is not the extent to which your decisions reflect reality the ethical standard of Objectivism? *rational self-interest*? (a rhetorical question). Surely rights arise necessarily out of our observations of our own, and others, volition and the conclusions drawn from that?

As to your allegeding 'it doesn't add up' because I both ask and draw my own conclusions, that simply doesn't follow. I want forum members reactions, and explanations for their viewpoints as a gauge for my own. Yes, I have been thinking about this issue and have drawn some preliminary conclusions which I put forward here for discussion. So far I have learnt obligation may not be appropriate word for it may connotate agreement between two conscious minds that cannot be forfeit unless extenuating circumstances present themselves.

First of all, an emergency is an immediate disaster of finite duration that makes life as a human being impossible for everyone involved.  Observing a parent smacking their kid around is not an emergency. 

I quite intentionally used the word 'seriously' in my child abuse example to distinguish between simple routine smacking by a parent, and a single violent display of volatile behaviour that would indicate such a lack of presence of mind in the parent so as to place the child in a position of substantial risk. If that is not an emergency then we have a very different outlook indeed. Why on earth should an emergency require 'life being impossible for everyone involved'?!?

Thankyou for your reply.

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There are many situations where a rational person would help a stranger.

Are you asking about the motivation behind such help (e.g., a benevolent feeling about the world and other people), the context of such help (e.g., you have the time, it is not potentially dangerous to you, etc.)? Or are you asking about a situation where one would be giving up an important value in order to help a stranger and that help is of a lesser value to you, in your own estimation?

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I quite intentionally used the word 'seriously' in my child abuse example to distinguish between simple routine smacking by a parent, and a single violent display of volatile behaviour that would indicate such a lack of presence of mind in the parent so as to place the child in a position of substantial risk. If that is not an emergency then we have a very different outlook indeed. Why on earth should an emergency require 'life being impossible for everyone involved'?!?

Thankyou for your reply.

Substantial risk of what? Why should I care whether I have a different "outlook" than you do?

What is the principle involved here? Is it moral to help people sometimes? Sure. Are you required or obliged to do so? No.

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Substantial risk of what?  Why should I care whether I have a different "outlook" than you do? 

Substantial risk of physical damage, perhaps even death. My outlook comment serves to say - if you do not think such a situation is an emergency then you are abnormal, i.e. who doesn't consider serious child abuse abnormal?(!!!). You have no reason on earth to care for a difference in our individual outlooks. I replied at 3am last night, so apologies for my bad phrasework.

What is the principle involved here?  Is it moral to help people sometimes?  Sure.  Are you required or obliged to do so?  No.

I am not saying you are required by that person or other people too. I am saying that where the sure rational conclusion is *help the child somehow* you are bound by rationality to follow that course of action. Objectivist Ethics is rational self-interest, you can choose to do anything as you recognise your autonomy - but you should do certain things instead of others because they are rational - to not do so would be evasion, a degree of evil. Objectivism does not define good and evil by the standards of a deity or of a society, it does so by observing reality through a rational lens - but that does not change the fact it is your duty to do good where you can and avoid evil.

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I am saying that where the sure rational conclusion is *help the child somehow* you are bound by rationality to follow that course of action.

How does rationality "bind" anyone to anything?

Bind is just another word for obligation. You are suggesting that it is inherent in rationality to risk your life to save someone elses. Is that what you intend to say?

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How does rationality "bind" anyone to anything?

Bind is just another word for obligation.  You are suggesting that it is inherent in rationality to risk your life to save someone elses.  Is that what you intend to say?

No, not at all. I said if you can take action without risk to your own life or livelyhood.

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No, not at all. I said if you can take action without risk to your own life or livelyhood.

Okay, but I ask again, how does rationality bind one to do anything? Isn't that essentially determinism? If I'm a rational person, then I have no choice but to make rational decisions?

I'm having difficulty understanding in what sense you are using the word "bind".

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Charles, Are you asking this: knowing that a child is being seriously abused, with it's very life at risk, should one do something about it -- like calling the cops?

(I assume that there is no hidden twist in the example: just an evil guardian about to kill a normal child.)

Yes ... call the cops now! Except for some personal emergency of your own, you have a moral imperative to act. The "obligation" is to your self and your values.

Why? Because justice demands it. Compassion is not really the crucial element. For example: if I knew someone was plotting to rob a bank (again -- not Ragnar, but a regular criminal etc.) I would call the cops immediately. Doing so supports my values. I would consider it hypocritical for me not to act.

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Why? Because justice demands it. Compassion is not really the crucial element. For example: if I knew someone was plotting to rob a bank (again -- not Ragnar, but a regular criminal etc.) I would call the cops immediately. Doing so supports my values. I would consider it hypocritical for me not to act.

You beat me. :)

To answer my own earlier question, the principle involved is not compassion, but justice. It is in your self interest to see to it that the society you live in is just.

Oh, and btw, "serious child abuse" is not "abnormal" . . . taking into account the whole history of human civilization or lack thereof. It is only in the modern era, with the tremendous abundance produced by capitalism and the benevolence of justice, reason, and rights, that child abuse has become anything other than the typical situation for children, who were starved, beaten, and sometimes intentionally killed by their parents (exposure).

Do please keep presumptuously calling me names, though.

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You beat me. :)
I'm keeping score, mind you! :)

After posting, I thought ... what if there's no parent: just a kid suffering at the side of the road. Time to take "integrity" out of my magic hat of virtues? (I'm sounding like a potential kindergarten book series: the problem-solving cat pops various virtues out of his hat -- problem solved.)

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