Most people want to lead a decent life: to be a good person, a good wife, husband, mother, father, and child- a good son or daughter rather than a bad one. We want to be good at our job, good to our friends, good to our partners and good to our children- but how possible is this? Why do we feel that we are never doing quite enough?
Can we ever do enough? How can we give to every charity that asks us? As with children or donkey sanctuaries we get the sense that they will always want more- the more we give the more they take so perhaps we will always be unsatisfied. We can’t give enough and the recipient is never grateful enough. There is a gap between our giving and its acceptance.
But we want to give in order to feel better. What are the emotions involved in this? How much of our life is a trade off between guilt and desire- what we want and what we feel we ought to do? Is this what is known as the price of conscience?
When I meet people working for WaterAid, or with disadvantaged children, or in a care home for the elderly I am embarrassed by their inherent goodness, and I feel ashamed of my own selfishness. And yet I do very little about it, very little to change my own life, to be more like these ‘better’ people, apart from donating money (and not enough) in order to salvage my conscience.
The western world has become increasingly insular, protected, and selfish. What makes it so? Is it the desire to look after our own, to protect those we love, to build up enough security so that our needs are met and can be protected? How much is our selfishness a fear of disaster, of losing everything, that makes us lose sight of our conscience?
Sometimes it’s not even a question of money. We can do things for free- from using a charity credit card to volunteering our time. But still many people do not do so. Perhaps we are not good or better people because we do not want to be so. We do not trust ourselves and those around us.
Imagining the change in our lives would be like engaging in a mutual suicide pact- we fear that the other party will renege on the deal and profit from our naivety.
I think we are scared to be good. We fear that the amount of change required would be like a religious conversion, selling all that we have to give to the poor.
And yet we know the world is unjust and that we are, in part responsible for the mess it’s in. In the past people did things, they fought to change social inequality- people like Samuel Wilberforce, Josephine Butler, Thomas Coram saw enormous areas of social injustice and fought for change. Bertolt Brecht’s play ‘The Good Person of Szechwan ends with the words ‘ Make sure when leaving the world not just that you were good; but leave a good world.’ We probably look on this idea now as impossible communist naivety but however much we dismiss it we can’t perhaps ignore the nobility of purpose.
We make excuses. We are overwhelmed by the size of the task. “There are so many people suffering and dying what can one person like me do to stop it? In the face of that vast multitude, I’m almost impotent.’
The writer Peter Unger has calculated the cost of taking a typically sick two year old in India, paying his health bills this year and even in each of his other most dangerous years, until he reaches adulthood at the age of twenty-one:
Vaccinations, oral re-hydration, administration, and nursing costs work out at $128 per child. Let’s say £100.
If you drink one less pint of beer or one less glass of wine a week at £2 a go that’s £104 a year you could save a child’s life every year in 20 years you could save 20 children’s lives by drinking 1 less pint of beer a week.
One could be melodramatic about this:
We could measure consumer goods by children’s lives:
A weekend break = two third world children, as is a designer jacket.
Annual gym membership is twelve children.
A new kitchen could be as many as 500 children.
The plain fact is this. One of the reasons why the world isn’t a fairer, better, place is that people either don’t want it to be so or can’t see how it can ever happen.
There is a strange justification that some lives are worth more than others regarding the poor it is, as this illustration by Goya shows: ‘As if they are another breed.’
Susan Sontag wrote about this image, and the problem of charity, in her fantastic book ‘Regarding the Pain of Others.’
In it, she argues that images of suffering, such as photographs, are meant to shock and instil feelings of sympathy and awe- but now, due to their very familiarity they suggest inevitability; that there is nothing that can be done.
And if it is inevitable then we can ignore it.
A fairer world, where good is shared equally, clearly involves some form of sacrifice by the privileged. But clearly this is not going to happen. As Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor remarks- “freedom and an abundance of earthly bread for all are unthinkable together, for never, never will they be able to share it among themselves.’
Perhaps if we thought of the money we spend in terms of life energy- the labour we expend in order to purchase the item we desire then we might be more careful in our spending.
If we take out the essentials from our income (shelter, food, heating) and then work out an hourly wage, we may find that a new jacket that we don’t really need is equivalent to half a week’s work.
Is it worth it?
If we rethink our attitude to money then we can re-think our attitude to charity.
In the Middle Age it was common and often compulsory to give one twelfth of your income away - how rare is this today?
What is it like to radically change your life and live more simply?
Clearly not everyone can do this. But why don’t we give more? Why aren’t we better people?
Is it because of security? We are terrified of recession and the future of our children.
Or is it due to the mundanity of our jobs? Because work is boring we seek outlets in consumer goods as a comfort for unhappiness, for under- stimulating work, or for no work.
Or is it because of plain selfishness?
When we do give it’s often out of urgency (a crisis), proximity (we can see the need), embarrassment (a beggar in the street), or guilt (we’ve just eaten in a restaurant).
We don’t give more because we know that full scale redistribution is not going to happen the standard of living in the First World would have to be reduced by more than 75% - in return the Third World would gain less than 20%. It will not happen. And so the centre of ethics should perhaps be occupied by things we can reasonably demand of each other something more effective than cash transfer.
But our century is the first in which it has been possible to speak of global responsibility and a global community. For most of human history we could affect the people in our village, or perhaps in a large city, but not the rest of the world.
Now we can.
We can do as much or as little as we want.
My charity is WaterAid.
It is an international charity. Their mission is to overcome poverty by enabling the world's poorest people to gain access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene education.
It’s just an out and out scandal that so many people have little or no access to safe water and sanitation. Without it, they cannot live.
You can help change this now.
Go here: www.wateraid.org.uk