While helping the poor, remember to be human

[Originally posted here: While helping the poor, remember to be human]

Steve Hays recently wrote a post analyzing Peter Singer’s (the infamous advocate for infanticide) arguments about poverty. To briefly sum it up: Singer argues on a strictly utilitarian principle that every dollar earned beyond what someone absolutely needs should be given to the poor. No doubt, even if we haven’t read Singer’s arguments, many readers of this blog will have heard this logic expressed by a well-intentioned person at some point in their travels.

Now, Steve already replied along some lines, focusing partly on biblical principles and partly on ones of common sense, that would problematise Singer’s argument. But I wanted to suggest another possible line of response.

Stuart Brown (M.D.) and Christopher Vaughan have written a book about the function of play in the life of human beings (with some mention of its presence in other species as well), arguing about how important it is for human flourishing. They even spend time showing that some business managers have recognized this fact of human nature and have incorporated it into their businesses in some way or another, to good benefit for productivity.

These facts about human nature, then, would seem to suggest another problem with Singer’s position. For, if as all business-people know, “time is money”, by Singer’s logic, we should never spend any time playing. Yet, Brown and Vaughan have shown that play is necessary and beneficial for psychological flourishing and for productivity. The unavoidable conclusion from their work is that, in some sense, human beings need to spend some of their resources on play, rather than only charity, to be the best people they can be. Thus, Singer’s logic will inadvertently, if obeyed, lead to people being less helpful for the poor than they would be if they behaved more like human beings, and less like machines for helping the poor.

And in case the true darkness of such a Singerian ethically pure world escapes anyone, consider what Brown and Vaughan say:

The ability to play is critical not only to being happy, but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person.

If that seems to be a big claim, consider what the world would be like without play. It’s not just an absence of games or sports. Life without play is a life without books, without movies, without art, music, jokes, dramatic stories. Imagine a world with no flirting, no day-dreaming, no comedy, no irony. Such a world would be a pretty grim place to live.

3 thoughts on “While helping the poor, remember to be human

  1. The ‘being more human’ principle aside, people will remain in their poverty if they know that laws are in place to sustain them in their impoverishment.

    Who is going to create the excess wealth to hand over to the poor if we’re commanded to stop creating surplus wealth? (than we absolutely need). Where is this absolute line drawn? Is a computer absolutely necessary? A car? An education?

    If fundamental needs is the new high moral ground, then whose society is the measure to calculate this basket of fundamental needs? Haiti or Hong Kong?

    Working as a missionary in Africa for the past 10 years, I can tell you that one sure fire way to encourage poverty is to give stuff away without condition or consideration. Human nature is also one that looks for the path of least resistance. This means the impoverished person will always NOT work if working hard brings the same net result as getting something just because they are poor.

    Biblically, we are commanded to be joyful givers not coerced rate-payers. The poor can also tell the difference and will always be willing to receive when legislated giving is the new decree.

    Thanks for the intriguing post, Peter.


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