Charity begins at home, morally speaking

Protecting our loved ones is only natural in a world of un-met misery.

TALK of human failings has been rife in The Age these past few weeks. First Peter Singer castigated us for spending spare dollars on luxuries rather than the needs of the world’s poor. Then Pamela Bone contrasted our ridiculous sentimentality for euthanased animals with our supposed indifference to starving children.

Singer has spent much of his professional life trying to convince us the compassion we feel for those we love is a moral failing. Such feelings cloud our judgment and get in the way of a dispassionate assessment of the more deserving object of our ethical attention. Should his mother and a scientist known to be on the cusp of a cure for cancer both fall off a boat, with the time to save only one, Singer has argued he would and should save the scientist.

When the New Yorker revealed that Singer spends his own money on private nursing care for his Alzheimer’s-affected mother rather than on feeding the world’s poor, many believed Singer a hypocrite.

The truth is far worse. Paying for the private nursing is not Singer’s way of acknowledging he has been mistaken all these years about the value of the love, fidelity, gratitude and reciprocity that go into the partial attachment he has to his mother. Rather, Singer’s spending patterns simply reveal him to have an embarrassing weakness of will; an inability to live up to the standards he believes right. It is different when it’s your mother, he said sheepishly.

The compassion we feel for those we love and to whom we are responsible is not a moral failing. The whole concept of intimate and enduring relationships becomes a nonsense if we are unable to love or be committed to certain people, and act on those commitments.

What would we feel about the person who didn’t instinctively move towards their drowning mother? Or the parent who walks out the door with a cheery ``Sorry dear, can’t go to your school play, got to feed the starving children in Africa’’?

I also don’t believe the strong reader response to The Age’s report on culling at Melbourne’s zoos means these readers lack the right amount of compassion for starving children. Not only do we want, and need, to focus most of our compassion on those for whom we care and feel responsible, we also, like Singer, want to act on such feelings. We feel compassion for the animals in the zoos. But, more importantly, we feel we understand the problem (a zoo policy that allows healthy animals to be put down) and believe we have the power to change it.

World hunger is a different kettle of fish. I feel confident most people feel as much compassion – if not more – for starving humanity as they do for the meerkats. However, I suspect many are far less confident about the cause of the problem, and what they can do to help.

Back in the 1970s, I gave my weekly allowance to an organisation collecting for the starving people of Ethiopia. The television voice-overs sourced the tragedy to the ravages of drought. I still remember the shock of discovering – years later – that the real source of food shortages in that part of the world is civil unrest.

Of course, starvation is starvation, whatever the cause, and it is highly improbable those doing the starving had any say in how the good people collecting aid moneys made their case. But the point is that when we give money, we trust that the agency taking our funds actually understands the problem, and is giving it to us straight. Discovering this is not the case may leave us feeling used and deceived.

This sense of disempowerment is exacerbated by the relentlessness of the world’s problems. If the policy is changed at the zoos, there will be a satisfying sense of closure. (There! That’s fixed and I helped.) There will also, in all likelihood, be a long break before there is a need to feel for and act on behalf of those animals again.

In contrast, the never-ending stream of misery pouring from our radios and televisions offers neither closure nor respite from the insistent feeling – engendered by our compassion – that we are obligated to help. When will it all end, we wonder. Nothing ever changes, we wail. Like the dogs in the learned helplessness experiments, many of us resign ourselves to the daily onslaught of un-met human misery, convinced there’s no point in trying to make things different, and no longer willing to try.

I am not excusing our reluctance or refusal to do what we can for unknown others in need. Most of us can and should do more. Indeed, I like Singer’s suggestion that we donate 10percent of our earnings to charity. But we betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the feelings and behavior necessary to maintain meaningful human relationships – families, friendships, communities – when we dismiss as moral weakness our honoring of the impulse to put the needs of our own children, parents and friends first.

In the same way, it is far too glib to propose a compassion deficit as the reason relatively little fuss is made when images of starvation in far-away lands hit the front page. It is far more likely our silence is the outcome of our inability to understand the nature of the problem, and our helpless belief that nothing we do will make a damn bit of difference.