A Moral Dilemma

I am convinced by such minds as Nietzsche and Dostoevsky that when people are simply handed things they become dependent upon the handout and consequently lose their freedom. David Hume thought that giving alms to beggars was a mistake for the same reason. Dostoevsky’s grand inquisitor puts it in theological terms, but the point is well stated that humans want bread and miracles and they want things handed to them even at the cost of their freedom. But that is a price many think worth paying. Freedom, after all, is accompanied with responsibility and that is a terrible burden. Dostoevsky thought socialism was the offspring of the devil precisely because he thought humans become dependent upon the state; they must be free or they cease to be humans, they become “denizens of an ant heap.”

On the other hand, I am aware, as were these men, that there are those in our society in genuine need, people who are born into poverty and need and simply cannot work their way out. There are cynics who say these people get what they deserve, the social Darwinists who insist that the fittest should survive and the rest be damned. But I note that those who say this are almost always among the survivors — and in many cases they prosper precisely because have had things go their way and have never known need, much less dire poverty.

So the dilemma is clear: we deprive humans of their freedom by giving them a handout and running the risk that they become dependent upon that handout and thus become less than human. On the other hand, we ignore those in need and turn our backs on them so they will retain their freedom, even if they should starve to death.

The solution seems almost too simple: we err on the side of charity which, as the New Testament reminds us, is the “greatest” of the Christian virtues — a virtue that is missing in many Eastern religions that embrace “a tolerance devoid of charity,”  as Arthur Koestler reminds us. Those who are charitable are rewarded in helping others by becoming more human themselves. Socialism is not a viable economic system, in my view, because it undermines initiative and rewards laziness — both serious character flaws. But it is more charitable than capitalism with its stress on greed and the attendant corruption. Socialism’s appeal is moral, not economic. And as such it is the preferable alternative. But in between the two economic systems one would hope to discover a system in which those with talent and ability can accomplish much and acquire wealth proportionately while at the same time those less fortunate than themselves are encouraged but not ignored. In this dream world, all remain free and fully human. Whether or not we could ever realize such a system is doubtful, of course. But we make a mistake to embrace one or the other of the economic poles while ignoring the possibility that there might be a compromise in which all win out. The problem is to find the middle ground, where people and governments are charitable and help others without those who are helped becoming “denizens of an ant heap.”