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  • Writer's pictureJude

A Symposium On Charity: Part 1

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

This is quite different to my usual posts, it’s an experiment so forgive me if this isn’t as flowing. In Ancient Times a Symposium was a gathering, meeting or a drinking party where the gathered express their views on a topic for debate. We still discuss in such a way, but we don’t describe the event as a Symposium. One of, if not the most famous dialogue based on a Symposium was Plato’s, where the topic of discussion was love. Several people gathered around the table offered their ideas on love and they scrutinised each others opinions. In this short Symposium the discussion stems from Charity but touches upon arguments for and against Utilitarianism. I will present this in two parts. These Characters I’m going to use are completely fictional.

  1. Gerard – A thoughtful average Joe

  2. John – A Utilitarian who runs a small Charity that donates all its money to relief funds

  3. Simon – A Wealthy Businessman

Awaiting the arrival of others, Gerard and John have been seated in the corner of the pub discussing John’s Charity.

Gerard: I really like what you’re doing with this Charity it’s a very nice thing to do. I signed up to your website last week, starting from August I’m donating £20 a month.

John: Cheers, I appreciate it. However it’s not about it being the nice thing to do, it’s something I believe we ought to do.

Gerard: True, but what do you mean it’s something we ought to do?

John: I believe we are morally obligated to help the poor as assisting them maximizes the general happiness of the people.

Gerard: This sounds familiar… Utilitarianism right?

John: Yeah, it’s what Bentham said loosely. You see Bentham’s Utilitarianism advocated pleasure over pain, happiness over suffering. Unlike many other Philosophers, he wasn’t someone who sat on his arse all day criticising views and systems Society runs by, he endeavoured to make a positive change within people’s lives. Obviously the best way to make a general change for the people is through Politics, and so he appealed to Governments. Like during the French Revolution. Did you know Bentham suggested his ideas on morality to the French Revolutionaries to implement these ideas into their system once the Revolution succeeded? One of the ideas concerned how Society should be run, he thought the best way to run a Society was to maximise utility of the population. Unfortunately for him and stupidly by the French Revolutionaries they didn’t take his advice.

Gerard: Oh yeah. I remember now. Good to know my A-Levels weren’t for nothing.

John: Funny. Also do you know of the University College London?

Gerard: Pretty sure most people do, what about it?

John: Bentham was the founding Father of the University. Do you know why this University is described as Revolutionary?

Gerard: Not really, why?

John: Because it was the first University in England that allowed people who weren’t Christian and allowed Females to study at University. Before that, entry requirements for University were being Christian and Male. It’s actions like these that increased the general happiness of the people.

Gerard: To be honest that is quite fantastic, I can’t imagine how life would be today without non-Christians and Females not being allowed University education. Although there are other means to education, I’m certain this contributed to the progress of us as a whole. But how does this relate to Charity exactly? It’s a bit broad for me.

As Gerard moved deeper into his inquiry Simon arrived. After embracing each other, they briefly explain what they’re discussing. The new perspective encourages a more intense debate.

Simon: Ah John, I respect your charitable efforts but you really shouldn’t be so strict with this. You should take a Holiday or something. Have you been to Valencia? It’s really nice.

John: Really Simon? Anyway Gerard, before we were rudely interrupted you asked why this relates to Charity. It’s a bit obvious. When you look at the World as a Society instead of an accumulation of Continents, Countries, Cities and Societies you can apply Bentham’s Utilitarianism to it. To maximise utility, the general welfare of the population. Do you remember Pete Singer’s paper Famine, Affluence and Morality? I’m guessing not, but this paper was quite influential to me. As a supporter of charitable causes, it was only natural that after reading such a powerful paper I would be inspired to actively help the people achieve that pleasure and diminish the pain.

Simon: That’s quite stupid John. Singer was suggesting we give away our money to people we are not obliged to even care for. Think about it this way. There are people living in this country who are homeless. Would someone in Africa donate to us to help our homeless? No. So why should we do it for them? People really should help themselves.

Gerard: That’s a harsh thing to say Simon. Relative poverty is nowhere near as bad as absolute poverty.

John: You become more of a snob every time I see you Simon, you never cease to amaze me. Have you actually read Singers paper or do you just know of it in summary enough to think you’ve confuted his claims? To just excuse your affluence?

Simon: Of course I have read Singers paper, but be honest with yourself does it make sense to give away all your hard earned money to some uneducated fool in a Third World Country, where the Governments are corrupt, don’t take control of the country and in turn leave it in such a state.

John: Now you’re just being very ignorant. Let me briefly explain to you Singers paper. The 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War displaced many people. There were approximately 9 million refugees suffering in East Bengal. In the beginning of his paper Singer addressed this situation by looking at how much Britain gave as a relief fund. This was only £14,750,000 in comparison to Britain’s contribution to the Anglo-French Concorde project which the Government gave £275,000,000. An estimation assumes that figure would rise to £440,000,000. Are these figures right to you, Simon? It’s disgusting to think that our Government values technology over Human life.

Gerard: That is quite bad. When you look at things like this today, for example Comic Relief – we have only contributed a total of £610,000,000 to the cause over the decades it has been active. But the War in Afghanistan has been estimated to have cost £37,000,000,000… Sometimes I think what if we used this money we spend on War to extinguish poverty. Simon, it’s not entirely their fault that they’re uneducated and impoverished. Neo-Colonisation. Our Governments tend to pimp these Third World Countries you’re such a critique of for their resources and support. We tend to help these Leaders regimes so they can provide their Countries natural resources to us for cheap, support their causes, stay ignorant to their wrong doings until they’re apparent so we can invade and take their resources by force. Like Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi. The American Government tried to overthrow Hugo Chavez so many times. I’m not saying we’ve taken part in all these Countries corrupt movements, but it’s mostly because we put them at such a disadvantage. Even some Countries, the European ex Colonial powers left in such a poor state. Rwanda. Congo. India. South Africa and many more Countries. It’s evident. You can’t truly be ignorant to that?

John: Exactly, I’m sure it’s pretty safe to say with that kind of money the World would be rid of such immoral things like poverty and as Gerard said it’s mostly these ex Colonial Countries fault if you look at the causation.

Simon: That’s unrealistic. That money was used to protect our Country. Also the Anglo French Concorde project was a push to advance technology, it’s more important than those who can’t support themselves. You’re telling me those Countries are at a disadvantage because we gave them their freedom? Oh please.

Gerard: Protecting our Country abroad seems to be a little weird to me but lets not stray off topic.

Simon: Whatever. Most of these Charities tend to take the money for themselves anyway. Even the idiots giving donations do so selfishly. How many times have I seen people drop 20 pence into donation buckets at Victoria Station, then don a smile of relief? Why are they relieved? Shouldn’t feel better for contributing to charity. They don’t actually care about the charity they just want that feel good sensation of contributing. You said you’re contributing to John’s Charity didn’t you Gerard? No offence, but you didn’t have to tell John that so he can praise you.

John: Okay… Simon. You’re being quite insufferable right now, but this is interesting and I feel I can persuade your thinking. Singer argued the case of proximity, which I feel is one of his best points in the paper. He presented a small example of a Drowning Child, which is used to question morality. It’s a scenario which encourages you to use consequential moral reasoning to deduce what you should do:

The Drowning Child:

You’re walking by a lake and you see a Drowning Child. You know this lake is about waist deep to you, but to a Child it’s deadly. There is nobody else around except you and the Child. You’re wearing fashionable clothes and shoes, if you enter the lake to save the Child they will be muddied, if you don’t the Child will die. What do you do?

Gerard: I would save the Child. I think anyone in the right mind would do so.

Simon: It’s not my Child… Why is the Child in the lake in the first place unsupervised? That’s very bad parenting. I shouldn’t have to get my clothes dirty for someone I don’t care for.

John: This is what I mean when I said you never cease to amaze me. So you would let a Child die? Maybe the Parent is insane and hurled the Child into the lake. Or maybe the Child was abducted and tossed into the lake? There are so many ways you can interpret the situation.

Simon: I would save it, but I would not be happy. What’s is your point?

John: My point is similar to Singers, who argues we ought to save that Child. He then compares this to the situation of the Bengal refugees stating the proximity, in other words distance makes no difference. But of course, it’s easier to save the person 10 yards away than it is someone 10,000 miles away. He then goes on to tell us to consider the Drowning Child example again, but this time there are other people present:

The Drowning Child 2:

You’re walking by a lake and you see a Drowning Child. You know this lake is about waist deep to you, but to a Child it’s deadly. There are loads of people around you in the same distance as you are to the Child. What do you do?

John: So say you don’t move, you let other people deal with the situation. Maybe they also have the same mindset as you. As a result of this the Child drowns. Singer argues with the same logic that because millions are available to support relief funds, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t personally. Also he argues that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to how much we give, for example Gerard you said you’re giving £20 a month to my Charity which I thank you for. But Singer in this paper believes our donations should be surplus in a way that we’ve giving enough but not to the point we’re endangering ourselves financially or our dependants.

Simon: That’s quite stupid. Utilitarianism annoys me. You people advocate pleasure over pain, maybe my pleasure is simply being affluent. At the end of the day, if we all gave money to charity there would be a terrible unbalance within the World. We in England would be working to provide for those in Third World Countries. Sacrificing time for people we will never meet. As I said when I first came into the pub, you need a Holiday, John. Take your girlfriend somewhere nice like a resort in the Caribbean. Stop worrying about other people so much. I love Holiday’s. I enjoy going to events with my family and friends. I love the cheeky takeaway. Watching Sky Sports News. Buying the latest Car models. Investing and making more money to use to enjoy life. If I agreed with Singer I would taking on more dependants, therefore endangering the safety of my own dependants by giving more than necessary to Charity. Like one day, you never know? The value of the £ could drop drastically, and my savings will allow me to still live comfortably – while you who opts to give most of his money to Charity will be struggling.

Gerard: You make some fair points Simon, I wouldn’t be willing to give all my money away. It’s crucial to have some sort of savings in this day and age. I also agree I like those luxuries, even though I’m not as rich as you are but I have enough to enjoy. Giving away to just be borderline content is quite impractical.

John: Now I just think you’re being a complete fool, you’re really not listening to my points any more are you? You’re just being very unreasonable.

Simon: If anything, you are being unreasonable and so is the whole doctrine of Utilitarianism. The only part of Utilitarianism I can agree with a little is consequential moral reasoning as it can be used in other ways, such as cost benefit analysis. Also I don’t appreciate arguing with someone if they don’t present their own views. That’s one of your weak points. You just sit and soak up theories from these Philosophers instead of having a mind of your own, why do you feel the need to argue from Utilitarianism? Don’t you have your own ideas? You don’t! Otherwise you wouldn’t be someone running a Charity, you would be someone like me, who works hard for what he has and deserves everything he gets. Lets take this Utilitarian view and apply it to my business. You see, the company I work for sells cigarettes. An idiot like yourself will state cigarettes are bad for yourself, therefore they cause pain. But you’re ignorant to the fact it eases people’s pain, some people see smoking cigarettes as a form of pleasure. We are all very opinionated so this can’t be disputed. Bentham saw no difference between pleasures like J.S. Mill, who supported the notion of higher and lower pleasures. Because you love to name drop, I will do so to. There was a cost benefit analysis on smoking in the Czech Republic by Philips Morris. If you don’t know, Gerard, a cost benefit analysis places a value in place of utility. It looks at the costs and benefits of something to see if it’s the right thing to do. Morris’ study looked at the costs and benefits of cigarettes in the Czech Republic. The only main cost was increased health care costs. The benefits? The tax revenue from the sale of cigarettes. Health care savings from early deaths. Save money from not paying pensions to people who die early. Saving money from housing costs. After calculating the net gain of people who smoke, Morris found the Czech Republic gains $147,000,000 and the Government saves £1,227 each premature death.

John: Wait… Simon. Are you seriously trying to justify smoking? Are you well? The value of life is much greater than what we gain from money.

Simon: Yes, I am. Using an aspect of Utilitarianism in cost-benefit analysis. If you don’t agree with this, then you somewhat go against your Utilitarian principles. And if you want to use consequential moral reasoning to tackle this, smoking brings happiness and momentary pleasure. So you can’t deem it to be a pain, even if in the long-term it causes death. Also it’s clear to me that some people enjoy pain, such as the sadomasochistic. If their pleasure is pain, then Utilitarianism is a bit flawed. Those pleasures will contradict each other soon enough.

John is quite speechless as he ponders a satisfactory reply. The tense silence within the group is broken with the arrival of Julie

To be continued

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