Agony Uncle: Dear Robin, Have I become cynical?

The threatened hikes in business rates have left shopkeepers up in arms, says James Marston. Picture

The threatened hikes in business rates have left shopkeepers up in arms, says James Marston. Picture Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire - Credit: PA

I've spent over 50 years on various village committees helping raise money for church roof repairs, youth clubs, and the like. Recently the village has drawn a growing number of exceedingly wealthy people, some of whom get involved as well. At a meeting last week we were discussing ways to raise a few thousand for a project, and it dawned on me that the assorted luxury handbags and designer shoes on display could cover the amount we needed several times over. Yet there we were wondering how best to part pensioners and struggling families from their pennies with jumble sales and tombolas. Have I become cynical?


Dear JT,

No, I don't think you're cynical – I often feel much the same when enormously wealthy celebrities turn up on TV to tell people to dig deep in their pockets to solve some issue which they could probably go a long way to sorting out themselves (and without touching the sides of their bank accounts). The late American philosopher Ayn Rand, who continues to exert a significant influence over the Republican party leadership and right-wing politicians in many other countries too, was unconvinced that people should be obliged to distribute their resources (financial or otherwise) merely because they had enough to spare. Much of the protests on both sides of the pond against increases in state welfare are often fuelled by the sense that 'hard working' people are being forced to hand over their money to the idle and indigent. The genuinely cynical might point out that many of the politicians advancing such arguments did not work hard for their wealth.

On the converse side, despite the demonization of the poor engaged in by many sections of the press, there are quite a few people for whom the idea of having to receive charity is deeply galling. My grandmother would much sooner have gone without than ever admit to being in dire straits or requiring help from what she saw as patronising 'do-gooders'.

The Australian ethicist Peter Singer is one of the philosophers who has reflected on issues concerning charity. He argues that there is a moral duty to help those in need when we have the easy capacity to do so. The example he gives is that of witnessing a child falling into a pond – almost everyone who is physically capable of doing so would jump in to rescue the child from drowning. Not many people, he argues, would walk on past and leave the child to die because they didn't want to mess up their nice new shoes – in other words, few people who put their own material comfort first in such an emergency situation. However, he suggests, we often effectively do so when the suffering is at more of a distance, such as where the dying child is in some distant country rather than drowning in front of us. Many people might decide to spend their cash on a new sofa or designer clothing rather than put it towards some project that could save a life. Singer is not arguing that people give away so much of their income that they end up in need of charity themselves! One of his suggestions is that people on average incomes could aim to give 1% of their surplus income (after paying bills etc.) and that those with very large incomes donate around 5%.

However, Singer wasn't talking exclusively about formal charities. Helping others could be done by chipping in towards the local youth club, stray dog shelter, or just assisting someone who lives down the street and is in dire need. Mind you, if they're anything like my grandmother the person offering largesse might be told where to shove it.

Most Read

American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr argued that the world did not need more charitable people so much as an overhaul of the corrupt social systems that plunged so many people into awful circumstances that they became dependent on the kindness of strangers to start with. If every worker were paid a living wage, then the enormously rich might not get quite such a high dividend from their stakes in companies – but equally they wouldn't be regularly plagued with requests to donate money to this or that cause. Neibuhr's stance is quite a controversial one, and many might feel it is too idealistic – the sort of thing that vested interests will never willingly allow happen.

There is another angle which is worth considering. For five decades you and an assortment of other people have come together to improve the community. Maybe not everyone was motivated by compassion – some might have just been bored busybodies wanting to fill empty hours – but the various good causes served to bind people together. Some theologians, in debating theodicy (why a benevolent deity allows suffering to happen) have speculated that one of the functions of suffering is to inspire compassion in observers. It's a difficult argument, and I certainly have no wish to be made to suffer just so some passing stranger gets a twinge of pity and shows more kindness than they previously had. However, the wish to improve the common good in whatever way is – I would argue – a large part of what actually makes community exist in the first place. if a community had a problem and the sole solution was for some local tycoon to open their wallet and sling money at the issue, there would be little to draw a wider array of individuals together. That loads of people help to run jumble sales or charity fun runs, and turn up to take part, helps bond a community together. This is not to say that those with vast amounts of excess wealth are excused from having to share it around, but that what you have spent your life doing is not simply getting old ladies to part with a few coins at the tombola stall – it has been helping to create a community in which people take collective responsibility for the way society runs, where they come together to aid one another and realise that whatever skills they have, whatever resources they have (no matter how meagre) are worthwhile and need sharing.