The Good Samaritan & Geographic Distance

Coming From The Distance

by Jakub Synowiec


There is general agreement among Christians that they should help those in need. Jesus repeated this thought many times and it is also well-grounded in the Old Testament. Therefore, the question that David Wohlever asks in an earlier post of: ‘How can it be that there are both rich Christians and extreme suffering in the world?’ is deeply challenging. A common objection against the way Christians do charity is that although Christians give a lot, they overly focus on the people geographically close to them. In this blog, I will present an argument based on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which indicates that our neighbors are actually people all around the world. Therefore, Christians who believe that the maxim ‘love your neighbor’ is the fundamental principle of charity, should not allow geographical closeness to skew who benefits from their charitable actions.

Jesus, when asked by an expert in the law about the way to inherit eternal life, answers that we should, as well as loving God, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). In this, Jesus makes clear that we have moral duties to our neighbors. The Parable of the Good Samaritan, one of the most influential stories ever told, encourages us to expand the extent of our moral care. We can imagine our moral care as a series of concentric circles, with each one further from the center representing a group that we are often less likely to care about. Historically, most people find it easy to care for themselves, their friends and closest relatives and so these are circles close to the center. Next come those who do something good to us (the idea of reciprocal altruism), perhaps next our more distant relatives, then people from our village, nationality, race or culture. At some stage, we eventually get to everyone else in the world.

I want to suggest two interpretations of how the parable informs our views on who our neighbor is. The first interpretation is that it argues that our neighbors are simply everyone on the planet, for the distinctions that were typically used to determine who is one’s neighbor are shown to be irrelevant. The Parable of the Good Samaritan was told in a period when most Jews did not recognize Samaritans as their neighbors, even though they were living in a similar geographical neighborhood. The two groups hated each other. Jesus’ teaching had to be difficult for ancient societies, which were (generally) not able to broaden their circle of moral care beyond their close social relations. The parable can be interpreted as indicating that every person is our neighbor, thus the circle of moral care (or the circle of love) should be broadened to all the people.

However, another apparently less demanding interpretation is also possible, that our neighbor is anyone who we can personally affect. The Samaritan helped ‘the pity man’ whose ethnic membership is not stated, as a result we cannot say for sure if ‘the pity man’ was a Jew (the Priest and the Levite didn’t even check, though). All we know about the man is that: (1) he was in pity, (2) he was a human being that was seen by the Good Samaritan and (3) that he was within the range of the Samaritan’s action. Thus, it might be concluded that a neighbor is a person that we can encounter and affect. If we add the assumption that neighbors are those whom we are supposed to ‘love as ourselves’, then this shows that our moral duties extend to all those who we can encounter and help.

This latter interpretation seems to be less demanding than broadening the range of our moral duties to all people. It is also somewhat more in accordance with our natural tendency to help people near us, to prefer supporting our family or people from our social surroundings, to favor small developments in our local community (new museums, better heating for the church), over eradicating extreme poverty of numerous people living in distant lands. This natural tendency is probably a piece of an answer to why there are still rich Christians when there is extreme suffering.

I shall argue, that even this interpretation of the parable does not support our natural tendency to favor those who are geographically close. In the past, to be able to influence a person one needed to be able to meet them physically. The range of people that could be affected was limited by the distance one could personally travel. Some improvements made it finally possible to travel further but physical distance remained a problem. Now, global connections make it quite possible to affect people all around the world. The most common way is pollution, but we also use other’s pity to get wealthier or to destroy their culture. We can now affect nearly every person in the world, thanks to the media and the internet. Travelling is also getting cheaper and cheaper. Technology allows us to affect many people from around the world at the same time. Finally, new ways of transferring goods and the development of research into charity as well as improvements in charity organizations, allow us to help more people, whose distant locations would have made it impossible a few years ago. Since geographical distance no longer strongly limits our ability to encounter, affect and help people across the world, those who are geographically far away must also be called our neighbors, and so they all are subjects of our love and we should love them as we love ourselves. Taking this seriously will lead to substantial changes in our lives and lead us to internalize some of the key principles of Effective Altruism.

Though distance does not limit us anymore, our time and resources are still limited. Thus the question arises: who am I supposed to help first?

One thought on “The Good Samaritan & Geographic Distance

  1. Thanks very much for this piece with crucial points! Some small thoughts:

    1. I think the point in the last major paragraph could be made even stronger: Not only has the difficulty of helping geographically distant people (which characterized ancient times) gone away, it is now even *easier* to help people who are geographically distant than those who are geographically close (because the wealth difference is larger to people who are far away).

    2. You write perfectly: “The Parable of the Good Samaritan, one of the most influential stories ever told, encourages us to expand the extent of our moral care.”
    I think we should emphasize this tremendously. It seems to me that the Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most misunderstood parables. Most people think that the message is THAT we should love our neighbours. But the real message is (as you point out) about WHO is our neighbour.

    3. (A small technical point: I am not sure that the 2nd interpretation is more demanding than the first interpretation. After all, if we cannot affect how someone is doing, then this person’s concerns also have no implication for how we should act.
    (And, apart from this point: I think both interpretations are massively demanding compared to our usual way of life. Both interpretations ask 99.9% of Christians for radical change — therefore it might not matter much that one of them is a bit more demanding than the other?)).

    4. While I think your general core point is massively important and should be spread all around the world, I also think that we should discuss among ourselves what exceptions there are to this general core point. For example, sometimes helping others does not only have the purpose of helping people in need but also has a second purpose: to strengthen the bonds of community. (For example: I recently moved to a new city and when I offer my new neighbours to help out with little things, this is not only for the purpose of alleviating their suffering. It also has the purpose of starting to build a relationship with them). Therefore, there is at least one (comparatively small) reason to help locally rather than globally. There might be further such reasons. Within the community of people who are Christians and Effective Altruists, I think, we should discuss these exceptions to the general rule of helping globally (but we should not necessarily *emphasize* them publicly since they already receive massively too much attention).

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