Ten Arguments Against Relationship-Constrained Charity (3/4)

Relationship Constrained

by Dominic Roser


In this blog series (the introduction is here), I argue that we shouldn’t focus on having a personal relationship with the ultimate recipients of our charitable donations, or with the people from the NGOs that deliver the aid. Rather, we should just donate our money to the most effective organisations. I list ten considerations in favour of this position (considerations 1-4 are here):

(5) There is a biblical story that speaks to the topic of charity like no other story: The story of the Good Samaritan. Many take its message to be that we should love our neighbour. However, this message is presupposed for the purpose of the story. The story is about another question: Who is my neighbour?

In the story, Jesus tells of three people who had the opportunity to do good to a wounded stranger: a Priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. The listeners would have held the Priest and the Levite in high regard and would have typically had a low view of Samaritans. But then it was the Samaritan who helped. Jesus says that the Samaritan became a neighbour to the wounded stranger.

Thus, Jesus puts a double emphasis on doing good to anonymous fellow humans. First of all, the person to be helped is a stranger to all — there is not even a name for the wounded man. Second, the person who helped was of a different community than the listeners of Jesus’ story. Thus, the story is precisely about helping outside of one’s community. Jesus’ message is not to focus on those who already are neighbours. Rather, we should become neighbours — to those outside of our pre-existing relationships.

Now, some might object as follows: “OK, we should be helping strangers but helping them in material terms is always incomplete — we should go on to develop a personal relationship with them.” However, Jesus’ story takes a decisively different turn: the Samaritan refrains from a long-term, personal involvement and rather pays an innkeeper to make sure the wounded stranger whose neighbour he became gets physically well again.

(6) Another biblical passage also speaks for donating in anonymity rather than within relationships. Jesus said: “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”. Being public about one’s donations makes room for pride. Also, in knowing the recipients of our donations we are tempted to give in a biased way. We are even tempted to practice favouritism because of the rewarding emotional experience of seeing the person do well due to our donations. Giving anonymously to unknown strangers makes it possible to refrain from seeking adoration.

(7) So far, I stressed that the main criterion for donations is how effectively they eradicate poverty — rather than whether they are embedded in a personal relationship between donor and recipient. However, now I want to point out that even anonymous donations create a certain relationship between recipient and donor.

By transferring money between two people, an invisible bond has been created. The donating sister and the receiving brother across the planet do not know each other’s name or face and they will never meet. The donation expresses the donor’s acknowledgement of the recipient’s dignity and right to live free from poverty. This acknowledgement creates a link between donor and recipient. When a Christian takes communion on Sunday morning, this also invisibly links her to all her brothers and sister across the globe who do the same. Something similar happens with donations.

Admittedly, this a fairly “thin” relationship, but it is a relationship nonetheless. And: this relationship can be strengthened by accompanying each donation by prayer — both the recipient and the donor can pray for each other. (And if it’s easier to pray for someone specific, why not go on GiveDirectly Live).

Click here for next instalment (part 4) of the blog series with further reasons.

One thought on “Ten Arguments Against Relationship-Constrained Charity (3/4)

  1. (d) I had never considered this aspect of the good samaritan story. That’s really interesting! I would be interested to hear how people might deal with that point. Perhaps they’d say it’s not normative and maybe the Samaritan would have done better if he’d stuck around- still though he gets praise for his actions from Jesus.

    (e) I really like point 7 as well. Why should we think that person-to-person contact is the only way of bringing relationships into the equation. It might be argued, however, that although there are other types of ‘connection’ that can be made, ‘relationship connections’ necessarily involves being aware of another actual person (rather than just a statistical person or whatever.) It would be good to ask the supporter of the relationship constraint whether it is really a classic view of relationship that is needed of whether one of these thinner connections might still do the work.

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