A poster on one of the atheist communities I belong to recounted a story last week about being accosted in a car park by a man asking for money. The thing I found interesting about it was the following:
"My wife expressed interest that whenever anyone approaches us for money it distresses me much more than her. Her position is that the person asking for money doesn't deserve any, so it doesn't matter what he or she says, and she moves on. I explained to her that the reason it distresses me is that the whole pitch, whether religious or not, is based on an appeal to pity/responsibility/guilt, and that, whether religious or not, many of us do feel responsible for the well being of others, such that when I see someone on the verge of attacking that vulnerable point of mine, it does stress me. It is hard for me to resist such an appeal, because I do feel great care and compassion for others (what one could call "my good nature" or "my morality"), and I do feel a responsibility toward my fellow creatures. It's difficult for me.
I fear those who abuse the good nature of others (who knows what else they might do, if they feel no compunction against abusing my good nature?) and must steel myself against their abuse."
The wife’s approach is harsh, but consistent – no-one deserves her help; she doesn’t offer anyone charity. The husband however feels he should help his fellow humans, but only those he deems ‘deserving’. The source of his stress, his feelings of vulnerability, and his fear of being ‘abused’, is that he has no means of determining whether someone approaching him deserves his help, so in the end he behaves in the same way as his wife. His fear of being ‘abused’ – of making an error in determining whether a particular person deserves his help – overrides his ‘good nature’ and he too refuses to help.
The notion of the ‘deserving poor’ – and the corollary, that there are some poor people who don’t deserve our help – has been with us for a long time. Our entire welfare system is based on it, and we spend a lot of time and money developing complex tests and enforcement systems to try to ensure that no-one receives a penny more than they ‘deserve’. (The tests are of course a fallacy – and in fact exclude many of the most ‘deserving’ people, simply because those are the people least able to negotiate the obstacles placed in their path.)
But what happens if we let go of the idea of the ‘deserving poor’? What happens if we say, everyone is deserving. What happens if we say, someone asking for help must have a reason, so who am I to say that reason isn’t good enough? Why do I even need to know what that reason is? Isn’t the fact that they’ve asked enough?
My personal morality is based on one simple principle: I try to treat others as I would hope to be treated myself. It’s a morality based on compassion, on empathy, on kindness. So I try to help people – by giving my money, my time, my skills – whenever I can because I hope that if some day the chips are down and I’m really in trouble, someone will help me. It’s not an entirely selfless philosophy – I recognise that my first duty must be to look after myself, because if I don’t I won’t be in a fit state to help anyone else. (That includes looking after my personal safety, so I for that reason I probably wouldn’t engage with someone who approached me in a car park. Certainly not if I was alone.) But that aside, I don’t ask myself whether a person ‘deserves’ my help. I accept that I have no means of determining that. I accept that if someone is asking for my help, they must have a reason, and if that reason is good enough for them, it’s not up to me apply tests or make up my own criteria to decide whether they really need it. The fact that they’ve asked is enough for me.
Does this leave me open to ‘abuse’? Yes, of course. Except that it’s only abuse if I choose to see it that way – if I choose to believe that some people are not ‘deserving’. If everyone is deserving, there can be no abuse. And besides, if I give my money or my time to someone who doesn’t really need it, how does that harm me? It doesn’t. That was money or time I would have given to someone anyway. There is a possibility that I could have given it to some who needed it more, but I’ve already accepted that’s not something I can determine. I’d rather put my effort into actually helping people than devising tests to determine which people need it more.
With imperfect information there is always a risk of making an error. But ultimately it comes down to this: I would rather make the error of helping someone who doesn’t really need it, than the error of not helping someone who does.
And those are my atheist ethics.