For many people, being confronted by a panhandler presents a moment of profound moral choice. I think that these people are confused. As I understand it, the panhandler presents a moment of profound moral choice because he forces us to confront the reality of poverty and our willingness to do something about it. To give money to the panhandler is to act as Christ’s disciple, ministering to the poor. To walk by the panhandler is to ignore the poor and the downtrodden. The text I have most often seen in church for framing this crisis comes from King Benjamin’s address:
And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just — But I say unto you, O man, whosever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent. (Mos. 4:16-18)
I don’t buy it.
First, to be clear, I believe that poverty is a great moral evil. I believe that God has commanded us that we are to have a special concern for the poor. I believe that we have a moral obligation to materially assist the poor. I don’t know the exact extent of that obligation, but I think that C.S. Lewis was right when he suggested that if your charitable giving does not impose some kind noticeable economic pain on you, you probably aren’t giving enough.
But it is precisely because I believe this that I do not believe that the choice to give money to a panhandler is morally significant. I begin with the exegesis of King Benjamin. He says that we have a duty to succor those that need our succor and that we should not let the beggar turn his hand up to us in vain. I take this to mean that we must do something to alleviate the poverty and suffering of others. One possible way of looking at this is that we have an unconditional duty to give aid to panhandlers.
In the movie Becket, there is a wonderful scene between King Henry II, played by Peter O’Toole, and the Archbishop Thomas Becket, played by Richard Burton. Becket is distributing blankets to the poor.
A skeptical King Henry asks, “Why are you giving these people blankets?”
“To keep them warm,” says Becket.
“He’ll only sell it to buy drink,” insists Henry, pointing to a ragged man.
“Then that will keep him warm,” says Becket.
Based on King Benjamin’s sermon and this scene, which for some reason has always stuck with me, I have given many panhandlers the contents of my pockets. When I have done this, I have often felt good about myself. I have felt as though I have survived some moral gauntlet. I have felt that I have reached out to help the poor.
I am no longer convinced that this is true. First, I don’t believe that my contributions to panhandlers are especially significant, even to them. In part this because I almost never carry very much cash, but even more because I am simply not convinced that giving money to panhandlers significantly alleviates poverty, including the poverty of the panhandlers. Second, in at least some cases, I am sure that Henry is right. Giving cash to someone on the street may well facilitate self-destructive behavior.
But doesn’t this run smack into King Benjamin’s insistence that it is sinful to say to ourselves, “The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just”?
I am trained as a lawyer, and I train lawyers for a living. This means that I am – if I do my job right – skilled at making fine distinctions and offering sophistical arguments in favor of the forces of mammon, who after all are the ones that are usually willing to fork over $250 an hour for legal advice. I note this, only to be fair to those who wish to dismiss what I am about to say as pettifogging hairsplitting. You are more than welcome to the rhetorical resources I give you for the ad hominem riposte.
So here goes. I think that King Benjamin is saying that it is sinful to withhold our support from the poor on the basis of a belief that the poor deserve their poverty and are getting their just resorts. King Benjamin makes this claim not because he believes that all poor are deserving poor and none have brought their suffering upon themselves. Rather, as I read him, he is saying that the beggar who brings poverty upon himself is an everyman. We have all done unwise and sinful things that leave us as beggars before God, and if God is unwilling to ultimately make his decisions based on the idea of desert, then neither should we.
It is, however, consistent with King Benjamin’s teachings to withhold from the panhandler if one believes that giving him money is going to be destructive. This is where I think that Becket’s response to Henry is fatuous. It is presented as a kind of moral purity, a willingness to love in the face of human foibles. Ultimately, however, I think it is actually a form of indifference. Becket’s ultimate choice in the scene is not about trying to alleviate poverty. It is about trying to perform a virtuous act, in the most shallow sense of a virtuous act. By this I mean an act that reveals the good intention and good character of the actor without regard to the effect or consequences of the act in the world.
But if our duty is to succor the poor it ought to matter to us a great deal whether our act helps or harms. We ought to engage in acts that help, and we ought shun acts that harm. This means that we need to make judgments about those for whom we have an obligation to care. We are not making judgments about whether they are worthy of our concern. We should, however, have a realistic sense of their character. If we know that they will sell the blanket for drink, we ought not to give them the blanket. Not because selling the blanket for drink makes them unworthy of our concern, but because indifference to whether the blanket helps or hurts them is ultimately not an act of concern, but a kind of moral narcissism.
The reality is that I know virtually nothing about the panhandlers who approach me on the street. They may be desperate victims of circumstances. They be a hucksters in need of a fix. I can give them a few dollars, and imagine that I have fed them if only for a moment. I can refuse to give them a few dollars, and imagine that I have kept them from sinking further into self-destructive behavior. (If I give them a few dollars believing that they will use it on self-destructive behavior, then I think I am simply confused.) None of these stories has that much to do with helping the poor. They have a lot to do with constructing a vision of myself as a righteous person. It seems to me, however, that the heart of King Benjamin’s teaching is that constructing such a vision of your self is not important. Indeed, it is something that will almost always be deceptive and will often be sinful.
So when a panhandler approaches you on the street, what do I think you should do? My answer is that it probably doesn’t much matter. The amount of money involved is trivial. One might argue that you should always give, just in case, or perhaps as a way of having a real and personal moment of confronting poverty. It seems just as likely, however, that endowing the moment with this moral significance will give you an inflated sense of your own moral sensitivity deadening real moral concern. Alternatively, you can say that you don’t give to the panhandler because you don’t want to enable self-destructive behavior. Such reasoning, however, can very easily be an excuse for doing nothing.
I think that what we should do is simply stop pretending that panhandlers present an important moral decision. Rather, what we should do is find ways of giving that we are confident will actually help the poor and then give far more than the change in our pockets.