Should We Give to Morally Imperfect People?

Suppose that we endorse something like this moral principle:

The most moral way to live is to prevent as much suffering as possible. 

This principle is quite demanding, as it means (for example) that spending six dollars on an expensive cup of coffee—when those six dollars could more effectively relieve suffering in the hands of a hunger-fighting charity—necessarily falls short of the moral ideal. Indeed, to live up to the stated principle, we must forgo expensive drinks—not to mention fancy clothes, extravagant vacations, and big houses—insofar as these luxuries undermine our efforts to prevent as much suffering as possible. 

I leave it to others to provide a robust defense of the stated principle (in the event that it is correct). Mine is simply an attempt to answer one particular criticism of the principle. According to this criticism, the principle is self-defeating, as it advises us to help immoral people. The criticism takes off with this sort of example: suppose that I, moved by the force of the stated principle, decide to give $1000 to a person living right at the level of extreme poverty. If the recipient is himself complying with the principle, then he will take 900 of those $1000 to divide evenly among 9 other people who are living right at the level of extreme poverty. 

In the real world, however, desperately poor people who catch a “lucky break” in the form of $1000 might not redistribute any of their money to other poor people. In other words, they might not live up to the moral ideal propounded by the stated principle. Thus, those who seek to comply with the stated principle (it is alleged) are going to be aiding those who disregard the principle. This disjunction, it is further alleged, means that advocates of the stated principle believe, counterintuitively, that moral people must uplift morally flawed people.

This challenge, though important and provocative, does not effectively dislodge the case for the stated principle. To see that this is so, return to the hypothetical in which I give $1000 to a desperately poor person who keeps the money for himself. At this point, the objection to the stated principle is supposed to be that, in complying with the stated principle, I end up helping a person who—because of his stinginess—is morally flawed. This criticism misses the mark, though. For if I give all $1000 to the morally flawed person, then I am not complying with the stated principle. After all, the principle requires me to minimize suffering as much as possible, and if I give $1000 dollars to one morally flawed desperately poor person (when I could be dividing the $1000 among 10 desperately poor people), then I am not minimizing suffering as much as possible. Thus, this hypothetical cannot possibly be adduced to show that the stated principle instructs those who comply with the principle to help those who do not comply with it. 

Perhaps we can clarify matters thus: suppose that I divide $1000 evenly among 10 desperately poor people. This is what I morally ought to do, seeing as there is no more effective way for that money to prevent suffering. Then, each of the 10 people keeps her $100 for herself, which is what she morally ought to do. I say “what she morally ought to do” because—again—there is no one who needs the money more than she. Thus, if the stated principle is correct, then it is true that, in dividing $1000 among 10 people who need—and keep—the money, I do what I should do and that each recipient does what she should do. There is no contradiction here.

It may now be responded that advocates of the stated principle necessarily (and counterintuitively) condone lending a hand only to (1) those who need the money most or (2) those relatively well-off people who, upon receiving the aid, will themselves redistribute it to those who need it most. But this response gets things wrong as well. The stated principle tells us only what the most moral course of action is. Thus, the principle is entirely compatible with a second principle:

Action A, even if not morally perfect, is more moral than Action B if Action A relieves more suffering than Action B does.

If this second principle is correct, then—assuming that the only alternative is to spend the money on a Christmas sweater for myself—it is advisable for me to give $1000 dollars to a desperately poor person. This donation is morally advisable, we should note, even if the poor person will keep all $1000 for himself. For although I am not relieving the most suffering possible, I am—by giving money to a person much poorer than I am—relieving more suffering than I would be in the alternative.  

All of which is to say that, although “merely” poor aid recipients are (ultra-minimally) morally deficient if they fail to give some of their aid to “super-poor” people, that failure does not make it wrong to give aid to people who are merely poor. Indeed, lending a hand to “merely” poor people is generally highly morally commendable, even if it is not morally perfect. In a world rife with selfishness and unmet needs, we ought to applaud actions that relieve tremendous suffering, no matter if the people suffering are less than saints themselves.

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