Friday, February 15, 2002

Having promised to set out the principles that should govern foreign policy, I ended on a suggestive note, rather than a didactic one. But suggestion is hard to pull off, & I probably did not succeed – hence this.

In my earlier piece, I identified 5 categories of things that were important to people: their nearest & dearest, the familiar, the pleasurable, the interesting, & their principles & beliefs. But is this list exhaustive? What about truth, beauty, & right & wrong? I would say that these things certainly were important to people, & I would go further, & say that, if they are not important to people, they certainly ought to be. And if somebody were to challenge me by asking, for instance, “Why should I be moral?” I should have no hesitation in giving him some such answer as, “To fulfil your nature as a rational being.” But I am inclined to think that truth, beauty, & morality may safely be subsumed under my fifth category, that of principles & beliefs. In thus subsuming them, I cast no aspersions on their objectivity, I merely acknowledge that no objectively-binding principle actually binds unless the agent acknowledges its force & thereby makes it his own.

Having admitted the principles of morality into one of the categories of importance, I leave myself open to an obvious objection to my recommendation of indifference to Africa: viz., why, when moral principles are important to us, & one of the most widely-accepted moral principles is that we ought to help those in need, & Africa is obviously in need, do I say we should ignore Africa on the grounds of its unimportance? Surely it is important to us because a moral principle, itself important to us, enjoins us to help it?

The first thing to be said is that the moral principle in question is only one of many things important to us. Most obviously, the people on whose behalf we apply it vary hugely in importance. It is much more important to me to take my daughter to hospital when she has meningitis than it is to save an African child dying of diarrhoea, simply because my daughter is far more important to me than any African child. When it comes to paying my taxes – & here we get to the heart of policy –, I had rather my money were spent on dampening the distress of the last weeks of old ladies in Brighton, Plymouth, Newcastle, & Manchester, than it was on treating or preventing diseases in Kenya, South Africa, & the Congo, simply because the people of Britain are more important to me than the people of Africa, not because they are dear to me as my family is, but because I am British, & the people of Britain have shaped & continue to shape the society which has shaped me & the familiar modes of life I am attached to, whereas the people of Africa patently have not.

But also, there are too many different things I consider to be important to justify my spending all my time carrying out just one moral principle. If I could solve all the problems of Africa with a wave of my hand, I should do it; I might even do it if it involved a couple of months’ hard work; but as it is, I should have to devote my whole life to Africa, & even then I should make almost no difference at all. Life is short, art is long, & if we are to spend our time on a good selection of the things important to us, if we are to stand any chance of achieving a range of the things we want to achieve, we cannot afford to spend all our time & effort on one thing alone. Not even the most single-minded artist can do it, for he will find he has no life to transmute into art.

If we stick, then, to what is important to us, we surely find that the moral principle that we ought to help others in need is not enough to warrant our helping Africa. But there is more to it than that. For even if we decide that there is a hierarchy of what is important, with morality at the top, even then we shall find that there is no obligation to help Africa – indeed, there is an obligation not to.

Let us adopt as our standard of morality the categorical imperative in its most recognizable form, which, as Kant stated it, is this: act as if the maxim on which you acted were a universal law. In other words, whenever you are about to do something, ask yourself, “What if everybody did that?” & carry on & do it only if the answer is favourable. Now let us compare two maxims, each based on the principle that one should help others in need: 1. Help those who are most in need; and 2. Help those whom you can help most. Both maxims acknowledge that we cannot help everybody; that, to use an unfashionable word, we must discriminate. Both seem to be quite reasonable. But if we think about what the first one would mean in practice, we see that, in contrast to the second, we could in principle adopt it & achieve nothing; that, the more we succeed in helping those most in need, the more likely we shall have to shift our focus to some other group of people, hitherto unhelped, who now are more in need than the people we have helped so far – which would involve abandoning the people we were helping, perhaps long before they had reached the stage where they were no longer in danger of relapsing to their former state; that therefore we might easily end up on a merry-go-round, helping various different groups of people just enough to make them better off than some other group, before leaving them to sink back into their former misery until they were again worse off than everybody else; & that whole swathes of needy people, who were never lucky enough to be worse off than everybody else, however deserving of help they were, would never receive it from anybody. Were we, on the other hand, to adopt the second maxim, far fewer people would fall through the net, & we should no longer be obliged to abandon people as soon as we had made them relatively less miserable than somebody else. Our one obligation would be to direct our efforts & resources where they could be most effective – & since our different proximities, aptitudes, sensitivities, opportunities, & knowledge would make us effective in widely different areas, between us we should end up helping a much broader range of the people who needed help than if we adopted the first maxim. And since, up to a point, the more you help someone, the more effectively you can continue to help him, we should carry on helping the same people for longer than if we gave up as soon as they were no longer supremely wretched. Instead of all help’s being directed at one specified, but shifting, category of people, it would be directed at the people who could best be helped by whichever helper we had in mind. More people would be helped more. And since maximising help is the point of both maxims, the second is to be preferred.

So let us apply that maxim to Britain & Africa. To what extent are people in Britain better placed to help the Africans than they are to help, say, the British? Surely to a very small extent indeed. We understand the needs of our own people better than those of others, & it is easier to mobilise resources to help the needy in Britain than it is to mobilise them for the needy overseas; &, being in charge of our own country & not in charge of others, it is easier in our own country than it is elsewhere to ensure that whatever resources we do mobilise are put to the use intended. There may be a case for the recolonisation of Africa, but that would be unacceptable to the Africans: they would be miserable, they would agitate for independence, chaos would in time ensue, & either independence or repression would be the only solutions: the former would bring Africa back to square one, the latter would leave it worse off than if we had stayed out. And the resources we should have to devote to a fruitless recolonisation would be resources that could have been used to alleviate the suffering of people in Britain with considerably better results. Whichever way you look at it, the people we in Britain can help most are the people of Britain. If there is any exception, it is perhaps the individual, small-scale charitable donation: £5 means more to an old lady in Africa with cataracts than it means to a tramp in Britain; it helps her more than him; but even then, we do at least know that our £5 is going into the tramp’s pocket rather than an administrator’s. And on the level of government intervention, there are no exceptions.

We see this clearly from what seems to be a practical, if not a logical, consequence of our maxim: that we should never try to help any group of people that is not being helped by those best placed to help it. If African governments are doing nothing for their people, then any resources we provide, even if they are not appropriated by those governments, will, by definition, not be effectively distributed by them. And if we attempt to shoulder the responsibilities of others who are best placed to help particular people (e.g., people in Africa), we run the risk of shirking our own responsibilities to those WE are best placed to help, who certainly in this case, & probably in most cases, are different people.

The upshot is that charity begins at home. Those who say otherwise are at best morally confused, at worst motivated by considerations other than the moral.


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