Helping Your Neighbor: A Duty, Or Irrational?

I recently read Amartya Sen’s The Idea Of Justice. I had loved his Development as Freedom (see my blog post on it), but found Justice less engaging. However, I was highly interested in his discussion of “Rational Choice Theory.”

Amartya Sen

It has become fashionable to disparage the idea of human rationality. Books like Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational maintain that our decision making is deeply flawed, with people often not only unable to make choices that serve their interests, but unable to understand their true interests. All this is utilized to attack political stances that favor freedom to choose. Free market capitalism in particular is cast as requiring an assumption of “homo economicus” rationally pursuing self-interest; and if such creatures don’t actually exist, then free market economics is dismissed as delusional.

This goes way too far, argues Amartya Sen. Sure, humans are imperfect reasoning machines; yet, in our day-to-day activities, we must deploy a pretty high degree of rationality. If you think about it (rationally!), practically every action we take is rationally calculated to advance some goal, and practically every such goal is one that is rational for a person to pursue.

Sen also argues that when people do things that are considered (by some) as irrational, that might not actually be true. People usually have reasons for what they do. They may not be the best reasons, they may not match your reasons, but perfect irrationality is as rare as perfect rationality.

Cartoon by Doug Savage,

This leads to the problem of altruism. As Sen discusses, some philosophers maintain that the only rational course for a person is to pursue self-interest, and any contrary action is perforce irrational. Thus, the fact that people often do such things, and even engage in self-sacrifice, is ammunition for the debunkers of rationality and of all the political implications of assumed rational choice.

But that’s nonsense. Sen discusses various ways in which altruistic acts can be squared with rational objectives, and how it can be rational for a person to take into account not just his own goals and interests but those of others. And one wants to live in that kind of society. But I was surprised that Sen failed to make the clinching argument: when talking about one’s goals and self-interest, the ultimate goal is to feel good, including feeling good about onself. People do selfless or even seemingly self-sacrificing things to give them good feelings. That’s perfectly rational.

Sen also discusses the idea that there’s a duty to help one’s neighbor, but questions just who is a “neighbor.” And he cites the “shocking” notion of John Sparrow that in the parable of the good Samaritan, the guys who refused help cannot be faulted. I agree that there’s no duty to help. Duties do not arise from thin air, but out of our relationships with individuals. No relationship, no duty (apart from the requirement to avoid harming someone; though if you harm someone, that puts you into relationship with her.)

This take on the subject of duty is illuminated by Sen’s trouble with the “neighbor” issue. I find it highly problemsome to posit a duty to help neighbors but not others, with the duty hinging on proximity (or similarity?). True, it seems more callous to ignore the neighbor suffering at your doorstep than the African tribesman suffering half a world away – but what really is the moral difference? I reject the parochialism of discriminating on such bases; we are all neighbors. Of course, far more need help than anyone can possibly accommodate, so at best one can only choose to help a very few. This points up that helping cannot be a duty (impossible of fulfillment) but, instead, is a choice. And, again, it can be perfectly rational to make the choice to act altruistically. Most people do, routinely; it’s actually a fundamental aspect of human nature.

(Followers of this blog will not be surprised at my noting that these matters are discussed more fully in my very excellent book, The Case for Rational Optimism.)


5 Responses to “Helping Your Neighbor: A Duty, Or Irrational?”

  1. Lee Says:

    Thanks for an excellent article. I agree 100% that altruism is rational and we are all neighbors. I would clarify that, although we cannot possibly help all our neighbors, we can help some, and there is much value in that — pretty much regardless of whether one perceives it as a duty, a choice, the rational thing to do, or some combination of these. One of my favorite stories on charity is the following:

    After a big storm a boy and his father are walking along a beach. The storm has churned up the sea so much that there are many thousands, if not millions, of starfish washed up on the shore. The hot sun is slowly drying them out, and without intervention they will dehydrate and die. The boy figures this out after a moment. He picks up a starfish and throws it into the sea. He repeats with another starfish and another. After a few more his father speaks to the boy, saying “I see that you are trying to help, but there are too many of them. Your small effort can’t possibly make a noticeable difference here.” The boy picks up another starfish, shows it to his dad and says “It makes a noticeable difference to this one,” and he throws it into the sea.

  2. Therese L. Broderick Says:

    I think the starfish story is a variation of the essay “The Star Thrower” in the section “Science and Humanism” in the book The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley. Many variations exist, just as variations of Biblical stories exist, just as variations of many other legendary stories exist.

    Frank, regarding your statement:
    “True, it seems more callous to ignore the neighbor suffering at your doorstep than the African tribesman suffering half a world away – but what really is the moral difference? I reject the parochialism of discriminating on such bases; we are all neighbors.”

    If I were in that situation, I would perceive a moral difference between the two acts of charity. Helping my next-door neighbor face-to-face is more difficult for me than helping an unknown person in Africa by sending a check to an international charity. It’s easy for me to write a check; it’s harder for me to deal with the sometimes disagreeable and uncomfortable situations, emotions, conflicts, competing priorities, etc., that arise when I help a next-door neighbor face-to-face. It takes a few seconds to write a check; it may take hours to help a next-door neighbor.

    So, the question is — does difficulty earn a higher score on the morality scale? If so, why? Am I more moral if I undertake the difficult charity task, rather than the easy charity task (all else being equal)? Is there a moral imperative to undertake difficulty because it can be character-building, encouraging the development of praiseworthy virtues such as courage, persistence, effort, hard work, problem-solving, patience, etc.? Or is all of that self-punishment just way too Calvinist?

    On the other hand, I often feel more rewarded, more gratified, helping someone face-to-face than I do sending a check to Africa. I feel more involved, more “invested,” more deserving of recognition and approval from the same local neighborhood.

    I suppose the ideal (which I actually do put into practice) is to do a bit of both. I do write checks for international charities; but I also give elderly people rides to do their errands. However, I would feel as though I were neglecting my primary duty if I stopped helping next-door neighbors but continued to write checks.

    Again, all else being equal (which it never is in real life, only in mental exercises of speculation), is taking the easy way out the less moral choice?

    FSR COMMENT: Thank you, Therese. My real point was responsive to the common sentiment, “Why should we worry about people in Africa when there are needs right here in USA?” I think that’s wrong. Yes, some people in the US do suffer; but, without minimizing that, I daresay the worst off people in the US are better off than the average person in, say, Congo, or Zimbabwe, or North Korea. I don’t consider those people or their situation less important or less worthy of our concern.

  3. Kimberly Draiss Says:

    A couple of thoughts : First, I think you meant to say “the guys who refused to help” (?) instead of “the guys who refused help”, in which case, that would be the one lying almost dead on the road?

    [FSR: refused help to the guy in need]

    Also- your statement about how the requirement “not to harm” another is our sole moral obligation (if I understand correctly) begs the question: if your lack of a response to a clearly helpless or gravely injured person would cause them obvious harm, then doesn’t that oblige you to help?

    [FSR: No. I can name 142,341,586 people right now in that situation. Are you obligated to help them all?]

    Lastly- I have always been under the impression that my fellow Christians usually understand the concept of “neighbor” to mean all of our fellow humanity. I have never heard the narrow definition you allude to that limits it by proximity.

    [FSR: Sen’s book does talk about the duty to help a neighbor and does fret over how near a “neighbor” must be. And see my response to Therese’s comment.]

  4. Kimberly Draiss Says:

    I totally agree with your comment to Therese; I have often maintained that the majority of “poor” Americans have no clue what true poverty looks like. As far as the obligation to help those in harm’s way: I was referring to someone immediately near to you; of course I am not saying you are expected to help ALL of them. My point is that if you are passing by or standing near someone whom it is physically within your power to help so as to prevent imminent harm, you are morally obligated to oblige.

  5. Inchirieri apoartament Bucuresti Says:

    some really interesting details you have written.

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