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Katrina, heroes and the philosophy of giving

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As we sort through the destruction of Katrina, whole bunches of people are making all kinds of “helping” responses which inspire lots of practical and philosophical questions about how much good what is doing and who should get what kind of credit.

Some would likely respond that this is inappropriate or just useless in the midst of this great crisis, but it is not. It is always important to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Otherwise, how do you figure out what you should do?

To pick some easy ones, there are offers of help coming in from around the world, some of them notably from people obviously not friendly to us. When the Venezuelan government ie Hugo Chavez or Cuba ie Fidel Castro offer help, it obviously does not earn them any credibility. Clearly neither Chavez nor Castro gives an obese rodent’s hind quarters about US. It’s basically a big FU to our government.

Pretty easy call, Sean Penn has been out playing hero in New Orleans, boating around with his presidential historian buddy and a Rolling Stone reporter looking for people to rescue. I ridiculed his first effort, after his little boat started taking on water. “Sean Penn’s Katrina PR stunt springs a leak.” Obviously this guy’s a schmuck looking for cheap glory and pr. He’s Gabriel Byrne’s cartoonist Jack Deeb from Cool World wanting to be a ridiculous superhero.

But wait, reports now are claiming that Penn has since been out with some kind of boat, and rescued several dozen people. See? I remain skeptical of believing this. Show me. Let’s assume for the sake of this discussion though that he has managed to actually rescue some people.

That still doesn’t change the judgment. Even if his PR stunt actually worked, he’s still not getting any credit from me. The basic schmuckness of seeking glorification like this doesn’t change even if you manage to do some good.

Further though, if he really is just trying to help out, then he won’t WANT credit. He’s just worried about The Children, after all. He would surely be embarassed to have people carrying on about what a great guy he is. That’s why he’s got a boatload of reporters with cameras to document his humility. Not sure where he’s putting the actual flood victims.

I’m much more willing to give credit to Macy Gray. She just showed up (by herself) at the Astrodome in Houston where flood victims are staying, strapped on a Red Cross vest and went to work. No photographers, or cheap glorification, just jumping physically into some grunt work. That looks to me much more like really just trying to help out.

Even that’s controversial, though. One of the most serious minded people I know is my godson’s mother. Considering Macy doing grunt work vs Celine Dion talking Katrina with Larry King, the Thug’s Ma said:

The point is not what you’re doing to make your-celebrity-self feel better — but what can you do that will make the biggest difference.

Celine Dion — as much as she makes me shudder — and other celebrities are good for creating awareness and encouraging people to donate. It’s a “if you love Celine, you’ll give money” kind of thing.

When I was 13, I remember giving money to Jerry’s Kids because Frank Sinatra asked “me” to when he performed on the telethon. You know me, I’d do anything to make Frank happy.

If rich people want to give, then they should pony up the cash, and leave the grunt work to the grunts.

Macy and the rest would be way better off scheduling a big concert and contributing all the proceeds to evacuees.

Or doing free ads for World Vision or the Red Cross. Something to get people to contribute. If they want to help, then they should give themselves away in the way that will have the biggest impact.

They should do what they can within their area of expertise.

Now, she does make a pretty good case there in favor of some celebrity charity work. It’s where they can do the most good.

But it also gets at the question of what is or should be motivating people. Generally, I’m not a big believer in altruism. As a practical philosophy, Henry Ford’s self-interest did a thousand times more good in the world than Mother Theresa’s charity work. Plus, altruism in the true sense simply goes against human nature. It is natural that we’re thinking first of ourselves and our own.

Proper charity as I understand it is ultimately a selfish motivation borne from empathy. I don’t do things to help others generally in contradiction to my own interests, but to further them. I feel for someone in a bad situation, and I can’t stand to see them suffer. I feel better to see that poor homeless dude eating a sandwich. That does me more good than spending the five bucks on a drink at the bar for myself.

In addition to being more consistent with the realities of human nature, this way of looking at things allows you to set priorities and escape useless, unearned guilt. Doing something for someone because you want to rather than out of a sense of absolute obligation to help anyone and everyone in need just works better.

Thus, I feel more inclined to help people directly, one to one rather than dropping money in the Salvation Army kettle. You might say that I like to see exactly what I’m getting for my money. Knowing that this particular poor guy has a warm coat cause I just handed it to him certainly does more for me than mailing somebody a check.

Likewise, I can really see Macy feeling bad and wanting to help. Spending a couple of days helping sort donations for the Red Cross might well do her soul some good.

In theory, the Thug’s Ma is probably right that she’d really do much more good for the displaced by giving a benefit show or two rather than fooling with grunt work. You can easily see though why the very direct feeling of putting a cup of soup in their hands would do her as the giver more good. Perhaps someone a rung or two up from Macy on Maslow’s hierarchy toward full self-actualization would roll past this, and take their satisfaction from the more abstracted knowledge that their talents are better used in a less direct way.

Even as that would apply to me personally, the biggest part of the worst need in the world isn’t here at home in Indiana. My hands on things might help a few folks, but it’s not going to do a thing for the really bad situations in the world. Starving and diseased Africans need the help worse than a few down on their luck locals. On the other hand, the closer the giving is to home, the more I know that it’s actually accomplishing something.

I just know that low key, direct personal aid seems far more spiritually pure than starring in a telethon, or just writing a check. Then again, my spirituality and $2 will get a Katrina victim a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

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  • Truly selfish people don’t understand or feel empathy. And true empathy can’t be and isn’t self-interested. If the emotional reward for helping others directly stems from emotional concern for others (“I can’t stand to see others suffer”), then that’s not something based in self-interest but in a morality connected to other human beings. If you are aware that you might be responsible for the suffering of others and are unwilling to sanction that suffering in your pursuit of self-interest, you are not a good Randian nor truly individually self-interested and ethically selfish as the “new Intellectual” is supposed to be. Why not try to sell the sandwich to someone else on the street who has money so you can profit? Why not create your own business asking for money to buy sandwiches for the homeless so you can keep some of the proceeds as a salary for your own profit?

    The fundamental question for any adult human being would then be “Why can’t I stand it to see other suffer?” If you’re unwilling to grapple with the moral consequences of that emotional response and instead dismiss it as “guilt,” then it will not be possible for you to directly influence and benefit the lives of individual sufferers without alienating them, insulting them, or patronizing them.

    The answer is a self-denying, anti-materialistic carryover of Christian morality in the back of your head.

    I agree that low-key celebrities are better than glory-hogs, but by your silly Ayn Rand “self-interest good, altruism bad” standard, Sean Penn is the better, more charitable individual because he derives the most self-interest and self-pleasure out of helping people and getting reflected glory as a result. Macy Gray would be a pointless, unrewarded altruist under that limited, childish morality.

    Al, to be highly actualized on Maslow’s hiearchy, you’d need to be getting regular sex. That’s only the beginning of where I’d take issue with your self-comparison to Macy Gray.

    That is all.

  • People should help in the way that they are best qualified to help. Sean Penn is an actor, not a rescue worker. He makes a lot of money. It would have been more efficient for him to send more money to qualified organizations rather than spending it on actually transporting himself there in person, acquiring a boat and paying the people he took with him. I’d have more respect for a photo of him writing a big check to the Red Cross than a photo of him wading up to his knees in ego-juice.

    It seems to me that Benthamite utilitarianism is a much better argument against Penn’s activities than anything Randian. But then Randism is pretty reprehensible and idiotic at any time.

    BTW, who is the Thug and who is his Ma? I guess I’m not hip enough to know…


  • Dave, you might note that I never quoted or invoked Rand at any point in this essay.

  • I was in part responding to Babs’ Randian comment, Al.


  • Alright, fair enough. Obviously, I’m known as a student of Rand, but this is the kind of thing where she’s mostly not a helluva lot of help.

  • She’s the only “philosopher” you’ve ever read, Senator.

    Cite any other thinkers, ANY, that have shaped your views who are legitimate philosophers. I’ve seen that list of your Top 10 influences on another topic and they’re all silly.

    And no, Jesus Christ of Nazareth is not one of them.

    That is all.

  • arj

    If 2,000 Americans did what Sean Penn did – hop on a plane going to Louisiana in order to rescue people – would it be helpful to the City of New Orleans? Do you think the military would let 2,000 out-of-state people inside the City Limits? Where would these 2,000 potential rescuers eat or sleep anyway? Plus, the relief effort isn’t well organized, so 2,000 extra bodies could be a hindrance, possibly slowing down the proceedings, no? I think if Sean Penn weren’t so famous, the military would never let him past the airport. Sean is a celebrity with privileges after all; he is not like most of us. I am sure the “gatekeepers” in New Orleans were starstruck and they let Sean do whatever he wanted to do in the city.

    I say if Sean’s intentions were REALLY good, he’d send a check and no one would know about it except his business manager. And don’t get me started on that other one: Angelina Jolie, The Baby Saver. She’s saving the world’s babies, ONE BABY AT A TIME. Blah. Is Angelina the first woman in the world to adopt a child or what? Maybe I missed something here. It’s like these people aren’t fully alive unless there is a camera crew recording each event. There are so many truly good people in this world who give back without any recognition at all. So why do we have these narcissistic morally bankrupt celebrities telling us how to live our lives?