A Philosopher's Blog

Begging

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 19, 2011
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While driving home from work, I saw a man by the side of the road holding out his hat. He was obviously hoping people would put money in it. This got me thinking about begging.

I am, I admit, often an easy mark for beggars. Part of it is emotional-like most people, I have compassion and I am moved by people who seem to be need. Part of it is based on my moral principles: a good person helps others and I have a duty to my fellows when they are in need. Part of it is based on moral reasoning, specifically reversing the situation: if I were in desperate need, I would want people to assist me. Hence, I must be willing to aid others (kind of a Kantian thing).

When I was younger, I tended to give without thinking because I assumed that the beggar was in dire straights because of an unfair system and was working to get back into the game. That is, I had the usual young liberal view. I was, however, not an idiot: I knew that some people doomed themselves and I never foolishly put myself in danger. However, I found that my sympathy did not vanish even in cases where a person obviously just wanted the money to buy drugs or alcohol and had no intention of ever returning to mainstream society.

As I grew older, I thought a bit more about the matter of begging. As noted above, one reason I tend towards generosity is because I can imagine myself in need and I would want others to help me. However, I do have a hard time imagining myself begging. This is mainly because I believe in reciprocity: if I am to receive, I must also be willing to give in return. This need not be a crass and soulless exchange of money. For example, one person who was begging told me an amazing story about being abducted by a very strange cult and his adventures escaping from them. While it was almost certainly not true, the story was so good and well told that he certainly earned the $5 I gave him. However, a person who can offer others nothing at all would seem to have little grounds for expecting others to provide aid. After all, if I have nothing to offer others now or ever, it would seem rather selfish of me to expect them to give to me. That said, some religious folk describe God as doing just that: we have nothing to offer Him, yet He is supposed to give generously to us. As such, if God is so generous to us, perhaps we (or at least those who believe in Him) should emulate Him in this matter.

Getting back to the main point, if I found myself in dire straights and stripped of my job, house and possessions I would, of course, endeavor to regain what I had lost. I would be willing to accept assistance from family and friends and even the state (after all, I have been paying into the system  for years). However, I would not ask strangers for aid. This would be, in part, due to pride. But it would also be based on my values: I cannot reasonably ask them to give to me in return for nothing.  As noted above, it is the height of selfishness to expect others to simply give. But, honesty compels me to say that it is hard to know what one would truly do until such time as one must make that choice.

I was asked, once, whether I would beg or turn to crime if life’s road ended up in a place where I could gain no legitimate employment. My immediate response was “crime.” However, I added that I would only prey on the wicked and would not harm the innocent, honest and good even to stay alive. Fortunately (or rather unfortunately), there are plenty of wicked people who have lots of stuff-so until my inevitable violent end, I would probably be doing pretty well.

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2 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on September 19, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    Good post. Obviously the beggar has lost whatever pride they once had, because no one wants to beg. Whenever I have been to Mexico I always see children begging and they are too young to have ever known anything else or had the time to develop a sense of pride. Like you, I am an especially easy mark for beggars, especially children, because I have far always had – in comparison to the truly poor – far more than I need. Pride is the root of all sin and when one is reduced to total dependency on others it destroys one’s sense of self esteem. That being said, I think it best to depend on God’s putting it upon people’s hearts to give if they are sensitive enough to do so as opposed to holding out a hat to solicit donations from all who might pass by. Most people are compassionate and happy to help in some way those who are truly in need; therefore those who are truly in need should be willing to make their needs known, such as to others in their church, so their needs can be met. On the street, the homeless, who are obviously in need, make their needs known simply by their appearances, whom those with the ability to assist can assist anytime they see them and wish to do so. Also, in Catholic moral theology, if one is truly destitute, one can take food without paying for it and it is not considered stealing.

  2. magus71 said, on September 20, 2011 at 1:53 am

    I have no problem with begging out of true need. My thoughts on poverty are along the same lines as those of Pericles: It’s no shame to be poor, but one should try to get out of poverty, especially if you’re a burden to others. I just don’t think` people should wallow.


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