Thursday, August 29, 2013

Maimonides on Charity

Butter Churn

Let's assume for argument's sake that I am a well-to-do person living next door to a poor family who apparently can't keep bread on the table without outside assistance. In other words, let's simplify the world artificially so we can take a look at how charity is done today in comparison to wisdom on the subject from Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher of the 12th Century.

We Canadians are said to be charitable people, after all, but like the Jewish community of Maimonides' day, we ponder the difference between charity that is self-serving and charity that is truly sincere and of maximum benefit to those who receive it.

So how do I best help the poor family next door? It's not cut and dried, is it? If that family is headed by a ne'er-do-well who will take any gift straight to the pub, the situation will obviously be different from the case of a family where parents are trying hard but are unemployable for health or fitness reasons. And then there's every other possibility between the two.

Maimonides ranks different ways of delivering charity as follows:

  1. The highest level of charity is where the donor and the receiver know each other and the donor partners with the receiver to take actions that will enable the receiver to become self-sufficient. It's similar to the current adage in NGO circles: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.
  2. If this is not possible, the second level of charity is to give to reputable charitable funds that administer aid to the poor but where the donor and receiver do not know each other.
  3. A third level—according to Maimonides—is to give anonymously to the poor. This might take the form of dropping off a basket of produce at night while the family is asleep. The anonymity indicates that the gift is not given out of self-interest.
  4. Maimonides' fourth level has the receiver know who the donor is, but the donor is unaware of the identity of the beneficiary. Food aid during a famine with the name of the donor stamped on the bags of grain might qualify here.
  5. The next level of charity is the giving of a gift to the poor family without being asked. The donor senses the need and goes over with hundred dollars for groceries, for instance.
  6. The sixth level has the poor man ask me for help and I gladly give him hundred dollars for groceries.
  7. Giving gladly to the poor man but giving stingily (say twenty dollars when hundred is barely reasonable) qualifies as number 7 in Maimonides' catalogue.
  8. The lowest form of charity is the grudging, stingy gift.

Maimonides had neither a tax deduction to contemplate in all this, nor could he have envisioned a time when most charity would be state-administered. Revisiting his thoughts on charity in his time—or lack thereof—can help us clarify our own responses to the cries for help that come to us on a daily basis, as they no doubt did to Maimonides. His list contains a curious mixture of piety and practicality: this consideration we have in common.

The big difference, maybe, I guess, is that Maimonides was writing about life in a community that contained both the well-off and the poor; in our day the separation of wealth and poverty is so complete that the haves need never rub shoulders with the have nots.

It's too easy today to fall routinely into Charity Number Seven, or Eight.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Everything in Moderation


Unidentified mushroom . . . Do Not Eat!
"Do everything in moderation, including moderation."

Although there's considerable speculation about whom Ben Franklin was quoting in his version of the moderation epigram, the sentiment has probably been around at least as far back as the Roman dramatist Publius Terentius Afer, 190 – 159 B.C. It's resurrected at times when alcohol is being consumed by people who still feel a tad bit guilty about cocktails and wine, or about gourmet feasting. “It's OK if you don't overdo it,” seems to be the thrust under these circumstances.

            Somewhere between the two poles of any indulgence lies the kingdom of moderation. Between the drunk and the abstainer, one finds the moderate user, the one who claims that he only has one glass a day with dinner, for instance. Somewhere between the anorexic and the glutton, you'll find the moderate consumer of food, the one who eschews a second dessert, desirable though it may be.

            There's no arguing the observation that life at the poles can be treacherous. The experimental rat who's been rigged up to experience sexual release whenever he pushes a button will do so repeatedly and continuously until he starves to death. I've been told that certain gambling addicts have worn diapers to the casino so they don't need bathroom breaks while they repeatedly push the VLT buttons like masturbating rats. Next to life at the poles, moderation can look pretty good.

            Our culture teaches us, however, that there must be a right answer for everything, and that value militates against the moderation principle. In my growing-up days, the right answer for dancing, drinking, swearing, movies, gambling, was JUST DON'T. The abstinence pole. The right/wrong determination was on a toggle switch. No space contemplated between the poles.

            Ben Franklin be hanged: moderation is manufactured in the devil's workshop. Moderation is that wishy-washy space where liberals and humanists live, the freaks who think laws are there to be tested and broken at will.

            Between the rabid socialist and the convinced capitalist there exists a moderate space, and it's always beneficial to think of the choices made in the public sphere with that in mind. If environmental conservation and resource exploitation are two poles of a set of choices, is the “right answer” somewhere in the moderation space between the two, and if so, where in that space does it lie? The moderation space can, of course, be vast: compared to the drunk and the abstainer, most of the world lives at varying places between; where someone lives in that space is a matter of thought, will and choice.

            Politically, the moderate space needs keen thinkers, activist organization and determination to find the balanced places: not zero, not ten, but four--possibly--or six.

            I think we're all a bit tired of flailing at the poles.

            As a footnote, I would argue that Franklin threw in the “even moderation” part of his epigram as a joke only; moderation is a noun and to “do” it, an active verb is needed. Grammatically, you can “exercise” moderation moderately, I suppose, or you can be a “moderate moderate” but that would be a frivolous redundancy at best.

            And as a footnote to the footnote, Ben Franklin is also purported to have said:

“Who is wise?

        He who learns from everyone.

Who is powerful?

       He that governs his passions.

Who is rich?

       He that is content.

Who is that?


            Maybe moderation, too, is a pipe dream.


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Binsey Poplars

Rosthern Poplars
A month ago, my neighbour and I agreed that we would remove some poplars along the adjoining line of our properties. Two were huge—their stumps measuring more than a foot in diameter—and a third was in critical condition, its roots too shallow to keep it from falling in a strong wind.

            Two days ago, a man and machine arrived to complete the obliteration by grinding the stumps down to a foot below the surface. but like chickens struggle for life when the axe approaches, left-over poplar roots begin to send up sucker-trees in the yard, struggling for another breath of sunlight, tiny leaves that gasp at the air, fight to stay alive just a little longer (or in the case of poplars, to fill my yard with a “revenge bush.”)

            In 1879, workmen felled a grove of poplars at Binsey in England. Poet and professor, Gerard Manley Hopkins, penned what might well fit in the “Psalms” portion in an environmentalists' “Bible” in response to the devastation. Some of its memorable lines are: 

. . . O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will [mean] no eye at all,

Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:

After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc únselve
The sweet especial scene . . .

Hopkins is not taking sides in the economic argument here, nor in the sustainability debate. There is no hint here of renewable or non-renewable resources, resource stewardship, etc. His lament is about beauty and the eye of the beholder; what have we done when we rob “after-comers” of the ecstasy of walking through a grove of rustling poplars on a summer's day?

                        My workman and his machine left me with holes in the yard and piles of wood chips and dirt. What do I do now to restore the beauty of the spot where the “Rosthern Poplars” stood?  “. . . even where we mean/To mend her, we end her/when we hew or delve.”
                        How true. What a mess!

                        Most of us find ourselves somewhere between the hunter who kills for pleasure and the vegan who can barely bring himself to end the life of a carrot in order to feed himself. Between the entrepreneur who evaluates trees in terms of board feet and the “tree hugger” whose heart bleeds to see a poplar wounded. We need poets to remind us that it's not just about economics or food for the belly, that our happiness depends also on beauty and the tenderness, the gentleness of the natural world,

                        . . . on poplar leaves winking and rustling beside a winding stream on a summer's day in Binsey.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

The Switcher's Dilemma

Sun through poplars

Graduate Room - Academy B & B
Imagine two people debating an age-old puzzle:

            It supposes you are standing at a junction where a spur line branches off the main line of a railroad and that you operate the switch. On the main line are five workers who can't possibly get off the track before a speeding train will arrive and they will be killed. On the spur line is a single man who likewise will be killed if you activate the switch and divert the train off the main line.

            What do you do?

            The one doesn't hesitate: the answer is clear; kill one man to save five; it's the right thing to do; it's simple arithmetic.  The other refuses to accept responsibility for any decision and says he would likely freeze or run from the situation. Still others might try to avoid the dilemma completely by arguing something stupid, like “I'd never be caught in that position because I don't work for the railroad,” or “How could they possible not get off the tracks when they realized the train was coming?”

            There are, of course, variations to the railroad switcher's dilemma: what if the single person on the spur line is not a man, but the switcher's young son playing on the tracks? Does that make a difference? What if the five men are known criminals trying to escape and the single person is a policeman pursuing them? Does that make a difference?

            Moral philosophy can begin with questions like the switcher's dilemma and when we debate possible answers, we are doing moral philosophizing. Heaven knows we're prone to run away from such questions and keep our fingers crossed, hoping we never find ourselves in such a situation. The fact is, the switcher's dilemma faces us in many ways, every day. In differing versions it haunts us (or should) when we spend a lot of money on a luxury knowing that while we could live without a certain extravagance, the same dollars could vaccinate a thousand children for polio, possibly save five lives.    
           Money is a switch we hold in our hands; we don't even have to “kill one to save five.”

            Debating the switcher's dilemma might even illuminate for us questions like pipelines for crude oil, yes or no. Tar sands development, yes or no. Suppose that human civilization continues on this earth for five more generations. That means that every single person now will be replaced in the future by at least five other people, give or take. Is it right to trade the future of the five for access to cheap energy for the one? In this case, I fear, we're deciding to kill the five, not for the life of the one, but for his pleasure and convenience!!

            It's not surprising that we don't like debating the switcher's dilemma; we want so much to be free of the responsibility for the switch that we'd rather clap our hands over our eyes and ears. (Not easy to do!) But the truth of the matter is that someone must always assume the switcher's responsibility.

            Unfortunately, our current government isn't good at moral philosophy.

            Meanwhile, the rest of us are whistling through the graveyard.