All other things being equal, if you were to hear of a grown man cussing out a little old lady, you would most likely sympathize with the latter. In this case, however, you may find yourself more sympathetic toward the man. The Blaze summarizes the scene:
A furious Oklahoma City man was caught on video confronting an elderly panhandler after he apparently saw her get into a “2013 car” after previously seeing her begging for money in the street.
The profanity laced tirade conveys the man’s frustration at having been swindled out of a few dollars a day for an unspecified period of time. He even claims to have gone without food himself for the sake of the panhandling elder woman.
The man takes his objection too far, threatening to bust out a window on the woman’s vehicle if ever he sees it again. He probably could have dispensed with the language as well. But the frustration motivating him certainly seems justified.
The scenario provides a good case study for marking the difference between charity and altruism. Typically, we regard those as one and the same. However, an important distinction separates them, namely choice.
In raising his objection to the panhandler’s circumstances, this man utilizes his judgment as to whether she proves worthy of his charity. Altruism, by contrast, demands tribute to others regardless, and even in spite of judgment.
In our political discourse, advocates of the welfare state commonly assert that charity proves inadequate to provide for all those in need. The knee-jerk response may be to deny this. But when we take a cold hard look at the reality, charity is inadequate to provide for everyone in need. The relevant question becomes: so what? By what moral principle does someone’s need place a claim upon another’s life?
The actual means to provide for need is not charity, but productivity. The elderly woman may be hungry, even at the wheel of her 2013 automobile. That need can only be satisfied by productivity, whether hers or someone else’s. Altruism calls upon those with the ability to help her, whether they judge her worthy or not.
In short, you can be charitable or altruistic, but not both. Those who advocate altruism do so through the state, because the state removes individual judgment from consideration. It’s because this man was charitable that he gets to choose whether to continue giving. If the lady were getting his money through the state, he would have no choice, a condition altruists regard as a virtue.
Note: See video of the confrontation, along with some additional thoughts on altruism and my podcast commentary, on the next page.
(Today’s Fightin Words podcast is on this topic available here. 10:40 minutes long; 10.3 MB file size. Right click here to download this show to your hard drive. Subscribe through iTunes or RSS feed.)