On the face of it, the answer should be simple. Moral philosophy would say that a need exists and we are in a position to fulfil that need, with minimal cost to ourselves and so yes, we should give to beggars. Perhaps we are even obligated to do so. But then why do we feel so uncomfortable when we are confronted with them, and why does it feel as though the answer is not quite so simple?
In her paper “Kant on Giving to Beggars”, Wits Professor of Philosophy, Lucy Allais, attempts to give us an account of why the question of whether or not to give to beggars feels different to similar claims on us to meet the needs of others. For instance, when there is a natural disaster or when someone is drowning and in need of saving, the obligation to give assistance seems less questionable. One reason for this could be that in those cases, the need is temporary, whereas in the case of a beggar, their need is likely permanent. Appealing to Kant’s moral philosophy, Allais argues that when confronted with a beggar we lack information. We don’t know if they genuinely are in need and we have no guarantee of what they will use the money for. Thus, we cannot properly evaluate the situation and this makes us feel uneasy. Furthermore, according to Kant, it is degrading for a man to beg. He forfeits his autonomy over himself in relation to others and his existence is now dependent on the whims of others. As Allais points out, the beggars that we encounter on a daily basis often wear costumes and perform poses that we, as human beings, find humiliating. But even more than that, Kant argues that when we encounter a beggar, we are confronted with a grave injustice that exists in society. The beggar’s need is representative of a huge inequality that exists because of an unjust system that does not provide adequately for its people. Giving money to the beggar is really just giving him something to which he should naturally be entitled.
Furthermore, in a purely African context where emphasis is on family and community and the promotion of a spirit of togetherness, the presence of beggars makes us feel uncomfortable because they simply shouldn’t exist. People should always have a place to go; a home, where there are people that can help them. Seeing people appealing to strangers on the street to help them, stirs up a complex mix of emotions within us.
I think that any one of these observations serves as an adequate explanation for why we feel so uncomfortable when faced with poverty and a questionable opportunity to alleviate it by some measure. It explains why we avoid eye contact with the lady holding a sign at the traffic lights. It explains how we’ve all come to master the silent mouthing and accompanying hand motion of “next time” when a shivering child motions to us that he wants something to eat. So we have now established that beggars make us feel bad. Does that mean we should give to them?
In his article “Should You Give Money to Homeless People”, Derek Thompson refers to the confrontation with a beggar as “an economic crisis of the heart”. On the blog “Practical Ethics”, Ole Martin Moen outlines many of the standard reasons often given for why we shouldn’t give to beggars. Firstly, by giving to beggars, we only succeed in making begging more lucrative and getting a job less lucrative and less appealing. Secondly, we would want to give where the greatest need exists, but because of the lack of information when one encounters a beggar, we are more likely to give to the wrong beggars. Different beggars achieve differing degrees of success depending on their location, their appearance and their technique; among other factors. If we are inclined to give based on an impulsive emotional reaction to someone’s appearance, chances are, we are giving to a beggar who is already receiving enough and overlooking someone in greater need. Because of the lack of information, we are only in a position to give according to perceived need. Beggars know this and they can exploit it by exaggerating their situation. If you give a shoeless child at the traffic lights a pair of shoes today, it is unlikely he will be wearing them tomorrow, as that would deter further donations.
Some people may argue that giving to beggars is good for the economy as we are guaranteed that they will spend it. The problem is that we have no guarantee of what they will spend it on. They may very well use it to buy drugs, ultimately financing organised crime. Furthermore, even for those beggars who do make a fair amount of money, they have no way of saving it. Thus, they are more incentivised to spend it on short term, quick fixes than using it towards long term improvement. As Derek Thompson says, “For both sides it results in a fleeting sense of relief rather than a lasting solution to the problem of poverty.”
A further argument might be that it is better to give to organised charities. They are in a position to properly assess who is most in need and how best to help them. However, when a charity is involved, some of your donation will inevitably be lost in administration costs and logistically there will always be a delay in seeing your donation in action. You can write a cheque for your chosen charity today, but that boy without shoes will still be standing at the traffic lights when you drive to work tomorrow, and more likely than not, for some time to come. Thus, logically, it would seem as though responding to the need that you are immediately faced with would be a better use of your resources. Yet still, we don’t feel quite right about it.
I think that perhaps what we need to do is to change how we relate to the beggar. We need to remove the feeling of discomfort and to rectify our uncertainty that is holding us back from helping. And the only way to do this is to engage with the beggar. We can give to them, but with strings attached. Rather than rustling up a handful of loose change or giving them your soggy half eaten sandwich from lunch, speak to them. Find out what they need; what would make the most difference in their lives and then give them that. You are now ascertaining for yourself who is most in need. You are guaranteeing that your donation will be used for its intended purpose. If they dismiss you and wander over to the next car, then I think you can rest assured they don’t need your help as much as they lead you to believe. So yes, by all means, give where a need exists. But firstly confirm that the need is genuine and secondly, give with purpose and direction. Don’t throw money at the problem. Throw a plan of action.
To return to the wise philosophy of Immanuel Kant, we should give to beggars but we need to ensure that we give in the right way:
“We shall acknowledge that we are under obligation to help someone poor; but since the favour we do implies his well-being depends on our generosity, and this humbles him, it is our duty to behave as if our help is merely what is due to him or but a slight service of love, and to spare him humiliation and maintain his respect for himself” (6:448) Metaphysic of Morals, in Practical Philosophy