What Do We Owe Each Other

What Do We Owe Each Other

This seemingly simple theme was chosen by the group attending Socrates Café at Ethical on Monday.
We began by exploring who the OTHER may be. Most expressed a greater sense of obligation to help our immediate family when they are in need than to aid strangers. But the question was raised: if we, as ethical culturists, respect the infinite worth of all humans, why should we have this bias in our response to the neediness of family vs. others? Is it appropriate? Should we not expand the boundaries of our concern to friends, others in the communities we identify with or the neediest in the world, who may have more pressing and dire needs than our own family? What if the family members in need are not particularly nice people?
Despite the theoretical equality in human worth, we recognized the profound emotional ties and sense of affiliation we feel to our primary family unit. It is this bond that provides a strong ad hominem basis for deciding whom to help first which we cannot ignore. Others mentioned a sociobiologic basis for this tie to family, that is, a drive to preserve the genetic survival of those who most closely share our traits.
The image of “concentric circles” of affinity seemed to ring true as a metaphor for the gradient of our giving. It begins with recognizing our own needs in a healthy way before giving to family, friends, community, etc. But we also recognized that one can give too much, that is, not only exhaust oneself or destabilize oneself but also destabilize one’s family by giving so much to others and neglecting those to whom one is closest. Therefore, a healthy and balanced selfishness is an important foundation for helping others in a constructive and sustained way.
In considering what it is that we OWE, we recognized clearly that it is not just material in nature, but also time and emotional support. Others objected to the term “owe” and felt the proper phrase would be “fulfill a need.” Clearly, those in need of basics like food and shelter are among the highest priorities for our help, but we often limit giving to those we see or hear about among our family and friends. Again, the concentric circle for most of us seems quite parochial. But do we really ever limit ourselves this?
We next considered who is the WE? In part, the theme is a personal one. But clearly, we all have limits in what we can do for others. We saw the value of community groups, like Ethical Culture, as a force for organizing collective giving more efficiently and effectively than efforts of individuals acting alone in response to others’ needs. We also recognized the value of a social safety net by various levels of government so that an appropriate amount of collective wealth, i.e. taxes, can be sequestered for the common good and for helping the most unfortunate who might otherwise not be served by voluntary, charitable efforts. Thus social justice would seem best served by combined private, voluntary and public efforts focused on the complementing each others’ efforts toward the needy.
In turning to HOW MUCH we owe, we discussed that limits must be placed on our ability and willingness to give, if only to preserve ourselves and balance competing claims on our personal and material resources. In part our conscience is the arbiter in determining how much we give. Some mentioned that they feel they give in order to avoid feeling guilty. Others felt the context must largely determine how much we give. If a crisis creates dire need and not simply a want, then the impulse to sacrifice something is stronger. Some suggested, it is not how much we give that matters but how much is left over, that is, a kind of progressive notion of charity in which those with more should be expected to give more.
Why do we give at all? Some mentioned the motive of “gaining a place in heaven” or a wish to be liked. It is rare that our motives are purely altruistic or our contributions done anonymously. But is the motive important or are the results of giving the only important consideration, from an ethical point of view? If an organized crime figure or drug cartel leader gives generously to meet a community’s need, the act may seem laudable, but we questioned the motive and recognize the damage done in acquiring the means to provide the contribution. Therefore, the motive is important to consider as is the process by which someone acquired their wealth when we evaluate the ethicality of a gift.
Finally, we considered the implication of the genius musician who hated most people, had no charitable impulses in the traditional sense but had an unrelenting drive to create music. While not contributing to social justice or a social safety net, the introverted artist may nonetheless make a substantial contribution to the world and its beauty. Similarly, the researcher may increase our knowledge of the world through their single-minded pursuit of seemingly obscure questions or mathematical proofs with no practical application. How does this fit into the question,” How much do we owe one another?”
If we follow the Delphic challenge to know ourselves and to understand our uniqueness and the particular ways we feel most creative and fulfilled, we may be engaging in a seemingly self-centered, asocial activity. It would not seem to be particularly charitable. Nonetheless, as Felix Adler suggests, by recognizing, enabling and encouraging others to develop their latent talents, we- as parents, teachers and friends- are helping them find out who they are, while bringing out the best in ourselves. The end result of such efforts may, in fact, be more important to enriching the world than our taxes or more traditional forms of charitable giving.
Rich B

One Comment

  1. Wow, talk about irony! I’m approaching my 40th HS riouenn and my kids are at a stage where they need to be asking those “big questions” about religious beliefs, what is important in life, what should be valued more than yourself, and what to seek in a lifemate.About 40 years ago I was working through those same questions with your daughter Pat as a freshman at U of I. In the short time I knew her, I found many of the answers to those questions.I always wondered if she’d found the answers she was seeking, and my search for her writings sent me here.Half the journey of discovery is asking the right questions, and recognizing the “right” answers when you find them.I’d love to read what “big questions” you consider key, the answers you’ve found, and what you plan to tell your grandchildren about finding their own answers.The wisdom of Socrates would be great, but the fire of Xantippe will suffice!

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