Some time ago I was talking to a friend and the conversation turned to charity, and how much we both tend to give.
“I never give to charity”, they said “I don’t believe in it”.
I was a little taken aback.
My friend is a perfectly nice and amiable person, personally generous to their friends and not especially mean spirited. I’d never really come across anyone with such a hard view of charity before, and certainly wasn’t expecting it from my friend. It turns out my friend’s not unique, I’ve encountered others with the same view since.
People offer a range of reasons for their opposition to charity: “all the money gets wasted”, “people need to learn to look after themselves”, “I don’t have enough money myself”. I actually heard someone say “well its survival of the fittest isn’t it” when asked about developing world poverty once. Others seem to have broader and deeper issues, related to some form of hoarding instinct, or a genuine lack of emotional empathy for others, such as with Doctor Spock style Alexithymia. Recent research does suggests there may be a genetic component to generosity.
The most common reason that tends to be offered though is “I’ve never really thought about it”.
When it comes to charitable giving there’s a spectrum that ranges from cheerful and generous sacrificial giving, all the way to not believing in charity at all, passing through various shades of awkward guilt and lukewarm occasional support, in between.
And of course it’s not just giving to charity, the same question arises with anything we do more for others than ourselves. Pay more for fairtrade – why ? Make less profit with an ethical investment account – why ? Pay more for green electricity – why ?
There are as many reasons given in support of empathy and compassion as against it – that it’s in the common good and makes things better for everyone, that it’s a requirement of an ethical code, that its a religious commandment or that its all down to mirror neurons.
The truth is, of course, that to a significant extent empathy and compassion are learned, especially in early childhood. Charity in later life, it seems, really does begin in the home.
We all tend to imitate what we see and what’s modeled for us when growing-up, and several developmental psychologists (including Sue Gerhardt) have stressed the importance of a warm loving environment and relationships for developing empathy in children.
Fortunately, if you’ve left teaching (or learning) empathy a little late, all the indications are that it can also be successfully learned later in life. Many courses and training – whether for ex-prisoners trying manage anger, doctors improving their bedside manner or (of course) for marketing, now incorporate empathy development. The economist and activist Jeremy Rifkin believes the development of increased global empathy is what will ultimately save the world.
So more hugs all round then!
Photo by carnoodles, via Flickr