I think it was the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, or maybe it was another named David Hume, who devised an argument which denominated a person’s gift of a coin to a beggar to be a selfishly motivated act. The rationale went something like this: that the giver of the coin was acting so as to relieve his own feelings of distress at seeing a fellow being in penury and begging.
Now this argument is ingenious; but I want to argue that, like many ingenious arguments for or against a point or a position, it is one that has been wrenched by some violence to its prima facie facts, and by ingenuity, into a misshapen thing which aims to support a larger general and often dubious thesis.
Thomas Hobbes and David Hume are both in their various ways iconoclast philosophers; and both coursed nearer to a mundane and flatly empirical view of life and ‘things’ than their idealist predecessors and contemporaries.
Both were very caustic in their views on religion; and this, the argument that it is self-serving in a person to give to beggars, is used by the philosopher so that it fits into and so supports a larger outlook; one which claims all is falsehood as far as go humans’ attribution of ‘finer feelings’ to themselves and to others.
The upshot when one accepts this kind of wrenched argument is that ‘finer feelings’ are delusional and one’s attempts at selflessness in fact are nothing but acting in bad faith. The effect is to establish delusion and bad faith as being inherent in the general character of acts of kindness; and this is perhaps the position and/or the intention of the philosopher concerned?
But let us take the argument as given: that a person gives to beggars selfishly; because he gives so as to alleviate his own pain at seeing another suffering. There is the fact that the beggar’s pain is also alleviated. He has a coin he did not have before. The beggar will be glad for this; and feel noticed, and maybe felt-for. He is likely to be grateful; for the coin; and maybe also to the giver of it?
Is this gratefulness also simply and wholly selfish in the beggar as was said of the coin given by the giver? And the beggar: is his gratefulness towards the giver only and solely a reflection of his own selfish joy in having obtained a coin from that person?
The giver of the coin might detect a ‘thankyou’ in the eye or in the demeanour of the beggar he gave to. This ‘transfer’ of emotion from the beggar to the giver; of a parcel of feeling labelled ‘gratitude’; is it accepted solely and wholly by the giver of the coin as a ‘reward’; and so is wholly and solely a self-referential ‘pat-on-the-back’? Is this same parcel of emotion being offered by the beggar solely and wholly out of his self-referential satisfaction at the action towards him of the giver of the coin?
There is no need for me to go on unwrapping this affair for you to see how an extrapolation of an interpretation (of this action of giving a coin) is able to mushroom vastly so as in effect to sour and so colour cynically all human transactions which in any way are thought conventionally to involve philanthropy and selflessness. And thus a whole basis for most religions is thoroughly undermined.
I would say that the argument for selfishness in this instance of the beggar and the coin, seems to me to be demolished by the fact that; even when motivated by the giver wanting to alleviate his own pain, the deed of giving the coin, is founded more deeply upon a natural sympathy people in general have with other persons in distress. It is this natural sympathy which produces the pain which is to be alleviated in the giver by him giving of the coin; thus human sympathy is prior to the pain and is its root cause.
One might try to dismiss this human sympathy as being ‘instinctive’ and so not within the control or the freewill to opt out of by the agent who gives the coin. Then again, one might argue just as soundly that likewise the ‘self-preservation’ instinct of seeking to alleviate the pain by offering the coin, is also equally beyond freewill and control.
But all these arguments are psychological and so are not amenable to falsifiability by empirical means. Thus, in the realm of hard science they all remain no more than viable speculation and as historical events they remain not proven. This is not to say that their use as propaganda is not applied; as I said, according to the axe one has to grind
Now let’s move on. Given what I have written previously about my views on a ‘collective mind’ and about the ‘cloud’ in which our minds subsist collectively; then it seems to me that such and argument which attributes selfish motives to those who give to beggars cannot be sustained.
This ‘cloud’ of collective minds subsists; and in doing so acts so as to supply bearings to individual minds. Thus in this sense each of us is a dependent upon all others. If this is the case, then for a person to alleviate a beggar’s misery is for him to recognise and to acknowledge the plight of the recipient beggar via this inner sense of a shared dependency. As John Donne wrote:
‘No man is an island; each one is part of the Main’ ‘Each man’s death diminishes me.’
Thus the transaction of giving to the beggar is not so much an act of the self; as an act born of awareness of a common and general emotional and native connectivity which exists between persons.
Should one want to, one is able to work to break down and destroy such native connectivity in people; and by colouring every action no matter whether of largess or of spite, as originating within a mean-spirit or from self-referential protectionism, is one way to work this mischief.
There’s a kids cartoon my boys used to watch wherein a character was always treated scornfully by his clan – a kind of standing joke. This character asks his people whether they think his painting is good; and a loud resounding unanimous NOOO! arises from them
The character replies limply: ‘King Roger says he likes it’ His clan leader replies to this:
‘Only ‘cos he’s being nice; only ‘cos he knows you can’t paint!’
This kind of response as an act of corrosion of our common sympathies may be comic in a kids cartoon; but in life it is mere bullying and disrespect. The aim of it is to ostracise, to expel, to cut off from a general sympathetic association with other persons. Create a scapegoat.
It is a blind attribution of all reasons for behaviour to be based on a prejudice; the prejudice being that nothing that the victim is able to do or say is able to alter the foundational view which the prejudiced persons take of the victim. All that a victim says or does, can say and can do, is ‘evidence’ to the prejudiced persons that they are correct in making him a victim. In politics strict adherence to an ideology is quite analogous to this kind of tunnel-vision of personal bullying.
Thus it is that in general intense causes, like extremisms, and with also personal idée fixe of analogous kinds, there is everything corrosive which eats at the common collective cloud of natural sympathy. To an extent, and in these latter days, indeed to a very large extent, all politicians make use of this pointing-the-finger as a ‘divide and rule’ stratagem; or as George Orwell wrote of the animals and the Farmer in his parabolic novel ‘Animal Farm’ ‘Four legs good; two legs bad’.
The meat of this essay has been to give a bit of background to the scourge of biased and manipulative attributions of causes, which many ordinary people often like to manipulate, so as perhaps to show themselves in a good light or maybe to criticise implicitly another. The wily politician knows well this present-day human tendency and is not slow or shy to raise its spectre himself by shoving blame here and there or else accruing credit by the wretchedest means to himself.
It is most important to become aware of this fluidity and flexibility inherent within all ‘events’ and within all ‘actions’; that they are able to be cast in any light within the spectrum of colour; in such a way that an interested person will often make capital out of; or may load down as dudgeon on a targeted opposition; or else might use it to bury an inconvenient fact or person; under a veritable landslide of remiss attributed negligence or responsibility or liability or fault etc. This perhaps is more than half the game of politics, for most of those who like to call themselves politicians these days.
The nailing of the giver of the coin as one who is selfishly giving it is one such simple and excellent example of how arguments can be ‘fruitfully mismanaged’.
People will tell you that ‘politics is the art of the possible’ and will attempt to justify politicians use of ‘lowball’ tactics by citing this and similar propositions. To say this is as much to say that the end justifies the means; which again tries to exonerate the political mind from its behaviour. Another favourite maxim which aims to justify what is not justifiable is ‘tell it like it is’. This saying proposes that there is only one way to see a thing or an event or a person; that ‘reality’ has a single plane and a single approach. This too is bunkum.
An old and rather vicious UK politician some years ago pronounced as if it were a foundational law of the universe that; ‘if you give no responsibility to a person; that person will behave irresponsibly.’ Again, it sounds nice; sounds solid; and is catchy and a bit ingenious. But the great Samuel Johnson once said: ‘whenever you feel you have thought or said or written something really snappy and clever – scratch it out’.
Of course and again, this argument about having no responsibility means one acts irresponsibly, is a psychological one, and as such is not amenable to historical, scientific, empirical, investigation or verification. One is unable to know whether it is true. But one might certainly postulate that there are some, possibly many, who bear no responsibilities but who at the same time behave well and act with prudence and with due care?
The great TS Eliot wrote in his play ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ a saying thus:
‘The last temptation is the greatest treason
To do the right deed for the wrong reason’
This is worth thinking about as it is applicable to politicians and to others in their actions.
For instance; how many store checkout – women mostly – praise your choice of goods; and they do so simply because they have been instructed to do so by their managers; who are hoping it is a way of pleasing the customer and so adding to his shopping experience. Hoping also of course for a return visit from the customer
How often does a politician couch his words so that they are a) inoffensive or pleasing to those demographics in his electorate who elected him and will be electing him in the future; and b) parcelling up and pushing out items of blame and/or ignominy onto those whom his own demographic dislikes or despises; or else he stigmatises those persons or groups which are not his demographic; and who are very unlikely ever to be his demographic.
Believe it. The reasoning, the approaches, the thrusts and directions, the marshalling of arguments; their nuances and upshots – these are all being worked out behind the scenes by politically motivated ‘smart-arses’. All is made ready to go public so that like a shopkeeper lays out his stall; so these politicians arrange their own sophisms and intrigues in the most careful and most cunning of ways: for you to snap the baits dangled before you: no problem.
The public media, those media which most people still heed, and which:
‘Correct our watches by the public clocks’
are complicit. Their proprietors wish to hold sway; to promote their own views and interests; their newsrooms know on which side their bread is buttered and so go with the flow and make stories to please their bosses and their proprietors. Many newsrooms and media in general I am pretty sure have written or else unwritten guidelines on how to report; on what causes to show sympathy with and what to denigrate. They initiate and force through campaigns by which a public figure’s integrity is ridiculed and soon undermined; and without any substance adhering to their campaigns or to the materials they publish.
Let us go back to:
‘Just ‘cos he’s being nice – Just ‘cos you can’t paint!’
This kind of prejudicial disdain is the level and the substance of many media campaigns against people or organisations whom they ‘pick-upon’ deliberately to destroy. It borders on, sometimes is, sheer lies and wanton abuse; and sheer insistence and repetition gradually makes this sewage a runner in reader’s minds and their estimations of the targeted persons/organisations plummet – and then sometimes silly others in other media outlets climb on the bandwagon, simply to try to steal a share some readership figures, or simply because they have begun to believe others’ propaganda.
In Britain the following reasonably decent men have been demolished by slander and innuendo in the press over the past 30 years:
Michael Foot (‘Wurzel Gummage’ he was ridiculed because he dressed ‘funny scruffy’)
Ed Milliband (because he had facial features and expressions that were ‘monetisable’ in ridicule)
Wayne Rooney – footballer – who is a man the press love to humiliate
John Prescott – whom the press like to point at as an inarticulate – Physician, heal thyself!
Whist this attrition and carnage goes on like a circus romp day after day – on TV screens and in print, – scoundrels who have utterly lied, and have wholly been false; and have said some appalling offensive and sheer terrible things; publicly whilst in their roles in High Office; and who have been seen to have done all these deplorable things in front of the public eye; yet they bear charmed lives and nothing sticks to them; because only token mud is unconvincingly slung.
Once again, they know on which side their bread is buttered; both the outrageous guys with their charmed lives and the media guys and its moguls; who are whom decide what the news is to be; there is perhaps no exact ‘cahoots’ between them – although I would not rule this out as a possibility by any means – but certainly strong shared common interests of money, power, favour, and all of the world, the flesh, and the devil, rolled into one, bind them together in a single cause which is – as Jack Sparrow has it;
‘Take what you can – give nothing back.’