Thursday 12 August 2010

Essay: Sainthood and Conscience

Dear Philosophers,

Our meetings are more about wisdom than sainthood, but let me invoke Saint Martin here. He ranks among Christianity’s most popular figures. Opulent churches across Europe and America are dedicated to his veneration, and yet most people have only a trivial anecdote to quote about his life: As he was on patrol with his legionnaires Centurion Martin came across a beggar, half-naked and shivering in a biting winter day. Moved by compassion Martin took off his ample army cloak, slashed it, and gave the beggar half. Isn’t that a generous move? Martin suffered more from the cold, but the poor man suffered less. That’s solidarity.

Rewind the film and twist the story. Imagine the general ordered a subordinate to share his coat with the beggar. The result would look exactly the same: a half-freezing soldier, a half-warmed up pauper. But who is generous now? Who is showing solidarity? The general, who keeps comfortably clothed? The soldier, who can only obey orders? And ought the poor man to accept an object from someone who didn’t want to give it? The poor have their pride too, and if the general had to intervene it must be because the soldier was reluctant. Should the receiver thank the general, who deprived somebody else, not himself, or thank the unwilling soldier?

Of course, beneficiaries don’t brood moral issues. Not when they are cold and hungry. But their perspective, however emotional, is not the only valid one if you worry about the long term.
For consider the soldier. What can his feelings be towards two individuals, who are causing him misery? He looks askance at his warmly clothed commander, who displays the smug smile of good conscience; and he looks down at the new coat wearer, in whom he sees no merit, for whom he feels no compassion, and he is probably ready to despise both of them equally.

You catch my drift. You are not giving when you are ordered to. The poor surround us, at home and afar, and our generals command us to provide for their care. They even chase aggressively the few who evade the order to “give”, or give less than ordered.

Notwithstanding, of course, their conflicts of interest as whilst they claim the moral high ground, they take their cut before distribution.

Can solidarity be coercive? Interpersonal relationships are based on risk. Professionals won’t turn you down; but when you hope for fraternity, rather than impersonal assistance based on computer entries, only freely given relationships will do. Is the grand ambition to achieve a society of bean counters, where everyone has a cash to check on reluctant payers; or are we aspiring to a more vibrant, generous, and yes, less regulated, community?


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