Moral Dilemma #1: The Banker and the Beggar

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Thank you to everyone who shared their thoughts on this moral dilemma. After giving the original dilemma and then adding a wrinkle to it, we are now ready for an analysis of the dilemma from an expert in moral theology and ethics.

Need to get up to speed? Read the original dilemma and then read the wrinkle and vote/comment on one or both before you read the expert analysis.

Our Expert Weighs In

I am delighted and pleased that the editors at Busted Halo invited me to be part of Bill McGarvey’s “Moral Dilemmas” feature. I’ve worked with Bill and the Busted Halo people before. In the way we deal with complex moral issues we’re simpatico spirits.

This first dilemma has garnered a number of votes, most tilting toward helping the street person in some way. Jason’s clueless reluctance to help was simply so crass that many Busted Halo readers didn’t feel a need to “say the obvious.” One commenter pointed out, however, that if Jason’s salary is six figures and he is moving toward the million-dollar mark, his measly $1,000 a year to five charities at Christmastime comes in at 1 percent or lower. The Scriptural tradition of tithing 10 percent seems a long way off. From the start Jason doesn’t exactly deserve the generosity award for sharing his blessings with others.

What should be given?

Many voted according to what kind of “gift” would be most appropriate — money, food, clothing, and/or a night’s shelter? But, if Jason is really conscious of his own blessings, talents, and earning potential, might he not invest a bit more time and energy in this one lost soul (e.g., finding him permanent housing, possible job training, substance abuse therapy if needed, and maybe some ongoing personal relationship)? Since Jason’s own fortunes currently seem to be so good, why not share the wealth by investing a little time, talent and treasure in helping this poor man get a break, find new bootstraps, if you will?

Who are we to decide?

At a more fundamental and immediate level I wonder when needy folks approach us for a handout, who are we to decide what they need, what will make them happy, what they ought to want and seek? Is being a successful investment banker like Jason, buying $800 shoes, and looking toward being a millionaire the measure of a happy or successful person? For some it may be.

Certainly being financially solvent seems better than being broke. So, it doesn’t seem arrogant or condescending for Jason to think that freezing on the street, trying to bum money for a drink, and guilt-tripping one’s mark is not likely to be the happiest or healthiest of lifestyles. Still, if someone asks us for money on the street, is it our task to determine how they will spend this modest windfall?

If they honestly ask for money, maybe it’s worth simply treating them as an equal, a fellow human being: give the money or not, trusting them to spend it as they deem best; offer to buy a meal or not, without strings attached; offer to arrange tonight’s shelter or not, without expecting groveling gratitude. Maybe all we can do is that moment’s request.

Are we called to be full-blown good Samaritans in every instance?

Not all wandering homeless folks are “bums.” Some may more accurately be described as “hobos,” “knights of the road,” or “free spirits.” Being hemmed in — particularly in a bug-infested, rule-laden, and sometimes violence-prone men’s shelter — is not everyone’s idea of “living.” Some street people, albeit often with a measure of mental disability, prefer their freedom to a regimented or institutionalized life. If they honestly ask for money, maybe it’s worth simply treating them as an equal, a fellow human being: give the money or not, trusting them to spend it as they deem best; offer to buy a meal or not, without strings attached; offer to arrange tonight’s shelter or not, without expecting groveling gratitude. Maybe all we can do is that moment’s request. Being a full-blown, long-term Good Samaritan Nightingale is not possible or required in every case, even for followers of Jesus.

A few layered moral thoughts for dealing fairly, mercifully, with panhandlers and street-people:

  1. There is a distinction in the Christian tradition between basic or minimal charity and real justice; as there is a further distinction between social justice and genuine Gospel living or Good Samaritan love.
    1. Charity usually refers to giving from our excess. In the Gospel story of the widow’s mite , Jesus points out that most folks donate from their spare change or play money, while the widow gave her last coin, all that she had. Giving a buck here and there or even Jason’s annual $1,000 Christmas largesse seems to me to be this most minimal kind of charity. It’s good. It’s valid. It should be freely given. But it’s not enough!
    2. Justice refers to fairness, rendering someone what is due them. Commutative justice (i.e., the work ethic) bases what is due a person solely on whether one has “earned” the benefit (e.g., full work day merits a full day’s pay). But another branch of justice, distributive justice, says we can also measure what one is due based on one’s core human dignity and needs. So, children justly deserve physical care and a basic education, not because they earn it, but just because they’re in need of it. Persons with disabilities justly deserve to participate as fully as they can in society’s activities. We install ramps and handicap-accessible facilities as a matter of justice, not idle charity.

      It seems to me that our unnamed street person does not have a strict justice claim on Jason, one-to-one, in any commutative justice sense. However, poor people in general do have a distributive justice claim based on their basic humanity and need. The society’s increasing disparity between rich and poor cries out for justice. But this may be best addressed at the level of systemic change — why the poor are poor, housing, education, job opportunities, tax reform, better distribution of wealth in a free-market economy.

      I would think an investment banker earning six figures does have an obligation in justice to reexamine his own lifestyle and to use his banking knowledge and skills to assist those less fortunate (whether on company time or his own volunteerism.) He also needs to look at his annual level of giving ($1,000 out of a $500,000 annual income) and move toward a tithe that is at least equitable, maybe even really pinches.

    3. And this leads to the notion of the fullness of Gospel living, genuine Sermon-on-the-Mount love.

      I’m not saying Jason should sell all he has and join Mother Teresa’s Sisters on the Bowery, though this is surely an option, a potential change in vocation. But short of that I think if Jason really wants to put his money where his mouth is there are two avenues:

      1. What to do for this one street person in need, tonight and beyond tonight? We can’t adopt every homeless person, but we can try to make a difference, short-term or long-term, in one life or another, here and there along the way.
      2. What about the systemic problem of homelessness, hunger, joblessness, etc. in Jason’s community? Whether through politics, corporate sponsoring, investment of his own time and talent on committees and boards, or some other direct service, Jason could make a difference. He also might learn to buy a cheaper pair of shoes, hang out at fewer bars, and really make better use of his time, talent and treasure. It’s called Gospel living and can really bring some pretty deep inner peace, even more satisfying than six figures and $800 shoes.
  2. I don’t think there is a neat “right” and “wrong” answer about what to give (or not to give) to this lone street beggar. Certainly taking him for a meal is a good deed. Volunteering to secure him shelter for the night and/or warmer clothing would also be charitable and a taste of justice. Sharing one’s shoes (a new or old pair) would also be commendable. “From him who has been given much, much is expected.” But I also don’t think that giving this fellow money, allowing him to freely make his own choice as to how to spend it, is necessarily bad. Food, shelter or clothing might be wiser uses of one’s “gift.” But if it truly is a gift, then the street person recipient ought to be free to buy booze or candy or a “nickel bag” or even a bit of alleyway lovin’ as his own free-will choice.
  3. Finally, in the Gospel story of the rich man and Lazarus at his gate , Jesus gives the poor man a name, a personal identity, while the rich man is left generic. This Busted Halo moral dilemma tends to reflect the more common cultural bias — the rich guy has a name and identity (Jason Pascal), while our balding, gray-bearded beggar remains nameless and story-less. To those who recommended asking his name, giving him the time of day, maybe even sharing the meal with him and listening to his story — BRAVO! He is a child of God, our brother in Christ, and maybe, “There, but for the grace of God, goes you or me.”

Need to get up to speed? Read the original dilemma and then read the wrinkle.


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