Harvard Law Review Article on Charity

 Posted by on 2 June 2008 at 5:11 am  Ethics, Objectivism
Jun 022008

The Volokh.com legal blog had an interesting post critical of an appalling article that was just published in the Harvard Law Review entitled, “NEVER AGAIN SHOULD A PEOPLE STARVE IN A WORLD OF PLENTY“.

They also quoted one typical paragraph:

You have now read this Note and you are equipped with the knowledge that $200 can save a child’s life. No claim of ignorance can be supported at this point. In fact, if you would like to make a donation, the toll-free number for UNICEF is 1-800-486-4233. They take credit card donations over the phone, or you can go online at www.unicef.org. Here is some time to call right now. ****

The author of the article, Harvard Law student Phil Telfeyan, has also created a blog with the sanctimonious title of “Do the Right Thing at Every Moment” to promote and defend his notions of morality.

Apart from the issue of whether such an article has any place in a law review, there is the more interesting broader question of the proper role of charity in man’s life.

I left the following comment on Telfeyan’s blog and the Volokh.com blog post:

I think a far better approach towards the broader issue of charity is from Ayn Rand (which incidentally is not the same as the popular misconception of her views of “never help anyone”):

“My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue.”


I completely agree. I’ve gladly helped others in need on multiple occasions (1) when I could afford it, and (2) when the recipient was worthy.

But life isn’t about putting bandages on other people’s sores; it’s about creating value, achieving goals, and pursuing a happy full existence in accordance with our nature as rational beings. Charity towards others is a secondary aspect of life, not the primary purpose.

I also left the following second comment on Telfeyan’s blog:

…I’d like to also explicitly challenge the primary thesis that there is any kind of a moral *obligation* to help those less fortunate.

My contention is that even if an innocent child in Africa could be saved by my giving him $200 of my salary, his need (genuine as it may be) does not create any sort of mystical *obligation* for me to part with that money for his behalf. In other words, I don’t see any basis for the sort of moral calculus being proposed. In fact, to adopt it means that one’s own life energy ends up being drained perpetually in a race to the bottom. One can never claim the fruits of one’s labor as rightfully one’s own – not when there is someone in greater need (and there will always be someone in greater need).

This nightmarish moral outlook is not conducive to life at all, and only leads to an unnecessary, undeserved moral guilt. For similar reasons, I reject Peter Singer’s moral philosophy.

In contrast, when charitable giving accords with my own values and priorities, then I am happy to donate, because it furthers *my* values. And I do give freely to numerous charitable organizations (predominantly educational groups as well as various organizations like FIRE which defend freedom of speech and other individual rights) for precisely those reasons.

In one respect, Phil is quite right — one should do the right thing at every moment. But the key issue is *what* exactly is that “right thing”?

I contend that it’s furthering one’s life and values as a rational productive being. (Note this does not imply screwing over others — I don’t believe there are any inherent conflicts of rational interest between humans in normal contexts).

For further information of this view, I’d like to point towards the excellent book by University of Texas professor of philosophy Tara Smith entitled, “Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist“.

Professor Smith discusses how a policy of rational ethical egoism is compatible with (and in fact the only consistent basis for) classical virtues such as honesty, integrity, justice, rationality, etc.

It dispels the notion that egoism must imply screwing other people. In fact, it shows that the exact opposite is true.

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