But 2015 can change that.
We spend our year wrapped up in our lives, striving to achieve our hopes and make something of ourselves, but we do so safe in the knowledge that we are good people.
We are, aren’t we?
The sheer number of charities that exist, and the media attention they can afford to buy, would imply that we at least try to be. People who struggle to put food on the table still feel their heart strings pulled by the TV commercials at this time of year, which tell us the plight of homeless animals or humans who are not as lucky as us. We donate our hard earned money, working long hours throughout the year, to help those less fortunate than us. Our will to help those less fortunate speaks well of us. And we do help them, don’t we?
What if I was to tell you that charity may be causing many more problems – for the homeless, for unwanted pets, for the hungry – than it ever solves?
That money we give is hard earned, and it often does go toward those who need it. There are no huge conspiracy theories; charities are almost always run by well meaning people and they do good in the world. But the problems they exist to solve are caused and maintained by a lack of action, which is in part caused by us seeing charity and not action as the solution to moral problems.
Homelessness, for example, is a problem easily solved by voting for leftist parties that wish to spend money on housing and schemes to get people off the streets. We’re not talking billions, generally, but just millions. It’s a drop in the ocean of our national budget. A few extra pounds each in tax could actually solve homelessness, yet we instead give far more to charity and continue to vote for right wing parties like the Conservatives, who classically do not care for welfare budgets.
The same is true for problems of animal welfare. If we want to do something significant about people getting rid of their pets as soon as they are old enough to lose the cuteness factor, then the answer is to vote with your feet. Plenty of countries do. But, again, we tend to instead vote for political parties who have no interest in these kinds of causes, and instead throw money at the problem when we see an emotive advert.
When it comes to animals, in fact, our delusion is most serious of all. We’ve known for decades, if not centuries, that animals are living, breathing creatures who experience every ounce of pain which comes their way. Yet whilst we donate money we can barely afford to help them, we spend this time of year buying more animal products than at any other. Turkeys, Pigs, Fish and countless other animals who have been born, raised and slaughtered in ways that couldn’t be made humane with all the money in the world – not in the quantities we want them, anyway. Yet we happily ignore our hypocrisy by pretending that ‘humane’ means something, just like our donations.
In my years writing as an ethicist, I’ve yet to meet more than a handful of people who call themselves true narcissists: people are good, we want to be good, and we want to do what is right. Charity is a delusion which allows us to think we are doing all we can – the best we can –whilst in reality we are doing the bare minimum. Perhaps that donation, the money we throw at the problem, is stopping us from actually doing something. Buying soya mince instead of beef, rescuing a dog instead of buying one, voting for an MP who isn’t promising to cut your taxes but will do something to make a difference in the world. Any of these actions done on a regular basis, provides more value than many years’ worth of donations to any charity.
In the past people escaped slavery to speak out against their captors, or gave their lives to garner attention for causes which the majority derided: human history is full of brave moments of inspiration – from Frederick Douglass to Emily Davison – and it can feel rather anti-climatic thinking that the same level of bravery today is in buying different food items, or something that seems so mundane and un-heroic. Yet it’s true. Giving to charity has become almost like a chore, held up by society’s collective guilt. Yet it no longer works: it’s like trying to fix a broken leg with a damp Dora the Explorer plaster. The attempted solutions do not fit the real problems. Homelessness, hunger, animal welfare, even climate change; none of it is unsolvable, unless we consider the blunted spear of charity as our primary weapon.
Let’s not forget what we’re capable of. We’ve flown unmanned rockets into space – powered by stuff we found lying around – onto invisible red dots in the night sky, and eradicated diseases capable of killing millions. Technologically we’re outstanding, yet we’ve halted our moral progression in favour of a rationally-vacuous delusion. A delusion analogous to mainstream religion, in that I’m not sure we’re all privately convinced by it. 2015 can be the year we take responsibility and action though. I wouldn’t bet against us.