Welfare, Principles, and an Unexpected Attack

First up, this may seem like a bit of a diversion from JME core concerns, but – as I hope will become clear – it has to do with moral philosophy, so that’s enough of a link.

Obviously, news for the last week or so has been dominated by the earthquake in Haiti and its aftermath.  There has been an enormous show of public support – and the Disasters Emergency Committee can be found here.  An alternative route to donate would be via Richard Dawkins’ outfit, Non-Believers Giving Aid.  But I have to admit that there’s something about this second organisation that seems a bit off-colour to me. It has to do with the proselytising tone of the scheme.  Its website says that

[w]hen donating via Non-Believers Giving Aid, you are helping to counter the scandalous myth that only the religious care about their fellow-humans.

It’s obvious to anyone who thinks about it that you don’t have to be a believer to be a good person; and it’s also obvious that there’re plenty of religious nutjobs already on the case in Haiti: for example, according to reports, one group of fundies is sending emergency solar-powered talking bibles, and Scientologists are sending people to do whatever it is that Scientologists do.  More generally, I’m a bit suspicious of organisations like CAFOD, Christian Aid, Islamic Relief, and so on – they’re implicitly proselytising and exclusive in a way that a secular organisation like Oxfam, the ICRC or MSF isn’t, in an “Oooh, look at us, being all Christian/ Muslim/ whatever” sort of a way.  (Or maybe the denominational names are based on the supposition that people’re more likely to donate to an organisation that represents their sect.  Or maybe they’re pandering to donors’ sectarianism.  I don’t know.)

But while the Dawkins Foundation is doing excellent work to promote reason in general, I can’t see how extending the squabble to the aid campaign is doing anyone any good: it strikes me as being small-minded and, if I’m honest, a touch childish.  If the best routes for aid supply have been established by a religiously-motivated charity, then that’s fine by me.  That’s what the DEC seems to think, and I’ll believe ’em.

What has this to do with the JME?  Well, a few months ago I made a post about prayer at the bedside, the tone of which was fairly robustly anti.  It was informed by the thought that, when it comes to providing relief from suffering, that relief shouldn’t really come ideologically packaged.  That’s why I’m suspicious of Christian Aid, Islamic Relief, and so on.  It’s why I’m equally suspicious of this atheist push in Haiti.  If it’s bad or wrong for a doctor to say, “Look at me, being Christian/ Muslim/ whatever and caring for you!” – and it obviously is – then the same applies to the RDF saying “Look at me, being non-religious, caring for you!”.  If it’s welfare that’s doing the moral legwork, then that’s what counts.

On the other hand, there’s a wider moral question that could be asked at the same time: suppose someone’s motivation to provide aid for another person is wholly to do with some point of principle – so, for example, it might be a religious person acting not directly because of suffering but because they believe that their deity commands it, or as a means of spreading the Word; or it might be an atheist acting mainly to make the point that atheists are good people, too.  Does this make a moral difference?

If you’re Kant, it might.  He famously thought that actions that only accorded with the moral law had no true moral worth; this means that actions driven by sympathy had less moral worth than those driven by a rather dour Calvinist sense of duty.  Indeed, he hints that it may be morally better not to have sympathy, just because, and just in case, it might turn out that that’s what drives you.  Kant here is clearly talking gibberish.

But still there’s something to the idea that motivation makes a difference: we might want to ask about the person who does the right thing for the wrong reason (or vice-versa), and we might be a bit more reluctant to heap praise on a person who would have done the right thing as a anyway for reasons other than its rightness.  To what extent would he be praiseworthy (or blameworthy)?  My hunch is that most people would think that the motivation at least adds moral shine or moral tarnish to an action; noone, I think, suggests that doing a good thing by accident is in the same league as doing it for the right reason, whatever that might turn out to be.  And I think that that is correct: I think that a proselytiser risks compromising the moral worth of his action.  Not diminishing, necessarily – but compromising.

And yet… if he still makes the world a better place…

So here’s the question: is the motivation morally important?  I lean towards the idea that the difference between doing right thing for the right or wrong reason is a bit like the difference between a shiny new 2010 £1 coin, and a battered and dull one from 1983.  There’s something more satisfying about a new coin, even though it’s worth exactly the same; they’re both decus et tutamen.  (It’s not just me, is it?)  But that seems to make the difference aesthetic, rather than moral.  Does that seem correct?

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