Thursday, December 6, 2012

Season of Giving Wisely

As the season draws nearer to Christmas, television media and the internet inevitably will publicize increasing numbers of stories of "random acts of kindness." Sometimes these stories will hype faith and the religious angle; sometimes they vaguely refer to "the spirit of giving" or restoring another kind of faith--"the faith in humanity."

One recent example of the latter  featured the kindness of a New York City police officer. Patrolman Larry DiPrimo purchased shoes and socks for a homeless man on Times Square.  A tourist from Arizona snapped the photo. She happened to be there because she, too, planned to help this man by giving him some change.

As it often the case, things are not quite what they seem. Jeffrey Hillman may be shoeless, but he is not homeless. He has an apartment that he pays for with veterans benefit, social security, and federal assistance. Moreover, he has accumulated a records for petty crimes going back twenty years--including assault, menacing, possession of stolen property, grand larceny, forgery, reckless endangerment, and resisting arrest.

And within a week, Hillman was seen on the streets without his new shoes. He says he put them away for safe keeping, which probably means, he  swapped them for some Mad Dog 20 20.

The incident does present every citizen confronted by panhandlers with an ethical dilemma: to give or not to give.

For those who take the words of Jesus seriously, Jesus did say "Give to every man that asketh of thee" (Luke 6:30). This command comes with the promise that it will glorify God and it earn a reward from him in the future. It seems to imply that God's concern is withe the motive of the giver, and not with the  efficacy of the act. The giver will be rewarded for his faithfulness; the receiver will receive his own judgment for what he does with the gift. I guess that makes sense in the minds of those who believe such things.

For those who do not believe, Aristotle provides some general guidance for the financially liberal man in Book IV of Ethics.

"Virtuous acts are fine, and are done for a fine end; so the liberal man too will give with a fine end in view, and in the right way; because he will give to the right people, and the right amounts, and at the right time, and will observe all the other conditions that accompany right giving."

To give foolishly reduces the resources available to give wisely:

"He will avoid giving  to any and everybody, so that he many have something to give to the right people at the right time and in circumstances in which it is a fine thing to do."

So while Christmas is seen as the season of giving,  there should never by a  season of giving foolishly.

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