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  • Writer's pictureCrone


The word altruism comes from a root meaning others - hence 'othersism' is a good definition. There's considerable evidence from evolutionary and developmental psychology that caring about others is a natural emotion for humans. It might start with kin and then expand, as in hunter-gatherer tribes, to relate to the whole group. Over the course of our history, learning about other people and nations has expanded our circle of awareness and concern to incorporate nations and, one hopes, humanity as a whole as well as other animals.

It's interesting that some will care too about possessions, on a narrow basis, or culturally significant buildings or monuments. These seem to be regarded as 'part of self' or 'part of nation/religious group/cultural group' and credited an interesting status.

But what I was really driven to think about was two distinct aspects of this expanding concern idea: firstly how much it's reliant on education and secondly whether there should be 'levels' of concern based on proximity. These are big questions so I won't get far.

On the first point, Steven Pinker's Better Angels - he's no doubt not alone in this - tracks how exploration and printing widened the scope of moral concern by increasing knowledge and empathy for those far from one's immediate focus of attention. Uncle Tom's Cabin and Black Beauty seem to have played a part, for example in combating racism and 'speciesism' respectively. But of course not everyone reads novels.Television, though plays its part. Whether its news and documentaries or a series like Roots, there are plenty of empathy expanding possibilities. Empathy shrinking ones too. I guess it depends what you watch. One would hope that schooling - through geography and history lessons as well as literature and any cultural or religious educations classes - would serve this purpose.

It is an empirical question whether those who engage in higher education are more inclined to empathise with and have concern for a wider circle. I seem to recall research suggesting that these groups are more likely to regard themselves as cosmopolitans rather than nationalists, far less likely to vote for national populist parties. I wonder if part of this is related to the greater emphasis on abstract thinking: if thought is depersonalised, reasoned rather than emotional, then perhaps there's less weight put on the immediate - and maybe more emotionally charged - environment. Will Davies seems to be making a point of this nature in Nervous States. And it reminds me of the debates around IQ - that average IQ levels keep going up and the latest thinking is that we've not all been getting smarter, we're just more entrenched in the kind of thinking (abstract and logical rather than pragmatic) that IQ tests test. Utilitarianism is the moral system for a high IQ fraternity. The warm-hearted salt of the earth types can cope better with rules and codes. That's meant to be ironic.

So, all this came up in debates about international aid. The UK government is one of the few to have reached the UN agreed total (set in 2005) of 0.7% GDP for each developed nation. the Nordic nations have hit the target too and Turkey and the UAE exceed it. The last Labour government made the figure part of constitutional law, but there are no real penalties for not hitting it. Even so, the Conservatives had maintained it. The figure represents about a tenth of what is spent on the NHS annually.

There are now calls - there long have been - to cut it. The more right wing press prints stories about how we give money to the Chinese film industry as part of this aid and to India, who have a rocket programme, so, goes the thinking, they can spend that on relieving poverty in their country and not take our taxpayers' pounds.

The government actually responded to the India criticism, saying it does not give money to the Indian government, but to various multilateral agencies who use the funds for diverse projects in India as well as other nations.

I looked into this and saw that the UK government does a regular audit of the agencies to whom development funds are allocated, to see if they get 'value for money'. Rightly, they want aid to be effective, projects to be useful and money not to be spent on unnecessary administration. They also have an interest in the funds - the UK government does give more actual cash than any other - serving some national ends. It's altruism, with, not strings, but an unspoken hope for some reciprocation.

To be fair, I think there is a strong desire for the UK to be seen as an involved, benevolent and ethical member of the global community. There is some pride - which, actually, I share - in showing this commitment to international development. It confers a certain kind of status, which I do think has some nobility about it. In addition, the funds act as a form of 'soft power' - encouraging the beneficiary nations to have good relations with Britain. This has become a stronger intention since Brexit and the Conservatives are more focused on directing aid in ways which could enhance trade and diplomatic relationships. In addition, it can give the UK government some leverage in influencing other nations to overturn discriminatory policies, say, and that might well be a morally upstanding endeavour.

As important, however, are concerns which have a more global flavour. Decreasing poverty tends to decrease birth rates - not insignificant on a crowded planet. It can also lessen the pressures that lead to migration or civil war. Projects related to environmental protection have an international benefit.

Within this framework, the funding for the Chinese film industry (China is after all one of the world's largest economies, I think the second after the USA) might seem odd. Though as the money would have gone via a multilateral agency, it's not like Boris Johnson decided against hiring six nurses and instead funded a film. Nonetheless, I think that's rather how it's seen. The funds also supported some museums and other cultural projects. Personally, I don't have a problem with this. For one, I see it as an opportunity to maintain relations with a world superpower. Like giving a Christmas card to your boss. But also I think - and I don't know as I am ignorant about China - that a nation that has lost some of its heritage as a result of the Cultural Revolution might be in need of precisely this kind of assistance. I believe that art and culture can be effective moral enhancements as well as opening minds and offering new perspectives. Such projects could have a notable and positive impact. Maybe even altering the tone of the nation's view of its future and its policies. Or maybe I'm a naive optimist.

There is another powerful reason for governments giving aid. I do believe that we have some moral requirement to have concerns for all lives, not just those in our four walls or within our borders - for pragmatic reasons too. But few individuals contribute that much, so our nations do it on our behalf, with our taxpayers' money. In the same way that a head of a household might help out his neighbours, if he can afford it, so should our political leaders.

We can afford it. We could put the sum of whatever 0.7% GDP is as an extra benefit to the NHS or other social welfare bodies - indeed we should. And we could and should not by limiting international aid but by increasing taxes on the very rich. This would have the added benefit of decreasing inequality. That the right wing press focuses on aid rather than taxes speaks loudly.

Overall, it seems to me that this aid is a very good thing.

Now, this does not mean that the government is showing more or even equal concern for those outside its borders. It is showing some concern - and a level of concern agreed by the UN.

It is my view that while there is no rational reason to value the life of my cat more than my neighbour's cat, there is a profound emotional reason to do so. That does not mean I kick my neighbour's cat or that I would not help her were she in need, but my primary concern rests with my cats. Performing such help for my neighbour's cat would be a good; it would be a moral failing were I to leave it to suffer. But I do not feel as responsible for it as for my cats. Were my neighbour to mistreat her cat, then I should seek to prevent this. I might help her to buy food; remove the cat; advise her on cat care; call the authorities, but I might not be morally culpable were I unable to take in her cat. In addition, if I help my neighbour's cat, I might forge better relations with my neighbour (not in the extreme case of having to call the authorities, but consider the equivalent to international aid, rather than invading a country to prevent genocide). If I have to spend less on wine to buy food for my neighbour's cat, this still seems a moral duty.

So, the cat analogy justifies the international development fund. QED.

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