The End of Charity

by Theodore Dalrymple (February 2012)

A short while ago in Sao Paulo I witnessed in a restaurant something that moved me. Among the waiters, dressed in the same uniform as the others – that is, white shirt, black trousers and burgundy bow tie – was a young man with Down’s Syndrome. He was clearly very happy and proud to work there and to make himself useful: he cleared dishes, wiped glasses, and so forth. (The restaurant, incidentally, was a good one.)

I do not know whether or not the waiter with Down’s Syndrome was connected in any way with the owner or manager of the restaurant, but his employment there seemed to me an imaginative and efficient act of management, and not merely a charitable one. Of course, the young man in question benefited – you could see that by the pride on his face; but so did the restaurant as a business, in more ways than one.

The effect on both customers and staff of employing the young man was likely to be highly beneficial. Customers would probably see him and conclude that the owner was a decent and therefore an honest man, not unscrupulous, trustworthy. The presence of someone patently more unfortunate than they would inhibit their inclination, if any, to petty complaint; they would feel ashamed to carp. Satisfaction rushes in where complaint fears to tread.

As for the staff, they, in keeping an eye open for the welfare and safety of the young man, would be aware that they were performing a meritorious social duty and not just helping the owner to a profit; and behaving well self-reinforces good behaviour. Their propensity to complain, if any, would likewise be reduced. Though strict and narrow analysis might demonstrate that the waiter with Down’s Syndrome was not worth his wages – slowness, low productivity, breakages, etc. – his intangible morale-boosting outweighed by far his deficiencies as an employee.

I have noticed this effect before. For example, I have been asked several times to a certain radio studio to give the public the inestimable benefit of my opinion, usually in a few seconds flat. (All opinions should be expressed as concisely as possible, but not more concisely than possible.) And at this certain studio is employed as a receptionist, who shows guests to the various rooms in which they will give vent, a young black woman who is both blind and somewhat physically handicapped, requiring sticks to walk.

From the point of view of Taylorian, time-and-motion efficiency, perhaps, this would seem a foolish arrangement. The person whom she is supposed to be assisting ends up assisting her in the performance of her duty. Is this political correctness gone mad?

No. The young woman has a delightful personality, a cheerful disposition, an evident liking for the public with whom she has to deal. Once again, factious complaint about trifling inconvenience – being kept waiting a few minutes, for example – is rendered not only shameful but absurd. For what are a few minutes’ wait to set against a lifetime of blindness and a deformity that makes each step an effort of will? One would have to be a swine to complain in her presence (not that such egotistical swine cannot be found, of course).

On the way to the recording room, the receptionist asks the guest whether he would mind helping her with the various doors en route. By the time he sits down before the microphone, therefore, he is in a thoroughly good or mellow mood, aware of what a nice fellow he is for having helped a poor unfortunate with such good grace: though, of course, it is in fact she who has helped him.

When, then, someone else says something foolish, preposterous or even nasty on air, the guest feels no anger, and replies as if a soft answer not only turned away wrath but convinced the foolish. Indeed, if the young woman should ever be sacked from her job, it will be because of her calming effect, because broadcasters increasingly demand (at least in Britain) that there should be confrontation rather than discussion, the former – supposedly – being infinitely more entertaining than the latter. Broadcast confrontations are now to the British what gladiatorial combat was to the Romans.

I shall give just one more example of the salutary presence of the obviously handicapped (if you give too many examples you become boring, if you give few you are accused of being anecdotal). One day a young mentally handicapped man was admitted to the prison in which I worked as a doctor, on a charge of having sexually molested a young woman. The assault was alarming to her rather than dangerous; the young man was of such a physique that it was difficult to imagine him overpowering anyone, though he had not even tried to do so.

He was sent to prison not because it was the right place for him, but because it was the only place that could be found for him at the time: a flurry of humanitarianism having previously closed down all the other institutions that might have cared for him.

Normally sex offenders, of whatever kind, are regarded by other prisoners as the lowest of the low: it is only thus that prisoners can boost their own morale by conceiving of people worse than themselves. Indeed, sex offenders have generally to be separated for their own safety from other prisoners; if not, they are attacked and injured, sometimes seriously. Moral depravity is not incompatible with moral indignation – and, of course, vice versa.

On this occasion, however, the prisoners recognised that the young man was worthier of pity than indignation: they made an exception in his case. Indeed, they looked after him with solicitude because he was so obviously distressed by a situation that he could not understand. (I shall not easily forget his howls of distress.)

They comforted him, they shared their things with him; they succeeded in calming him down. And while he remained in the prison, the prisoners in his location behaved better; they were softened by the licence his presence gave them to relax their hardness, their toughness, their cynicism that was otherwise essential to survival in the social, or anti-social, world of prison. Normally, such a lowering of the guard brings instant retribution; but not in this case.

Now the politico-bureaucratic soul, when it becomes apprised of such cases, immediately perceives in them an opportunity for increasing its own dominion. For if it the case that the presence of the handicapped often improves morale, and even morality, is it not obvious that such a presence should be made obligatory, decreed by law? Will this not make the occasional the general, and thus add to the happiness of mankind? After all, not every manager is as charitable and imaginative as those of the restaurant or radio studio, nor does every prison location have its handicapped person to soften the mores of the other prisoners. Acts of charity, understanding and solidarity must therefore be legislated for, so that they become institutionalised. For what is possible on one occasion must be possible on all occasions.  

Justice and equity demand it. Why, for example, should the young man in the Sao Paulo restaurant have benefited from the enlightenment of the manager or owner when others, perhaps thousands of others, had no such lucky chance? Worse still, it is likely, even probable, that the young man in question benefited from some personal connection from which, by definition, others, just as deserving as he, could not benefit. And nothing – nothing – is worse than injustice.

Now of course where equity is concerned, it would be far easier to insist that the young man in the restaurant be made redundant than that other such young men (and women) be employed. There could then be no accusation of unfairness or injustice, since all in his position would be treated alike. But such a solution to the problem would provide no opportunity, or very little opportunity, for the politico-bureaucratic class to intervene in the affairs of men. Much better, and more obvious, from that class’s point of view, would be legislation to compel what was previously only voluntary. Indeed, a decree that every enterprise should take on handicapped staff offers a rich field for inspection and bureaucratic bullying in the name of humanity.

How delightful are the prospects! Needless to say, what constitutes handicap is a matter of endless possible dispute, because handicap is not categorical, it is dimensional. What is a serious handicap for a footballer is not necessarily an serious handicap for an accountant, and vice versa.  

Many delightful, intractable and therefore profitable disputes loom. Is drug-addiction, for example, a medical condition, and therefore a handicap? Should enterprises therefore be obliged to take as employees the percentage of drug-addicts that exist in the wider world? And how wide should that wider world be? If an enterprise happens to be sited in a community in which there are no drug addicts to employ, should it go looking for them?

But the fundamental objection to institutionalising charitable acts by government fiat is that it hardens the heart and makes compassion almost impossible: there can be cruelty without discretion, but not compassion or real feeling (this is not quite true, but almost true).

Let me illustrate what I mean by reference to the social workers in the hospital in which I once worked. I take it as being beyond reasonable doubt that there are some people who fall on hard times through no fault of their own and who are therefore particularly deserving of assistance. But I was unable to persuade many of the social workers in my hospital of this, because if some cases were particularly deserving of assistance it followed that others were not; and it was part of the ideology of the social workers that they should not assist people according to their desert, but only according to their need.

This had the horrible consequence that the social workers were not able to exert themselves in proportion to a person’s desert; and since the worst-behaved were adept at manufacturing need, it meant that the most deserving were often comparatively neglected. Moreover, this took its toll on the social workers themselves, for with rare and saintly exceptions, it is impossible for people to feel compassion to all equally, irrespective of desert. In other words, the social workers had to suppress their natural feelings; and when such feelings are suppressed long enough, they atrophy and cease to exist. And that is precisely what I observed among them.

It is, of course, true that judgments of desert vary, and even where it is agreed as to what constitutes desert error is possible and indeed inevitable: the deserving might be taken for the undeserving, and vice versa. But the consequences of making no judgments are worse than the consequences of sometimes making the wrong ones: indeed, refraining from making a judgment is itself to make a judgment of a sort.

What is given as of right is harmful alike to the donor and the recipient. It shrivels the donor’s heart and turns kindness into an unwanted obligation; it renders the recipient incapable of gratitude, to such an extent that he might not even realise that he has received anything (the rioters in London, for example, said they had nothing, when those of them who had never worked or been net taxpayers had never gone hungry, never lacked for clothes or shelter, were provided with electronic gadgets, were guaranteed free healthcare and had received a free education – for them, this was nothing because it all came as of right).

That judgments in the past were harsh or unfeeling is, alas, the case. But that is a reason for refining our judgment, not for refraining from exercising it at all. If we do that, we shall end up with a society of cold comfort, where the faculty of kindness will wither, and where the expression of human solidarity will be confined to paying taxes, an indefinitely large proportion of which will never even reach their supposed beneficiaries.  


 Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Anything Goes.

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