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Guest Post: Should you give to beggars? Yes, you should.

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Written by Richard Christian.


In a stimulating and controversial post on this blog, and later in a paper published in Think, Ole Martin Moen has argued that you should not give to beggars. His argument is simple and familiar. It is that the beggar one encounters in the rich world is, in the scheme of things, doing very well for herself. The London beggar is hungry, ragged, addicted, and schizophrenic; but she is like unto a king in comparison to the starving Ethiopian. If she receives only a few pounds a day and falls asleep in a doorway, she is still much better off than the millions of people in the world now dying for lack of food or clean water. It follows that a pound put in the hand of that beggar is a pound wasted: it should have gone to the person whose need is most urgent. Moen counsels you to ignore the beggar as you pass her on the street, and to give all your spare pounds instead to charities that assist the world’s most needy. In general, in your action, you should aim to do the most good you can. I wish to say here a word in favour of the beggar, and to show what I think is wrong with this currently fashionable line of reasoning in applied ethics.

Let us put some initial objections aside in order to focus the argument. We assume that you, the rich passer-by, have a right to your money. We assume that it is possible to know that by donating your pound to charity you would send it to the most needy and would assist them. We assume that the long-term effect of that institutional assistance would not be harmful. We assume that you are honest, and really will so donate your pound when you get home. We assume that the beggar really is in need, and that by stopping to give to her, you would assist her. We assume that you justly possess enough wealth to meet the standard for basic social participation in your society and that your ‘excess wealth’ is everything that exceeds that requirement. Let us suppose that you have a pound a day excess. Now, who should get that pound?

Moen says, “we should not give money to beggars.” He means that if you do give, then you fail morally. It is a bold assertion. I will argue that it is false. A humbler interpretation is available, which I will consider for the sake of discussion: that you do not fail morally if you do not give. But I will argue that even this is false. Here are the two interpretations:

(1)        It is false that you ought to give money to beggars.

(2)        You ought not give money to beggars.

On standard theories of ethics, (2) is stronger than (1): it entails but is not entailed by (1). (1) and (2) are derived respectively from two general principles about moral obligation and optimality of action. (An action is optimal when there is no alternative whose consequences are better.) These are the general principles.

(3)        You ought A only if A is optimal.       [From (3) is derived (1)]

(4)        If A is not optimal, then you ought not A.      [From (4) is derived (2)]

Both (3) and (4) are falsifiable. Consider first (4). You are traveling through the icy mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Touched by the grace and hospitality of its people, you leave feeling an affinity with that land, and sympathy for the hardships of its life. Returning home, you donate every month your excess wealth to a charity that assists the education of Kyrgystan’s young women. But of course, your money could have done more good elsewhere, and you have withheld it from those who need it most. You could have done better.  But did you do something wrong? Did you do something that you ought not have done? I think you did not. Your obligation is a duty of beneficence: it is to assist the needy. It is wrong not to assist the needy; but it is not necessarily wrong to do less good than you could have done.

Consider now (3). Here is a counter-example told to me by John O’Neill. It is a better example than mine. Suppose that you are an effective altruist is on the way to a critical and unrepeatable meeting in which you expect to secure donations for foreign aid from businesses. You expect by those donations to save many lives. Let us say that taking into account the total probability of your success, the expected savings are 100 lives. But on the way you pass a lake in which a child who has gone swimming is drowning. If you stop to save her you will miss your train, and will miss the one chance to make your highly-promising pitch. May you stop to save the child?

I think the example suggests that it would be psychopathic of you not to stop. You certainly ought to stop. That is, you ought to do something sub-optimal. Now it does not follow that the optimal act is not something that ought to be done; possibly it does not even follow that the optimal act is not something that you ought to do: for O’Neill’s example might describe a deontic conflict or dilemma. But it does show that (3) is false: it is false that you ought do something only if it is optimal. My first example might likewise describe a deontic conflict: what is optimal ought to be done, but you may do something that is not optimal, even though you cannot do both. I can remain neutral about both examples, so I will: they might describe conflicts, but they might not.

What the examples show is that ‘ought’ is not controlled only by optimality, but by something else as well. In my view it is simply the misery of the beggar – the inhumanity of her condition – that compels you to assist her. You are guilty if you do not. Charity requires of you that you assist the indigent. That some are in a still worse state than others does not necessarily relieve you of your duty to assist the less worse-off, even if you cannot assist them all.

The word ‘charity’ might feel moth-eaten: it recalls plastic cans of pennies, discarded novels, and bad television. But its root is the beautiful Latin word caritas, which means ‘love’. St. Paul’s dictum, Caritas numquam excidit was inscribed by the neglected critic of utilitarianism, Friedrich Nietzsche, on his father’s gravestone: “Die Liebe hört nimmer auf”—”Love is never expended.” Charity is not merely – perhaps not even primarily – about doing the most good you can: it is about relations of solidarity and fellowship amongst people, and the acts and virtues that are constitutive of those relations. It is even possible for a world that has more suffering, but also more fellowship, to be a better world.

In a 1943 essay on utopias and the difficulty of depicting a happy society, George Orwell wrote:

“I suggest that the real objective of Socialism is not happiness. Happiness hitherto has been a by-product, and for all we know it may always remain so. The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood. … Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one-another instead of swindling and murdering one-another.”

Fellowship is a necessary good for ethical life, and certain actions are constitutive of fellowship. This fact is partly what lies behind the counter-examples I have given. To pass by a person who is suffering and in need, and to ignore her, is to degrade and humiliate her. To degrade and humiliate a person is wrong. It is to dishonour human fellowship. This might show that proximity is not always ethically irrelevant: distance does sometimes matter. It is possible that failing to donate excess wealth to those who are most poor is always wrong; but even if it is, so to fail is not necessarily to degrade and humiliate those people. There are in addition reasons of virtue: to pass by a person in need who calls upon your humanity is to harden your heart: it is to become an insensible and calculating person. And there are teleological reasons too: it is to normalize in the public arena indifference to suffering and unfairness.

One might object here that I have not yet shown that optimality does not govern ‘ought’: I have not shown that (3) and (4) are false: I have merely shown that there are several distinct goods, and that what minimizes suffering is sometimes on balance sub-optimal. We should think of virtues of compassion and relations of fellowship as consequences which like well-being partly determine the goodness of an action. ‘Doing the most good’ should be expanded therefore to include relations and virtues as well as welfare. Though (1) and (2) are false, either (3) or (4) is not. Call this optimalism.

I do not need to deny this – my purpose was only to show that Moen is wrong about begging – but I should like to, and will say a brief word about it here. It is an enormous subject, and I cannot say much.  One reason for thinking that it is not true is that it collapses all moral concepts into a single concept: that of failing to do sufficient good. I have appealed in my argument to concepts like violation, dishonour, and transgression. They are to my mind an irreducible part of the richness and complexity of moral thought. If you think that an action can be wrong because it violates something important, then you cannot believe in optimalism.

Another reason for thinking it false is that there are certain goods that must be honoured, and not merely promoted. That is because to promote them, to think of them merely as outcomes which one tries by one’s action to increase, is to vitiate them. In his long prose-poem, ‘The Dream of John Ball’, William Morris wrote:

Fellowship is life, lack of fellowship is death;

and this dictum became a slogan of socialism, and the motto of the Clarion Cycling Club. Now Morris did not mean that we should optimize fellowship. To think of fellowship as something one might optimize is to kill it. Is there a reason of this? Perhaps it has to do with the particular value of instances of the good. Instances of wealth are substitutable; that is why we can think of optimizing wealth. It is easy to imagine scenarios in which we make some people poorer, but others richer, and the world thereby better. But instances of fellowship are not like that. Fellowship is like friendship. Friendship is good; and in general, the more friendship the better. But if you think that each instance of friendship might be sacrificed to increase total friendship, then you shall have no friendship at all. I’m afraid that I cannot say any more than this.

To return to the main argument; my conclusion is this. You ought assist the needy. But it does not follow that you ought assist only the most needy: that proposition is false. To pass by, to avert your eyes, to withhold your assistance: it is wrong, even though good may come of it.



Moen, O.M 2014 ‘Should we give money to beggars?’ Think 13 (37):73-76.

Morris, W. 1888 ‘The Dream of John Ball’ reprinted in G.D.H.Cole (ed.) William Morris 1934 London: Nonesuch.

O’Neill, J. 1994 ”The same thing therefore ought to be and ought not to be’: Anselm on conflicting oughts’ Heythrop Journal 35:296-314.

Orwell, G. 1943 ‘Can Socialists Be Happy?’ Tribune December 24th reprinted in Essays 2002 London: Everyman.

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9 Comment on this post

  1. This seriously distorts the views of Ole Martin Moen. This is what he actually said:

    … we should (i) consciously decide how much of our money we are willing to spend on helping others, (ii) find the most efficient charity, (iii) donate money to that charity, and (iv) say no the next time a beggar asks if we can spare a dime.

    In other words, he said we should not help the needy at all, we should donate money to charities. These organisations are by definition a private enterprise, and by definition exist to solicit donations, and not to assist others. Any money given to charity disappears into a black hole: they never publish their bank statements, so you never know where the money goes.

    There is an ethical issue with proximity: it is true that a beggar will get more in London than in Bucharest: they are closer to the money, and the money is closer to them. The poor in Africa are generally out of sight, and therefore out of mind. However, giving to charity is in no way a corrective to that issue, and there is overwhelming evidence that charities fail to impact structural inequalities.

  2. I find the arguments in this post very convincing. I think it could be argued that these indirect benefits to society by behaving well towards each other will have long term tangible benefits too, that can be included in the overall effects of our charitable actions, by changing social norms, improving social cohesion, generalized trust, and other emotions, which are more powerful that changing cognitions. To start with, it may only affect behaviour towards our ingroups, but it should have an effect on behaviour towards outgroups too as norms spread.

    Is there any empirical evidence that behaving altruistically towards others generates even more altruistic behaviour on our part, that of the recipient or others who observe or hear about the altruism?

    1. Richard Christian

      Thanks for reading & for this comment Rachel. Yes, I suppose it could be that you ultimately do more good by acting in a way that strengthens altruistic tendencies. I would be interested in research on the psychology of face-to-face vs. distanced altruism. It made me wonder what would happen to Milgram’s experiments if subjects were to see facial expressions of pain.

  3. I do think that the human good is much more complicated that optimizing the balance of well-being and suffering, narrowly conceived. Where I find an “optimalist” approach inescapable is in the case of nonhuman animals. The suffering of an animal on a factory farm seems a much simpler matter. These creatures experience pure physical and psychological torture from birth to death. This misery is not mitigated, as it might be in the human case, by more complicated concerns like fellowship, meaning, redemption, etc…

    Because of the nature of animal suffering (along with its enormous quantity – 60 billion land animals killed for food each year, hundreds of billions of fish) I do feel compelled to make these cold, calculating trade-offs. As devastating as it would be to watch that child drown, I would feel compelled to save hundreds of animals from a life of torture over her…even though I would be uncertain if the choice were between the child and hundreds of *humans*. The goodness of a human life, but not an animal’s life, is much more complicated than longevity and wellbeing.

    I’d love to hear what others think of this.

    1. Richard Christian

      Thanks for reading, and for the comment Jess. I’m not sure what to think about it. I assume you think that only animal suffering caused by human abuse is morally relevant? So we’re excluding natural animal suffering in the wild. That seems to me then a bit different because we might think of all that suffering as tied to rights-violations. Human pain need not be: it could be result of e.g. natural famine, or acts of God. I could see then, yes, that if you were to pass a man beating his dog to death, you might ignore it & carry on because you thought that by doing so you could stop similar abuse of 100 pigs. I’m not sure about it though. Certainly, it seems to me you could not be criticised for stopping.

  4. What should be absolutely clear to all is that it is wrong to ‘avert your eyes’, to ignore the beggar as if he were a creaking log or a yapping dog. He is a human being who has asked for money. He deserves a response, one human being to another. Looking him in the eye and saying in a friendly way, ‘Sorry mate’ acknowledges him, recognises your relationship with him, respects him. Commonly the beggar in question will appreciate the human contact – ‘Have a good evening’ is a common response, to which one should reply in kind.

    As for giving money – my current understanding is that it is bad for him that I give him money. Benefits give him enough for food and shelter (yes, I know how much individuals get and I know I could manage on it). My giving him money is likely to discourage him from changing his life, sorting himself out and getting a job; and likely to give him the wherewithal to buy drugs which will also damage him and delay his sorting his life out.

    Imagine he sat there night after night after night with no one giving him money. Don’t you think he might be a bit more likely to think, ‘Sod this for a laugh, I am going to have to do something else’?

    If you really care about benefiting this individual beggar and if you have time, then stop and talk to him. Find out more about him, discuss how you can help him turn his life around. Take him for a burger, keep in touch. Your help and support could make a real difference to him, more than any money you could give him. And perhaps, once you know him and his situation, you may be in a position to use your money to give him targeted help. You could buy him some clothes for an interview, or pay for a night in a hostel whilst he waits for his housing benefit payment to come through etc.. Then you can be sure the money you are spending on him will benefit him… But what makes the most difference is your relationship to him, within which money may or may not play a role.

  5. I think the fact that there is begging is a sure sign of some kind of failure, and payments to beggars simply support whatever failed. Where I live (non-wealthy city in the US), two sources of failure are the mental health care system and the shelter system, both of which attach strings to their services for absurd and puritanical reasons. I absolutely feel sympathy for our beggars, and I know that some of them are victims of a dysfunctional system, but I always feel like I’d be propping up that system if I gave them money. I don’t have much money to spare, and the little extra that I had went to MSF and Oxfam, but I would love to support some kind of unconditional shelter that treats homeless people as adults who deserve dignity and reasonable autonomy.

    Since this comment is anonymous, I will also confess that a part of the reason why I want an ethically defensible shelter system in my community is to avoid pangs of guilt when I meet beggars. I do think they spread yucky feelings to others, and for me that counts as a non-negligible harm. The world I want to live in is one where people don’t need to beg, but the ones who choose to anyway get no money, so they quickly stop.

  6. I think you’re putting too much weight on your counter example of saving the drowning child. Effective altruism is clearly a kind of utilitarian reasoning. If in the example, I’m in a situation where I’m about to make a presentation to save 100 children, and I have to choose to save the one over the 100, and I know all of this to be true, it would be psychopathic for me TO save the child, and condemn 100 children to death, for the one. It’s the trolley scenario with a different ratio. We only perceive it to be psychopathic to ignore the suffering of the one because in a genuine real-life scenario, the effective altruist has no guarantee that the pitch will save 100 children, or even one. So in real-life we would condemn the effective altruist, because good utilitarians make reasonable predictions about the future, and it wouldn’t be reasonable to believe that their actions would necessarily result in 100 children being saved.

    Moreover in real life, nothing really prevents both from being accomplished, only in thought experiments do we have clear non-false-dichotomy invoking arguments. But in actual practice, I’m sure that a person saving the child’s life would not prevent them from making the pitch later on, or perhaps by some proxy method.

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