I've read some idiotic editorials lately ridiculing celebrities who get involved in good causes. My opinion? Hurray for the celebrities. Mia Farrow has a very good blog about the situation in Darfur. While many human rights websites are a mind boggling maze of too much information, hers is simple, streamlined, and to the point. If you have a look, you'll find out she's trying very hard to make a difference.
August 9 update--today Mia is posting from a refugee camp between Darfur and Chad. Her blog helps you understand what's going on in that remote place today, now.Having just read Matt Ridley's very good book The Origins of Virtue (I blogged about it a few days ago), I'm more tuned in than usual to questions about why people take an interest in the problems of total strangers. It's in our genes to care about ourselves and our close relatives, and for others when we can expect something in return. Why give up time and money for people we have nothing to do with, and could so easily ignore?
I believe it's possible to do good things simply because we see that it's right. I add 2 + 2 and get 4 for no other reason than because that's the answer. If you think through some moral problems, they seem to have answers that are no less straightforward. It's a fact that children are suffering and dying in Darfur. Those children are no different than my children. It would be a really bad thing if that were happening to my children. So it's a really bad thing what's happening to the children over there. Should I lift a finger to stop a really bad thing? Of course.
To explain why I lift a finger, there doesn't have to be anything that's in it for me. Still, at least a lot of the time we do mainly care about ourselves and our relatives. We do largely give to only those unrelated people who are likely to give back. So when someone seems to be behaving altruistically, it may very well be that there's self-interest involved. Ridley talks a lot about a specific thing we gain in return for sacrificing money and time: a good reputation.
The above mentioned articles about celebrities cynically suppose they are always in it for the image enhancement. This makes me think, because lately I've become involved in a Darfur project here in Dallas myself. Am I doing it to get a reputation for generosity? Am I hoping to get something back in the long run?
This is certainly an interesting question, but it would be a bad idea to worry about it too much. Mia Farrow's very extensive efforts will hopefully mean fewer children who are suffering and dying. As far as they're concerned, it doesn't much matter if she's burnishing her image.
The little bit that I'm doing will hopefully do a little bit of good. I'd like to think I'm one of those people who's simply solving a problem of "moral math" and lifting my finger just because it's right. One thing's for sure--I'm not doing it for my own inner purity, so I don't absolutely need to know the answer.