As part of his ongoing series on Charles Dickens and Christmas, Mark Roberts has an excellent post on why we should celebrate New Years despite the suffering in parts of Asia. His arguments are fairly straightforward. As I see it, there are two arguments along these lines. One is that it's wrong to celebrate when people are suffering (or perhaps when you're aware of suffering). The other is that it's wrong to use your resources for your own benefit when others who are suffering could benefit from them in more basic ways. Mark spends most of his time on the first argument, but I've seen the other argument offered a lot in the last few days. Both arguments ignore some extremely important things, though there's at least something to both of them.
Mark primarily addresses the first argument, saying that it just ignores the human condition. It's impossible to live a life without celebration and still be emotionally healthy. There are things in life worth celebrating, and suffering is always going to be happening, whether we think about it or not. The fact that suffering is going on, even in higher numbers than usual (not that much higher -- he says it's about 10% higher than normal), does not invalidate the need and perhaps even obligation to celebrate. Some people are well aware of this. In my dad's family, funerals are solemn during the actual ceremony, but afterward there's much fun with people simply enjoying each other and enjoying the good in life. The Italians who married into the family brought this with them, and I'm glad for it. Why should it be different for something like this? The best kind of celebration involves our awareness of the suffering throughout the world and is therefore both truly celebratory and sober and generous. It's a hard balance to strike, but I think that balance is one of the results of a truly balanced life. Since you can readhis post, I'll say little more about this first argument. His treatment of those issues is excellent and worth reading. I want to focus on the second argument and the issue of giving of resources when others are suffering.
Some of what Mark says about the first argument is relevant to the second argument, but he doesn't directly deal with it as such. This second argument comes from Peter Singer (yes, the same guy who gets bad press among conservatives, many who don't understand him, over his view that infanticide os morally ok in almost the circumstances when feticide is ok, which he amazingly thinks includes convenience abortions, something I think his utilitarianism shouldn't allow, but that's a topic for another time). As a utilitarian, Singer thinks the overall balance of happiness of the greatest number of beings in the world is the only goal of ethical living. So if one being greatly benefits from someone else's suffering, that's the height of moral wrongness. If one person benefits from an action that in effect allows continued suffering, when an alternative action could have alleviated that suffering, it's equally wrong. It doesn't matter that the person suffering isn't near you in distance and doesn't occupy your thoughts very much. All that matters is that you seek your own comforts beyond basic needs when others are suffering. He says that's always wrong.
This sort of argument has become common among those seeking to encourage people to donate to charity or those seeking to reduce the amount of selfishness in the world. In those circumstances, I'm willing to say that this is an important moral consideration. I don't think Singer's argument is as strong as some people do, though, for many reasons. I don't think happiness is the only intrinsic good and unhappiness the only instrinsic bad. Some things are even morally more important than happiness. My obligations to my family, for instance, are more important than my obligations to people on the other side of the world. I think Singer is just wrong about that. I've taken on the needs of my family as a responsibility, and my having children has led to their being dependent on me in a way that a child who lost her parents in a tsunami in Indonesia is not. Such a child could become dependent on me but is not my responsibility in the same sense that my children are. This is important not just because it would be wrong to give $2000 to help with this crisis when that would make it hard to feed my family. I think it would be wrong to deny my family the ability to enjoy the things we have. Obvuously some sacrifice is acceptable and perhaps even required, but I don't have to threaten my children's health and nutrition to rob them of things that I might be obligated to provide for them. Providing them with an opportunity to have an enjoyable life is important, and caring for their growth and development in ways other than basic human survival is part of being a parent.
If I were to sacrifice too much of that to give to tsunami relief then I'd be forsaking some of my most important obligations. Sam recently suggested using Christmas money given to our children for tsunami relief, and I don't think her suggestion came from being fully aware of all the moral issues involved. That would be stealing from our children. It's not our money to do with as we please, even if it could be used for great purposes. It's money that was given to our children, and as stewards of their money we have an obligation to use it in ways that will be for their best, not for the best of the world in general. With our money, we have to keep that interest in mind also because of our responsibility to our children, but we don't need all our money to do that, and we can give some of our money to this cause. Singer's view won't allow such an argument, because all that matters for him are consequences. If the consequence is good enough, it doesn't matter if you violate what we often see as someone's rights, in this case property rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, but he'd go so far as to include rights to life or liberty. Torturing someone intensely should be fine to a utilitarian if the amount of happiness generated to the world outweighs the amount of suffering caused by that one person. Someone without the utilitarian framework will never allow such a thing. The good consequences of an action don't always outweigh the fact that doing such an action would normally be considered wrong. Sometimes it's simply wrong to do something to someone, even if the consequences are amazingly wonderful. Our responsibilities to people, for instance, sometimes prevent us from doing great good, and it's right to give the responsibilities preference over the great good we could do if we failed in our obligations.
This is one reason that, even though I have responsibilities to get my students' papers back to them in less than a month (and I often fail in this responsibility) I still like to work at home, which takes ridiculously longer because of the distractions of children stepping on the papers I'm grading, grabbing my pen while I'm writing, trying to type on the computer I'm using to record grades, and simply demanding attention or needing diaper changes, clothes put on to get ready for school, or food given to them at meal times. Why? If I were to lock myself in my office on campus for twelve hours a day during the parts of the semester when I get behind on grading, I wouldn't see my kids much at all and would hardly see my wife. I don't see them as much as I'd like to when I have to lock myself in a room at home for the longest parts of that 12-hour period, but when I work at home at least I can be present for little bits and fill in the gaps in grading with some attention to them. I usually use far more of my time for that than my responsibilities to my students allow, but it's better to fail in that way than to ignore my responsibilities to my family altogether for days at a time.
Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor, and in a fairly tale mentality that's seen as morally good, but it's wrong despite the good consequences. That's why libertarians oppose forced charity through government programs. Now I do think government programs to alleviate suffering can be morally required but only if a government has incurred that responsibility. Because of slavery, that might be the case in the United States with the black Americans, and social programs that tend to help such groups can be justified (if they really help them and do not do so wastefully, which I'm sometimes skeptical about). There are other examples too, and someone can privately decide to use their resources however they choose. It would be wrong to expect a government that has no resposibility toward the people who died or are suffering because of this event to do anything whatsoever. The U.S. government does have some role here, of course, because some Americans were present, and because much of our money gets spent on things that aren't needed, but the solution isn't just to take it out of the debt. It's to reserve money for things like this rather than funding things that are frivolous.
One thing philosophers often say about Singer's argument doesn't involve responsibilities to others, and I think it's generally correct. If living a good life in whatever sense that involves means seeking excellence in whatever we should do, then there are things we should do that simply require not providing for all the needs we could provide for. It's not just that it's ok not to live at the level of marginal utility so that others might be brought up to that level. It's that it would be wrong to do so, not because it fails to meet our responsibilities to anyone but because it's not the sort of life we should live. We should enjoy life for the reasons Mark gives that I discussed above. We should seek excellence in endeavors that we have particularly taken on to excel at. Those won't be the same areas for everyone, and it's a bad idea to take on too many. I've had to sacrifice my musical interests and not use my strengths in musical composition and performance that I might have developed to a greater degree and used for my own and others' enjoyment, encouragement, and whatever other good might come of it (I believe the mere existence of good art is an intrinsic good). I've chosen philosophical, theological, teaching, family, and friendship goods to pursue, and I think I've still got more on my plate than I ideally should. The music has had to take a back seat in some ways because of that, though I've still had some role in musical leading of worship while I've been working on my Ph.D., (much less in the last couple years, but that's not something I've had any control over). We all make choices, and we have to balance our time and the resources we steward. That doesn't mean it's bad to pursue musical excellence or philosophical excellence. It's important to have people who do that, and it's best if the people who do it are those best at it and those who chose it as a deliberate pursuit to devote lots of time to. I've done that with philosophy. It involves sacrifices in other areas, including the amount of time I can devote to physical helping of the suffering. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, and I think it's even morally a good thing.
There's one issue for Christians that complicates this even more. Christians believe that the afterlife and someone's relationship with God are far more important than anything else that this life causes, even the most dire suffering. To some, that might sound insensitive. It's not. It's more sensitive than those who focus only on temporary suffering and on lesser evils like the effects of partial separation from God's care that nonbelievers in this life face. As great as that is (and it is great), it pales in comparison to eternal suffering and complete separation from God's care, including the common grace that God bestows on all, allowing people's wickedness and self-destructiveness to be minimized for the sake of those who believe and those who will believe but don't yet. Then throw in the issues of stewardship of resources and the responsibilities that followers of Jesus Christ have when managing those resources, it's even less clear that Christians have an obvious obligation to use our resources to help with this particular instance of great suffering. After all, the gospel is far more important from God's perspective because the results of the gospel can be eternal rather than temporary.
Also, while believers have an obligation to care for their poor and suffering, that responsibility is first and foremost to God's people, those who follow Jesus Christ. Jesus discusses caring for the needy, but when he does so he often does it in terms of caring for his brothers, which pretty clearly in the New Testament refers to believers in Jesus Christ who have become co-heirs with him of the Father's inheritance of eternal life. Those goats who did not care for Jesus' brothers and thus did not care for him have demonstrated that they didn't know him, but it is not talking about caring for people who do not believe. That, too, should happen, but it's not for the same reasons. It's out of God's compassion and because God does not delight in the death of the wicked (or the suffering of sheep without a shepherd), but God's primary goal in such caring is that it results in repentance and faith so that someone might be saved, with its permanent results. Thus giving to charity must have an evangelistic component or motive for Christians, or it is merely a resounding gong. Paul says that without love, which for a Christian is not possible without the evangelistic mindset, giving to charity simply to relieve human physical need is like a clanging gong. At the same time, caring for those with whom one is spiritually bonded is akin to caring for one's family, since the New Testament places all believers in that category. This is why Paul says, "So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith." (Galatians 6:10, ESV)
What do we say as a result of all this? Well, it's far more complicated than it at first sounds. People are in need. They need help. I have means to help them. Some of that means belongs to other purposes, and it's not just purposes that involve caring for my family. Some of it involves the ongoing need to support the work of the gospel. Some of it involves the ongoing need to salt the earth with Christian work that represents the best of human achievement. Some of it is simply the human need to celebrate and enjoy what God has given, even in the midst of suffering. Some of for a Christian such as me involves the priority to help those who are believers and thus part of my spiritual family. After all that, there's still a need for some people to help generously with the needs of those many non-Christians suffering. The primary purpose of such help is for the needs of those people being helped, but the most important such need is spiritual, and that should be primary for any Christian giving in such a situation. How that gets worked out would take another whole post that I probably need to balance my time and not write, but I hope the things I've been able to suggest here are a help in thinking through the issues involved with working out the details. Things to think about might include finding a Christian charity that also cares about such things, focusing one's efforts on gospel missions entirely, dividing one's resources between the two kinds of charities. That assumes that every person with resources to give should be giving them to this particular thing anyway, something I'm not at all convinced of. Different people will obviously balance these concerns out in different ways, but I hope all of them will play a role in that balancing.