Do we really have an obligation to love and care for everyone equally? Digby Anderson asks whether it is permissible to have ethical priorities and argues for the Church’s traditional notion of ‘ethical particularism’

Mrs Anderson is far from pleased about it. We are trying to keep it from her elderly mother for fear of how upset she might be. And the various other people who in one way or another depend on me are also worried. Even the kittens turn their little heads quizzically as if in concern.

‘It’ is the new regime, due to start any day now after long, long thinking about the distant Archbishop of Canterbury’s New Year address. My vague memory is that parts were delivered, unusually, by His Grace wandering through an underground car park. Utterly usually, it was accompanied by pictures of Third World babies.

Moral calculations

The theme was striking: our problems are global. The invitation even more so: we should respond to need anywhere in the world just as we do when our families or immediate neighbours are in need. It was the just as’ that set the thinking going.

I decided we would give just as much of my money and time to the needs of the poor and sick in Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Sierra Leone, indeed all of Africa, most of India, South America and all the other poorest countries, as Mrs Anderson, her mother, various neighbours and the kittens (Master Red Chilli and Miss Ann Chovy) have been consuming; and cut the latters’ share accordingly.

At first I thought just as’ meant giving the same amount of money or care: 50% to the world and 50% to home. Yet, on reflection, did not ‘just as’ mean that Mrs A, the mother-in-law, the kittens and all should count as just one each in a queue of millions stretching across the globe?

It might well seem a more than daunting task to see that every single one in need in the world was helped by the Andersons. But if not all, who? The Archbishop’s socialist egalitarianism had not permitted the tiniest hint of ethical priorities. Indeed its intention was to knock down barriers among the needy. Those of us who wish to love and help others have the practical task of deciding whom they should love and help, whom they should love and help first and most: Mrs Anderson or a Somalian baby, indeed which of thousands of Somalian babies.

Loving in general

Newman said the test of love is practice. Issuing statements about loving all he called ‘not love but talk of love.’ I was once told the test of a generalization, such as ‘All men are our neighbours’, was to ask whether this was meant in a strong or weak sense. Is it really saying that all have the same call upon us as neighbours or, quite differently, that all men have an unquantified ‘something’ of the character of neighbours?

The former is untrue, the latter obvious but useless. In the latter case the questions are how much and precisely what aspects of that character. Newman said the command to love all was merely one to be well-disposed to all but that practical love starts with some and not others; indeed with a few and not many.

The same test can be applied to just as’. Taken in a hard sense it is untrue. Clearly I cannot help all the poor and needy of the world in the same way just as’ I do my family and immediate neighbours. Taken weakly, it is hot air, the sort of talk in which politicians deal.

Nearer neighbours

You could argue that, if we replace ‘I’, the donor, with millions of ‘we’-donors, the problem is reduced. It isn’t. It is doubled, for we now have to allocate shares among donors as well as recipients. Nor does roping in UN resolutions and the charters of politicized aid lobbies or the comparative corruption ratings of Third World governments and other intermediaries.

Quite simply there is a serious ethical problem here which the international poverty lobby, the churches and the Archbishop not only ignore but confuse and conceal with their talk of millions. Moreover, one specific personal obligation is much more difficult to run away from than a million vague ones.

If you want to give away your money like St Anthony did, to disencumber yourself from the world then it is not so difficult (though even he did it at the expense of his sister). If it is in order to fulfil your duties to those to whom you owe them, then it is much more difficult.

Traditional teaching

Thank goodness for the Church’s traditional teaching which is that, hermits and monks apart, my obligations to my wife, family, neighbours, and perhaps even Chilli and Chovy, are qualitatively and quantitatively different from those to the poor of the world.

It clearly emphasizes obligations to our own, our own parents, our children, those we come across (as the Samaritan did) and, if we dare mention it, our co-religionists. Our Lord clearly recognized these demands of ethical particularism; so notably did St John. Of course they are not exclusive or exhaustive. But they point to a hierarchy of obligation, one totally obscured by Canterbury’s just as’.

Well, Chilli and Chovy, you can come out from hiding in the empty Dom Perignon cardboard box, no-one is going to cut your rations, the regime is over, the address crumpled in the wastepaper bin, jump back up on my lap while I try again to think this one out. ND