Why Do We Give?

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Three Cups of Tea, the story of Mortenson and his extraordinary school-building initiative in a remote part of Pakistan, provokes many interesting lines of inquiry. In this outline it is proposed to address the question of why we give. What compels someone like Mortenson to take on an enormous and selfless act? And how effective are the most effective individual acts of goodness? Why do we give? First, there is the “humanitarian imperative”; we help because we can. The obligation to assist arises from our ability to do so. Second, we assist because we are conscious of belonging to a single community of mankind. Mortenson gave with no expectation of reciprocity. Third, we make these gestures because they show us in good light, both to ourselves and to others. Fourth, we make this effort because we believe that reinforcing economic and social basis of society promotes peace and stability. There is a whole philosophy of “functionalism” based on the idea that an educated, prosperous society is also a peaceful society. Fifth, Mortenson may not have been aware of this but gestures like his soon attract support from other sources whose motives may or may not be as pure as the original gesture. The motive might be national interest, economic interest, or security or political influence . . . etc. Each of these five points is subject to serious questioning and doubt. Take the humanitarian imperative. We feel an obligation to help because we can help. If you cannot swim there is no obligation to dive into the water to save someone. But note, often our humanitarian impulse is seriously compromised or constrained by problems of access. The greatest need is in the most remote parts of the world and Mortenson’s achievement is th... ... middle of paper ... ...e Mortenson but unfortunately Pakistan will not be saved by such gestures. The book goes on to mention how the proliferation of Wahabi Madrassas vastly outstrip Mortenson’s efforts (p.243). Individual good deeds bless the doer but they rarely work on a scale that overcomes the problems of society. Similarly, I am uneasy about the easy assumption of the book that education will bring peace. Let me make a more fundamental point. Giving should be disinterested. Once we assign a purpose, then we are giving not for the benefit of the recipient but to advance our ideas, our interests. In any case, education does not pacify, it incites new demands. Education liberates, it empowers. It is wonderful if we are ready to make the oppressed people of the world rise up, but we must not be surprised if they begin to agitate, to criticize and, who knows, point fingers at us.
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