The (im)Possibility of Help and Education

I love Stephen. I really do. He pushes my thinking. In a recent comment he has got me thinking about how hard it is to provide help (or, by extension, to educate someone) in a morally appropriate manner. Below I pull out several quotes from his comments on my previous post and respond. It’s moderately long, but in the end I believe I find that help is not so hard to give and that education is not a dirty word.

By attaching conditions to help. “I will help you, but you have to…” changes the ‘help’ relation to something else. Donors of help often ask for recognition, preferential treatment, payment in kind, or some such thing. This is no longer ‘help’ per se; it is a commercial transaction imposed under conditions of duress.

With a few exceptions that I will readily cede, it is generally impossible for a helper to not impose conditions. If my neighbor’s ankle is sprained, and I want to help him by cutting the grass, I may be forced to impose several conditions. “I’d love to help, but can’t until I get off work – would that be ok?” “I’d love to help, but will need to borrow your mower to do it, if that’s ok.” “I’d love to help, but I refuse to do it without your permission – is it ok if I cut your grass?”

But this last example exposes a fundamental contradiction between Stephen’s first and second criteria: you can’t impose conditions prior to giving help, but you also can’t impose the help itself. By this logic, it’s wrong to help without asking, but it is also wrong to refuse to help without first receiving permission to do so. These two conditions must place a would-be helper in an infinite loop of analysis paralysis; they making giving help in a morally appropriate manner completley impossible.

By imposing help. Even if the help is genuine, the imposition of help creates or reveals an imbalance of power between the helper and the recipient. By imposing help, one is being clear that he could impose other measures as well – payment, performance or whatever. Imposed help is a sort of commercial transaction in which the possibility of payment is deferred. (p.s. forced piano lessons are not ‘help’ no matter how helpful they are).

This criteria confuses two separate conditions: giving help when no explicit permission has been granted by the one to receive help (or the permission implicit in a request for help), and giving help when the receiver has explicitly stated that they do not want the help. If we were to believe the first condition, we would frequently find ourselves behaving like Robin Williams’ genie in Aladdin. As an unconscious Aladdin slips quickly toward the ocean floor with a bag of sand tied around his feet, the genie pleads with his unresponding friend – ‘You have to ask! I can’t help unless you ask!!’

Imagine coming upon the scene of an accident, finding someone unconscious, hysterical, in shock, or otherwise incapacitated. The car is on fire. It is within your capacity to “help” by getting them out of the car. If they don’t explicitly grant permission for you do to so, is the moral thing to do to stand by and watch them burn and eventually explode? A more common example might be taking dinner over to a neighbor you know to be sick. He neither asked nor gave explicit permission. By the definition above you have “imposed” the dinner on him. Was it immoral? I say no.

Giving help in these first circumstances does reveal (but does not create) an imbalance of power between the helper and the recipient. But, as I have said, if this assymentry did not exist, help of any kind (moral or otherwise) would not be possible. (If I were hanging over the cliff with you, I could not help you up.) In fact, in its purest form, help may be viewed as the destruction of these assymetries.

“Help” of the second kind implied by Stephen’s second point, in which the receiver says “no” and the helper gives help despite, will doubtless violate the receiver’s agency, autonomy, or what USA’ers may describe as their “inalienable rights.” This would frequently be immoral – but not always. In fact, there are circumstances in which this would be unquestionably moral. For example, if a hot-tempered friend of mine were to lose it completely and begin beating his 6 year old within an inch of his life with no sign of letting up, I would consider it a moral imperative to “help” him stop, even if he specifically asked me not to. This example not withstanding, I agree that help which violates another’s agency will generally be immoral. It is conceptually much closer to rape than help.

By creating the need for help. I suspect this concept lies behind the ‘banking’ argument. The need for help in the developing world arises as a result of the hoarding of wealth and resources by the wealthier world, and even the extraction of wealth and resources from the poor communities to the benefit of wealthy communities. The reason we need to ‘provide’ an education to such nations is that the conditions that would have otherwise enabled an education have been blocked by prior actions. What ought to happen, it would be argued, is that instead of a sort of ‘help’ being provided, rather, a ‘repayment’ for the hinderance we have already caused ought to be provided.

I agree with this third point if and only if I create the need for help and then profit by giving the help (or coordinate with someone else to do so). However, I disagree if I come across someone with a need for help created by someone else. The Biblical parable of the good Samaritan seems relevant here. A man is mugged and robbed, and left for dead (i.e., a band of individuals have created a need for help in the victim). When another person walks by him on the road, should they help, or not? I can not imagine saying “this need for help was created by someone… to provide the needed help would be an immoral ending to an immoral begining. I will pass him by.”

Taking Stephen’s example of the developing world, rather than trying to decide who was responsible, placing blame, and trying to get repayment, why not spend all our efforts just helping? I once heard it said that “there’s no limit to the good that can be done if you don’t worry about who gets the credit.” I would add “or who gets the blame.”

There is a great need for help in the world. What saddens me is that, despite so many ostentations pretensions of the offering of help, there is so very little genuine help in the world. Everybody, it seems, has an angle.

At one level, I agree completely. Much of help is exploitation in sheep’s clothing. It’s embarassing, shameful, immoral, and likely illegal.

However, I do not find it problematic that absolutely everyone has an angle. We all help with an expectation; we all help for a reason. For some people, the reasons are exploitative and immoral – I help for financial or real gain. For others, the reasons are religious – Jesus or Allah or (insert Diety here) said I should. For others, the reasons are purely personal – I help because it allows me to maintain a self-image of myself as a moral or helpful person, or because it helps my karma, or it helps me sleep at night.

There is no action without consequence, and there is no moral action without cosideration of consequence. All moral action, and all true help, is preceded by forethought of consequences of the action or help, and the choice to act in light of those considerations. (I readily cede that there is plenty of irrational and immoral action.) Why do we choose to help? Stephen is right in asserting that we all have a reason. For many cases, I think many people can agree on what is moral and what is not. For finer shades of grey, whether you find another’s reason moral or not is a function of the relationship between your moral system and theirs.

“So, David, don’t just criticize Stephen, make an alternative proposal,” you say? I believe that true help is much easier to give than Stephen implies. My own criteria for help would only be that the help not work actively against another’s agency. “What about help in which the helper also has an expectation of real gains?” you ask. If the receiver is truly helped (if an asymmetry between him and the helper – that he wants removed – is truly destroyed or decreased), then why not? There is a fine line between exploitation and what is called “win-win.” I have no problem with “win-win.” We might define win-win as a situation in which an act of help simultaneously removes or decreases asymmetries bidirectionally for both involved in the help.

But the reason this is all on my blog, is that supporting, facilitating, enabling, or empowering learning – what we should properly describe as education – is about help. If I have theoretical knowledge, practical know-how, or some other experience which another would like me to help them cultivate – if they think I can help to remove what they perceive as an asymmetry between them and me, then education is about to happen. Some of them will send me an email, some of them will download things I have written, some will call on the phone, and some of them will come to do doctoral work with me at Utah State. More often than not, I will be on the other end of the interaction – doing the email, downloading, calling, or class taking. That’s what it’s all about.

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