Cash, compassion and morality

Are morals at risk when we ignore the panhandler?

March 18, 2012|Dan Rodricks

I was a passenger in a car on Thursday morning, and we stopped for a fill-up at a gas station on North Charles Street in Baltimore, a block up from North Avenue. I was on the phone while the driver purchased and pumped the gasoline. A young, male panhandler tried to make eye contact with me through the passenger's side window, but I avoided being drawn into his tractor beam.

Some panhandlers appear broken and docile, some seem impatient and even angry; some have yellow heroin eyes or some other form of medicated stare. This one seemed a little frustrated by a series of rush-hour rejections.

Had I a mind to, I might have advised the panhandler against seeking donations from people paying nearly $4 a gallon for gasoline. Certainly there must be other locations where potential donors would be less cash-conscious and in more generous moods.

Instead, I stayed focused on the phone call and ignored the panhandler's pleading eyes.

Call me cold-hearted, but, yes, I skipped this one. In fact, I've ignored many panhandlers over the years. For one thing, I often have nothing to give because I go days at a time without cash in my wallet or coins in my pocket. Sometimes the timing is bad, or I don't like the way I've been approached, or I'm in a lousy mood, or I make the instant judgment that my dollar will likely go to booze or dope. I'm sure I'm not the only Baltimore denizen who makes a decision about giving to a panhandler on a case-by-case basis, just as there are some who never give, and some who give every time.

I've compared notes with all kinds of people on this subject over the years. Those who hold the strongest opinions believe that giving to panhandlers is wrong. They say it's better to teach a man to fish than to give him a cod. And I agree. But how many of them take the time to give fishing lessons?

Now comes a new study from the University of North Carolina with a warning to those of us who refuse the panhandler all the time, or even — gadzooks! — some of the time: Each time you say no, you might be killing morality cells.

"When people suppress compassionate feelings, they lose a bit of their commitment to morality," is the study's conclusion.

It was published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), which describes its mission as the advancement of "scientifically oriented psychology in research, application, teaching, and the improvement of human welfare." The study — by Keith Payne, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Daryl Cameron, a graduate student in social psychology — looked at the connection between compassion and morality, callousness and immorality.

"Compassion is such a powerful emotion," Mr. Cameron said in a summary of the study. "It's been called a moral barometer."

In fact, compassion and empathy — an appreciation of the suffering of others — may form the foundation of morality. And, if that's the case, then suppressing compassion and empathy should make people feel less moral, countering all those who claim moral high ground by refusing panhandlers or condemning "welfare."

That's what Mr. Cameron and Mr. Payne found in their experiments and psychological tests at UNC: People who had suppressed compassion were immediately thereafter "much more likely to either care less about being moral or to say that it's all right to be flexible about following moral rules."

Some of us are just too busy with work and career — or vexed by the price of gas — to be sweet to panhandlers on a daily basis. It's the human condition. Many of us suffer from chronic compassion fatigue and choose not to be so generous all of the time.

"Many of us do this in daily life," Mr. Cameron says, "whether it's declining to give money to a homeless person, changing the channel away from a news story about starving people in a far-off land, or otherwise failing to help someone in need. ... To the degree that suppressing compassion changes how people care about or think about morality, it may put them more at risk for acting immorally."

Now there's something you don't see every day: a scientific study supporting something we read in the Old Testament. OMG.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Follow him on Twitter @DanRodricks or on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/dan.rodricks.

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