On Charity: Ben Abelson’s Night of Philosophy

Ben Abelson led an ethical dilemma discussion concerning charity for the “un-domiciled” at Brooklyn’s Night of Philosophy and Ideas in January.

Ben, can you talk about the question you addressed and how you approached it? 

The question I was responding to was:

Every day, when I walk my daughter to school, we pass by a homeless man asking for money. I usually give him a dollar or so. I know that this isn’t the most efficient way of spending my charitable money, but I think it teaches my daughter an important lesson about caring for other people. Is this a good idea?

In my response, I considered issues about drug abuse and autonomy, society’s role in shaping behavior, and competing ethical theories such as Utilitarianism, Kantian Deontology, and Virtue Ethics, among others. My advice, in short, was to try and get to know the homeless people in your community, understand their particular stories, and then figure out what the best way to help them is. Often that will mean buying them food, clothing, or transportation, rather than giving them cash, or even just providing them with information about how to seek the help that is available for them from government and charitable organizations.

However, ultimately it is up to individual people whether or not they will seek that help and how they will spend whatever resources they have. It is a kind of moral arrogance to assume you know what’s better for people than they do and to condemn their own desires and ways of trying to make themselves happy. At the same time you don’t want to enable self-destructive behavior. I think there is a real ethical puzzle there that I could not pretend to solve in a 30-minute discussion or even a whole philosophical career. But I think just reflecting and getting clear on the issues involved yields important benefits.

Small photo of Ben Abelson
Ben Abelson at the Night of Philosophy and Ideas | Photo courtesy of Ian Olasov

How did people engage with you? 

Happily, the “audience” was seriously engaged in the issue, asked challenging questions, and shared their own thoughts and experiences. There were even a couple of individuals who told their own stories of being homeless, or “un-domiciled” as one woman insisted on calling it. Those stories illuminated the matter in ways that my own musings could not have begun to accomplish. That was an extremely pleasant surprise and speaks to the unique value of events like A Night of Philosophy.

What do you see as the most important benefit of such an event?

For the philosophers who present there, I think the most important benefit is that it gives us an opportunity to craft presentations that are accessible to the public without sacrificing serious philosophical rigor. Probably ever since Plato first formed the Academy, but especially in recent decades, there has been a major divorce between philosophers and the public, even the general intellectual public. At least in the U.S., philosophers are not taken seriously by most people. Part of this is the fault of anti-intellectualism, but much of it is also the fault of philosophers and philosophical institutions themselves, that are often willfully obscurantist, unnecessarily technical or non-inclusive of all but a small group of experts, often from a narrowly constrained socio-economic, ethnic and gendered background.

Events like A Night of Philosophy and Ideas are valuable as an attempt to close this divide and open philosophy up to a much broader spectrum of people. Given the current political climate, it is especially important now that philosophers reach out to people to help empower them with the tools of logic and critical inquiry to help combat the tide of anti-reason that threatens to drown out free expression and progressive thinking.

Philosophers should assume what Socrates envisioned as their primary role as critics of public rhetoric and vivisectionists of ideology.  (Not that he would have put it quite that way. Sounds a bit more like Nietzsche, really.) Events like this one are a convenient arena in which to cultivate those practices. Philosophy doesn’t have to always be overtly political, but just the practice of drawing careful distinctions and considering the cogency of arguments are themselves implicit political acts these days.

What do you hope people will take away from it?

I hope people will take away the message that many philosophers do not want to be stuck in an ivory tower and want rather to be engaged in the real world of discourse, that those philosophers may have something helpful and/or interesting to say that can be understood by anyone who cares to listen, and that, furthermore, we want to hear what people who are not philosophical specialists, but who are thoughtful and have unique perspectives on the world, have to say.

Why do you think so many people are interested in it?

I think there are a good number of people who are hungry for intellectual stimulation, but who don’t feel comfortable in a traditional academic setting, or finished college and want to learn more, but don’t want to go to grad school. Such an audience was maybe built on Ted talks and the like, but has grown out of them and wants to hear more serious discussions from trained philosophers and other experts. Or they don’t like the stuffy aesthetic of classrooms and prefer something more glamorous. A Night of Philosophy and Ideas provides the perfect sort of venue for all of those sorts of individuals who want to get their philosophical fix.

Did you manage to see any other presentations?

I attended several, but alas, I had to leave around 1:00 a.m. to attend to responsibilities at home.  I saw the aforementioned talk by David Chalmers on the value of virtual worlds, and Lisa Miracchi’s presentation on why our robots are so stupid. They were both excellent examples of lectures that were accessible to a non-specialized audience, while still making important philosophical points that were not watered down or oversimplified.

Can you describe the experience of being there?  

It was absolutely wonderful to see so many people in one place for the purpose of hearing and discussing philosophy. It felt a bit like an intellectual Comic-Con, though thankfully without all the advertising. There were some organizational issues, however. My session was in a small room, but in the larger spaces, there was no microphone system, so it was difficult to hear speakers unless you were right in front of them, especially when there were musical acts playing in the lobby. David Chalmers delivered his talk standing on a table in order to reach more eyes and ears, but in most cases only a couple dozen people in a room of a few hundred had full access to a presentation. That’s a serious problem that needs to be addressed for future events.  But it seemed like most people were having a good time. The fact that many stayed around so late into the night is a testament to that. I hope they got a lot out of it.

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Ben Abelson is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Mercy College, in Dobbs Ferry, NY.  He received his Ph.D. from the CUNY Graduate Center in 2015 and his work focuses on the nature of personhood, personal identity, and moral responsibility.

1 thought on “On Charity: Ben Abelson’s Night of Philosophy

  1. Speaking of homelessness. I was an Assistant Professor of English at a Midwestern State university. But I felt hostility and discrimination from my colleagues, and because of my disadvantaged psychological condition, I did not know how to cope with it. So I wrote a letter to my colleagues. Their response was to accuse me of incompetence, remove me from the classroom, and terminate my position. I filed a grievance, and it was heard by the same colleagues, with the predictable results, and I was unable to get a lawyer to take my case. The last remarks I heard from the chairman of my department were: “Eric, your homeless need you out there. We’re going to get you out there…” And, you know what? I think he thought that was a joke.

    Still, I didn’t know what was happening, so I kept trying to file a claim in the US courts, talking about the factors, institutional, systemic, and deliberate, that make people homeless. I spent several years on the streets, getting dragged out of law libraries where I was trying to prepare my case, and getting further into hopelessness. Finally, I decided: The American system wants people to be homeless, and many of the homeless either want to be there, or won’t do anything to get out of it. And so I decided I’d try to get out of it, and with some work and luck, I did. But from my experience, I’d also say that many of those supposed well-intention-ed, liberal-leftist folks who claim to want to stop homelessness and get people off the streets etc. know perfectly well why those disadvantaged folks are out there, and don’t want to do anything to change the system that puts them there. If they didn’t help put them there themselves, in the first place.

    I experienced discrimination and abuse in the American educational system from the first day I was in school, and it lasted all the way through graduate school. I still suffer from the effects of that abuse, and I have to try hard not to think about it every day. When people ask me, I say I think American public school was hell, so people mostly don’t ask. But if you really want to stop homelessness, change the system that singles people out for discrimination and abuse from day one, calls them delinquents or losers or whatever, channels them into juvenile detention, prison, and the psych wards, and blames the victims for the discrimination and abuse they’ve experienced.

    I say this without anger or hatred—I’ve seen too much of both, and still see them everywhere—but I’d say if there really was a sincere effort to change the system that makes people homeless, it would have to address the complicity of those with privileged, highly-paid, prestigious positions—teachers, counselors, professors, etc.—who know perfectly well how the system works, and don’t want to change it. On the contrary: they want it to keep working just like it does. Singling people out for discrimination and abuse in the American public schools, thinking up reasons to persecute them or hate them, calling them delinquents or losers, and putting them out in the streets…

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