Saturday, August 16, 2008

An Algebraic Equation

A friend of mine faces a dilemma. His older brother ignored him while they grew up. After college, he talked their parents out of their savings and wasted it on a business that went bankrupt. Now, confined to a wheelchair, he wants his young brother to take care of him.

What does the younger brother owe this man?

It is one of the oldest questions ever asked. In what way does anyone benefit by supporting this leech? Haven't people already given up enough? A degree in mathematics is not required to make a simple calculation demonstrating with certainty that the younger brother has nothing to gain and much to lose in this situation.

But there's much more to this problem than an algebraic equation. Character is not established on a profit/loss statement. Responsibility is not a function of what we have received, but the natural outcome of what we're willing to give.

We give, even when those receiving our time and expertise have no appreciation of our devotion. We stand on who we are, regardless of what others may say or think about us. This is the measure of our humanity.

Therefore, the response to this question will depend on the character of the individual facing the challenge. Those who look only at the profit/loss statement will, with complete logical and economic validity, make the decision to abandon those in need. After all, these people, especially the aged and infirm and destitute, are not able to serve us or provide adequate monetary recompense. There are compelling social arguments, supported by the most accepted elements of North American culture, demonstrating quite convincingly the moral dangers inherent in a concern for anyone other than oneself. The most celebrated philosopher of American culture, Ayn Rand, wrote in "The Virtue of Selfishness" that any philosophy upholding concern for others is the erroneous philosophy of inhuman brutes.

Some claim, based on philosophies going back millennia, before recorded time, that to give without expectation of reward is the true sign of our dignity. With greatest respect to the huge majority in North America who vigorously believe in the value of self-fulfillment and the inherent truth of capitalism, I add my voice to those old-fashioned, out-of-date conservatives who say character is a function of what I contribute, not a function of what I acquire.

I must be willing, every day, to give to the company that employs me more than I receive in return. If I refuse, the company will not be able to heat the building, pay my manager, or employ anyone who does not provide direct service to clients. No building and maintenance department, then. No human resources department.

I must give more than I receive. The very concept of civilisation demands it.

It is precisely because of our willingness to give without reward that we build up civilisation. We do this even when temptations to think of self are all around us, and inside us. To the extent that we give, we build. To the extent that we take, we tear down.

What do I owe my brother?

The real question is this: To what extent do I have the strength of character to uphold my own human dignity and the precepts of human civilisation?

Pearson Moore
16 August 2008

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