In some countries, begging rings raise money by putting captive children on the street to beg from strangers.  The children are usually orphans and may have been deliberately disabled or mutilated to arouse pity.  If you are a typical person on the street and encounter one of these children, should you give them money?

If you give money, you support the begging ring.  If you don’t, the child may be punished for collecting too little money.  Assume that calling the police or seeking help from government officials will be ineffective.

Contributed by Anonymous.

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

3 responses »

  1. Zeynep says:

    I think the best way to decide on what to do in this situation is to use the principle of beneficence that tells us, from an ethical point of view, to do what is good. We should try and create the greatest amount of good over evil, which also relates to the utility principle. In this case, the dilemma we face as decision makers is whether or not to help the child beggar by giving him money. Helping him can in return protect him from severe punishments but at the same time might help the people behind him who keep making more money because of those people who do give money to the child beggars. If we decide to give money to the child beggar, those behind him will continue to make more children beg because they make more and more money by doing so but if we don’t give money then those people behind this business will make the children suffer and punish them, accusing them of not collecting enough money. Considering that we don’t have the option to take the child to the police or to an orphanage, it is very hard to know what the ethical decision would be. Nevertheless, in order to maximize the good over the evil, it would be best to help the child in some way. A way to help him would be to buy him food, something that he wants whether it be candy, chocolate or actual food. This way you wouldn’t be indirectly helping the people behind him yet you would be helping the child beggar who probably doesn’t have that extra money to buy food that he craves. I believe by doing so you would be generating some kind of good over evil that does in fact help the child and satisfies the utility principle.

  2. John Hooker says:

    Some people say we should not give to beggars because it encourages an undesirable practice. However, this depends on the context. In parts of southeast Asia, giving alms to Theravada Buddhist monks supports an institution that plays a central and positive role in the society. This kind of gift is clearly utilitarian and generalizable. It is utilitarian because it probably benefits the monk more than it deprives the donor. It is generalizable because the purpose of the gift is to support the monks, and the donor can accomplish this purpose if the practice of giving is generalized (it is already generalized to a great degree).

    More broadly, one can argue that beggary in some countries is part of a social welfare system that operates on the streets rather than through government agencies. It is far from an ideal system, but an individual gift is nonetheless utilitarian. It is also generalizable if practiced according to social custom. There is usually an etiquette of giving — when to give, to whom, and how much — that one can learn by watching others.

    Child slavery, however, is not part of a social welfare system. It is a corruption of the system and probably illegal. This makes it hard to say that giving is generalizable. It is unclear even that an individual gift benefits children (the utilitarian question), much less that it would continue to benefit if the practice of giving were generalized.

    The prior question is the utilitarian one. As often happens with utilitarian questions, rationality requires that you research the issue. You should make an effort to understand the culture in which you are living or visiting (I put together this collection of 800+ reference works, indexed by country). This includes understanding the role of beggary, if it is prevalent. Zeynep suggests giving the child food rather than money. This could work, but if you just got off the plane and have not researched the issue, probably the best course is to do nothing. You have no idea what might be the repercussions of an awkward attempt to give alms. Over time, you can develop a more informed response.

  3. Jas says:

    This is a really difficult dilemma as giving even a few spare change could encourage them to repeat the procedure, and refusing or ignoring them could leave you a weight to carry in your conscience. Even though giving alms to these beggars is not part of your personal responsibilities, knowing that a human person could smile once more by sacrificing even just a really small percentage of your “sufficiency” for the day could make you feel accomplished even in the slightest way. If you can and you are willing to, you should give them the most basic human need, food. May it be in the form of even newly bought cheap food or leftovers (only to the point that it is not classified as animal food in an average person’s point of view, because giving “trash food” to the poor is not practical since you are merely getting rid of something that could not be of any use to you; it is not an act of pity). It could satisfy them for the meantime. Praying for God’s guidance on helping them and guiding them towards what God plans is extremely helpful as well.

    Summary of my opinion:
    1. Food
    2. Prayers
    3. More prayers 🙂

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