By Tibor Machan: Syndicated Columnist
At times I watch BBC World News because it covers more international issues than even CNN. So the other night I was watching and there was a report on the AIDS epidemic in Africa. The report gave some harrowing information as well as quotations from people trying to raise funds to combat AIDS.
At one point the announcer read a quote from one AIDS worker to the effect that it is especially vital that the children be saved. The reason, I heard her quoting the AIDS worker, is that “children are the future of Africa.”
I have heard similar remarks being made when people discuss helping children in various ways, educational, medical, economic, etc. Children seem to be of concern because without them, the future of some country or region of the world, or some important project is in jeopardy.
I have children and over their lifetime I have had ample opportunity to provide for them in different ways. But I must admit that my reason was never, ever that they are needed for the future of America, the world or the Western Hemisphere or, indeed, my own future. My idea has always been that I have signed on freely to give them support so they can flourish in their lives a bit more and better than they would without my support.
In short, I was concerned with them, not with what they might be good for.
The kind of thinking that lies behind wanting to give aid and support to children because they are needed for the future of a country or science or the arts seems to me to get it completely backward. That’s because human beings, as some moral philosophers have made abundantly clear, are ends in themselves. That means their lives are for them, not some resource for some other purpose.
Human beings, indeed, should never be thought of as instruments for the advancement of something else, not unless that something else is chosen by them as their own goal. People are important not because they make contributions to something apart from them — sciences, the arts, politics, business, the environment or whatever. They are important in and of themselves. They matter as the individual persons they are.
Of course people make contributions to many projects throughout their lives, and whoever values those projects will welcome and encourage this. But what makes those people worth supporting and helping when they are in special need is not that they make such contributions. It is that they are human individuals, like us, with lives and goals of their own.
If one generously supports the effort to combat AIDS in Africa or anywhere else, one has no justification for demanding that some special goal be advanced by those being helped. Generosity, charity or philanthropy are not the same thing as business whereby one expects togain returns from one’s investments. And even in business the gains depend upon what those with whom we deal choose to exchange for what we choose to exchange. It must all be voluntary, otherwise it is bad business. But in generous, charitable or philanthropic acts the point isn’t to derive benefits for oneself or for something one supports, say, a cause or a project. Such acts have to do with benefitting the recipients. And they need not come up with something in return. Otherwise it is not generosity at all that’s involved.
To think that the reason to help those afflicted with AIDS or any other malady is to further some goal for which they can be useful is to dehumanize these individuals, think of them as tools or instruments for something more important than they are. Not that there is anything wrong with advancing certain causes by supporting those who can help in this task. But that’s not the point of helping people, not when they are in dire straits, not when they are experiencing some emergency they aren’t able to handle on their own.
Children with AIDS need help as the individuals they are, not as means to some other ends.
Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at Machan@chapman.edu