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21. Providing a Service vs. Sending Money

XXI. If John saves the child from drowning, he provides a service for a needy person; whereas in the case of The Envelope , if I behave helpfully, all I have to provide is money.

In the case of the Shallow Pond, to provide apt aid John must perform a service forthe child in need. Moreover, one of his goods would be needed in the performance of the service, namely, his Gucci shoes. By contrast, in the case of The Envelope all you must contribute is money; and, beyond the trivial effort needed to mail the money, the monetary cost is all you incur. Can this difference favor a lenient judgment of your tossing UNICEF's appeal into your wastebasket?

Often, the difference between mere money and, on the other side, actual goods and services, has a psychological impact on us: When there's a call for our money, generally we think of what's going on as just charity. And, when thinking this, it seems all right to decline. But, at least in blatantly urgent situations, when there's a call for services, or one of our especially apt goods, a fair number of us think we must rise to the occasion. Does this difference have much moral relevance?

What does your moral common sense tell you on this score: Does it matter whether it's money, or goods, or services, or whatever, that's needed from you to lessen serious suffering. There isn't a stronger moral call on you when it's your goods or services that are needed aid than when it's just your money or is there?

When disasters strike, like earthquakes, hurricanes, or floods, organizations work to aid the imperilled victims. On many of us, these groups often call only for our money. But, on some, they call for goods or services: For example, one good group may suggest that, since you're well placed in the pharmaceutical industry, you might make calls to your associates, asking them to donate medicines needed by victims of last week's disaster. But, plenty often, in these ordinary cases, the needs aren't salient to the agent approached and, then, our uncritical reactions are lenient. So, plenty often, the fact that what's needed is an agent's services, or his or her goods, doesn't affect our responses to cases. But perhaps you think it does or you think it should affect our responses to the two cases at hand? How can this be made out? (Adapted from Unger)

Fishermen, Peru

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February 14, 1998
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Oxfam America and CARE
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