Humanitarianism, practically speaking

Imagine a family of six from Mexico shows up on your doorstep and says they want to live with you in your house. In broken English they tell you they fled horrible living conditions in a high-crime area and now have no money, no food, and no home, but they heard that you would put them up indefinitely. You’re a compassionate person who wants to help the needy and you have an extra bedroom and plenty of floor space so you welcome them in. Maria and Juan and their two youngest children move into the spare bedroom and the other two sleep on sofas in your living room.

For awhile everyone’s happy. The Mexican boarders are grateful to you for generously sharing your home, and you, your spouse and three children feel good about helping them and go out of your way to meet their needs. But before long your kids start to resent the extra attention the boarders are getting and the money expended on them that they were expecting would be available for dance classes, soccer gear, and family vacations….things which they’ll now have to forego. Their grades are falling because the added people and clutter have crowded out silence and space for them to study well. And you’re not around to help them as much as you were before nor available to attend school events because you’ve had to take a second job to make ends meet. Though Juan is a hard-working man and has found a landscaping job, it’s seasonal and low-paying and doesn’t provide enough for he and his family to live on their own.

The added stress is also hurting your relationship with your spouse but with the added people in the house you’ve lost the quiet evening hours you used to enjoy for intimate conversation. Though Juan and Maria do what they can to allow you privacy, the house is small and raising four active kids is time-consuming and noisy, even into the evening. And your living room is now a bedroom for two of those kids so you no longer have a place to relax on the sofa together and talk or watch some TV.

You’re beginning to wonder if opening your home to a family of strangers was a good idea, but your sense of social justice and virtue is strong so you resolve to allow them to stay as long as necessary, hoping that all the problems will eventually be resolved. And then you discover that their eldest son has raped your youngest daughter. In her bedroom. In your house.

This hypothetical situation is meant simply to highlight the practical realities of social justice which are often overlooked in our desire to help others, NOT to imply that immigrants are untrustworthy. Humanitarianism has a cost and resources a limit. We can’t meet every single one of absolutely everyone’s needs satisfactorily, and some needs are more vital than others, like protection of life. Choices must be made which will help some and leave others wanting because there is no better alternative.

Even the most socially-conscious among us regularly make choices denying humanitarian good that they could conceivably provide. On any given day there are millions of children suffering malnutrition and disease. Do you give away every spare cent you make to organizations helping them? No, because you have immediate wants and future goals that require cash. But are a decent house, nice automobile, and fulfilling career worth more than a child’s life?

My point is this: altruism is admirable but practicing it in a real world entails real limitations. Folks on the left calling for open borders, Medicare for all, free college tuition, etc. are wrong to chastise and criticize those on the right for opposing what we see as unwise. It’s easy and feels good to offer help to anyone and everyone in need, and we all would love to do that. But some of us are more willing to face the hard realities of life and make the hard choices that reality requires. That doesn’t make us hard-hearted, just practical.

And isn’t practicality a simply smarter guiding principle when looking for solutions? Because even the loftiest ideals can’t overrule the lowliest facts.

So you know what would be great? If both sides would recognize that we need both high ideals and lowly practicality. Idealism sets the goals but practicality is necessary to achieve them. Those of us on the right should value the left for championing dreams of equality and mutual prosperity. But altruistic dreams remain just fantasies if they ignore reality, so those on the left should heed the rational cautions, corrections, and objections of those on the right if they hope to make our mutual dreams come true.

We can, and should, work together…now, now people.