Stoic advice: giving to the homeless

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, but please consider that it has become very popular and there now is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to yours.]

S. wrote: I have a question I’ve been asking myself for quite a few years now, even prior to getting into Stoicism. We’ve all probably had instances where, for example, we are unsure about whether we are giving aid to the homeless out of true virtue, or whether we simply enjoy thinking ourselves as such (and for some people more importantly, that others see us as such).

So my wife and I budget ourselves $30/week of personal spending money but I typically don’t use it because I try not to eat out or buy things that I don’t feel I need. One thing I like to do is give the random grocery bagger, cashier, or whomever I may encounter that has engaged in small talk with me a $5, $10, or $20 bill. Whatever is in my pocket at the time or what I deem reasonable for the situation. Even as I’m writing this I realize it makes me feel good just thinking that people are reading it and seeing it as a nice thing to do, and therefore I don’t usually tell anyone about these things. I don’t even tell my wife, because I feel like by telling her I am giving into that will for recognition of my act. What are your thoughts on this? Would you find it any less virtuous by telling your wife?

I see the man that I want to be, but I know I’m nowhere near that goal. I have that self-deprecating personality that makes it hard for me to feel justified in recognition where it isn’t deserved.

This is somewhat related to the issue we just discussed recently, concerning the ethical advisability of engaging in so-called effective altruism, although what you are referring to here is on a much smaller, and more personal (because it concerns people you actually meet) scale.

I don’t think there is anything objectionable in giving small amounts of money to homeless people you encounter, or to the others in need you mention in your letter. I also don’t think it is wrong to donate to charity in larger amounts. I do both, so it would be hypocritical of me to advice others not to do it. In my case, I keep small bills in my pocket to give out to homeless people I encounter in my neighborhood, and I budget a certain amount every few months to give to charities or other organizations whose mission I believe in (mostly, the International Rescue Committee, for disaster relief; and the ACLU, for increasingly needed protection of civil rights; also some news organizations, since a more or less free press is vital to maintain a somewhat functional democracy).

I do this because I want to contribute to a world were human beings help each other and relate to each other as members of a cosmopolis, as Marcus says here:

“The universal nature has made rational animals for the sake of one another to help one another according to their deserts, but in no way to injure one another.” (Meditations, IX.1)

“Where the end is, there also is the advantage and the good of each thing. Now the good for the reasonable animal is society.” (Meditations V.16)

You also raise the issue of whether one does this sort of things in order to feel good about oneself, and whether that is in itself ethical. So long as feeling good isn’t the main reason one engages in a virtuous act, I don’t think there is a problem. Kant thought that feeling good about doing good somehow makes the act not good, but he was a bit of a rigid moralist, who also incidentally said that the moral law ought to be upheld even at the cost of the destruction of the world (one could reasonably wonder what the point of being ethical would be, if the world came to an end as a result of it). Here is what Seneca has to say instead, which I find to be a much wiser discussion of the issue:

“We Stoics … take pleasure in bestowing benefits, even though they cost us labour, provided that they lighten the labours of others.” (On Benefits, IV.13)

And more to the point:

“‘But,’ says our adversary [the Epicurean], ‘you yourself only practise virtue because you hope to obtain some pleasure from it.’ In the first place, even though virtue may afford us pleasure, still we do not seek after her on that account: for she does not bestow this, but bestows this to boot, nor is this the end for which she labours, but her labour wins this also, although it be directed to another end. … Pleasure is not the reward or the cause of virtue, but comes in addition to it; nor do we choose virtue because she gives us pleasure, but she gives us pleasure also if we choose her.” (On the Happy Life, IX)

So, you may still not want to boast about your actions to your wife, but taking pleasure in doing something good is human, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up for it.

The broader issue, however, is the same that I brought up in my criticism of effective altruism: we need to be careful not to use charity as a palliative that clears our conscience and distracts us from the underlying issues. We live in a rich society with plenty of resources, we have no excuse for having homeless people in the streets, or for so many in our society to have to work two or three jobs just to pay their rent.

That is why I only give little directly to the person I encounter in the street, but reserve some of my budget to give money to organizations that advocate for the homeless, or that fight for a more just society. And of course I also engage whoever will listen in conversations about social justice, and I vote for political candidates who support more just policies. Naturally, ultimately I do not control the outcomes of these actions, only my judgments and my own actions following from those judgments. Accordingly, I don’t expect the world to magically become a better place, but try to follow Marcus when he says:

“Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires.” (Meditations IV.24)

14 thoughts on “Stoic advice: giving to the homeless

  1. Garp (@skepticalgarp)

    Two points:

    I agree with Seneca and cannot think of a better general definition of ‘a good person’ than someone who takes simple pleasure in helping others (by which I mean feeling good – the sensation – as opposed to feeling good about oneself). I also don’t think it is wrong to let other people see you getting genuine pleasure from your actions. Depending on your personality, it will probably be clear to others – especially someone close to you – how your actions affect your behaviour through a smile or a lift in your mood.
    I think it is important to recognise the distinction between the immediate and long term needs of a person. For anyone in need of support we should ensure their short term needs are continually addressed as a priority, after which we have time to concentrate on their medium to long term needs. Short term needs of a homeless person may be food, warmth, shelter, mental support, which can be helped with regular small donations and treating a person as a human being with a smile, conversation and genuine concern for their wellbeing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. E. O. Scott

    Thanks for taking up both this topic and Effective Altruism.

    As we began building a reading list for the “Stoics for Justice” community last year, it became apparent that there is precious little modern Stoic writing on the topic of philanthropy. These two posts filled that whole!


  3. virtue42015

    This is a very good way to behave. I’d like to add that a smile and a gentle touch on the hand as money passes makes me feel even better.
    I’ll also mention something that George Orwell recommends in ‘Down and Out . . .’, even if you have no money to give taking a flier and smiling at a person who is giving out fliers on the street is a great boost to ones personal ‘eudaimea.’


  4. Massimo Post author


    Of course these posts are to be taken as my personal interpretation of what a Stoic would do. But as you say, at least we get the conversation going.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Francesca Turchiano

    On any given day in Manhattan I encounter dozens of homeless people seeking money. The number makes for a quandary: since I can only give to a few how might I choose them (in order of appearance?) or is it more useful to pool my money with others by donating to a help-the-homeless organizations?

    This dilemma may not be within the purview of Stoicism, but it is a real one.

    With thanks,


  6. Massimo Post author


    That’s exactly my dilemma, every day. I split the difference, by giving some money to the first few homeless I encounter in my neighborhood (upper east side), and then donating for organizations that systematically help homeless people. From a utilitarian perspective that’s not the most efficient approach, but from a virtue ethical perspective it is a good compromise, I feel, between human feelings and overall humanitarian goals.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. PaulCheryl Sailer

    Enabling. Absent the donations and other charities, would the homeless still be homeless? They aren’t all mentally ill, nor are they all freeloaders, addicts, disabled vets, people down on their luck. Best not to give directly, find an organization that tries to fix the problem.


  8. wtquinn

    I was approached once on my way to work by a homeless person who appeared clean in appearance asking me for money so he could buy something to eat. I told him I’d walk with him to the store and buy him breakfast, which he accepted. If I had received attitude push-back, I would have walked away.

    Homelessness, while being another politically correct term, is nonetheless tragic. I care about these people. I want to see them healed, clothed and in their right minds. I don’t want to feed addiction or contribute to crime and public urination/defecation. This societal problem calls for soft and/or tough love, private/and or government programs that discover and solve the root causes of the problem.

    If government deinstitutionalizes the mentally ill, and/or drug addicts, and/or career turnstile justice criminals, having ready cash as an individual to hand out only perpetuates their problem. There used to be such a thing as vagrancy laws. Reinstitute those laws and the physical institutions to house these people. Help everyone in need to help themselves if possible. Care for those who can’t.

    A good book/website describing successful outcome stories in the approach to solving drug addiction is:

    The focus is on work programs as virtuous path to rehabilitation versus one-dimensional criminalization.

    I’m not a card-carrying Stoic or Epicurean member, however I’m open to learning from both.

    I’ve experienced the soft attitude Biblical Matt 6:3 “But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”

    and the hard attitude South Park cynical comic truth-telling in the Episode “Night of the Living Homeless”


  9. Alessio Persichetti

    Someone should always act virtuously, according to the most good action possible in those cirmunstances AND a calculus of the best outcome in terms of consequences. But, if doing so provokes in addition some kind of pleasure or happiness, I dont’ see any issue or hypocrysy: in any scenario, I have done a good thing, then it’s just something which adds to the action itself — in these cases there is no deceitfulness, as a philosopher like Thomas Aquinas could have thought.


  10. Paul Braterman

    wtquinn, be very afraid of anyone who advocates “tough love”, above all when coupled to incarceration, which you seem to be advocating. I have seen close up the harm this can do; see Maia Szalavitz’ “Help at any cost”. Life-damaging


  11. wtquinn

    Paul Braterman,

    I’ll take your advice to heart and lookup the “help at any cost” example you suggest.

    I was attempting to describe a distinction between criminal and non-criminal homeless behavior based on my personal tolerance level for same. Certain cities are sanctuaries for criminals, who perhaps know no fear.


    Liked by 1 person

  12. Paul Braterman

    You refer to my “advice”. If there are personal choices involved I most strongly advise you to read Szalavitz carefully. She does not exaggerate. Forgive lack of detail but I am thinking of the worst decision I ever made in my life

    Liked by 1 person

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