Lessons On Philanthropy & Epistemology Learned From Haight Street

Posted in Blogosphere, Epistemology, Ethics, Morality, San Francisco on  | 7 minutes | 8 Comments →

I was in the blogosphere the other day when I stumbled upon a post describing a random act of kindness. The thread was interesting, and there was a person who explained he had been burned by panhandlers with sob stories, and that as a result, he "doesn't give anyone anything anymore." This commenter said this makes him feel bad, but implied he felt he had no other option. Living in San Francisco, which happens to be one of the more "panhandler-heavy" cities on planet Earth, I deal with this stuff all day and couldn't help but to think about it.

Where I agreed was that I share an inner resistance towards handing money to whoever asks for it. Tommykey alluded to the "burning suspicion" that many panhandlers are just going to spend the money on alcohol or drugs, and San Francisco knows just how true this can be! Of course not every person with a sob story is telling the truth! Welcome to the real world!

It's completely understandable that being burned by panhandlers with sob stories discourages generosity, and I can make a strong argument that I understand this as well or better than most people. You think it sucks when they connive you for a few bucks? How about when they gang up on you and try to take your stuff? How about when they run up and steal your hoodie you set next to the ledge you were skating on a cold night? Ever had to make the decision to not punch aggressive panhandlers in the face because you don't want to risk getting Hep-C by cutting your hand on their teeth, all over a twelve-pack and the old skateboard you rode to the store to get it? Some might consider any one of these sufficient reason to avoid panhandlers, but is there ever a sufficient reason to turn a cold shoulder to all panhandlers?

Don't get me wrong; I spend lots of time on the streets and I ain't no college-bred, PC/liberal softie. I ignore or haggle many of the people that panhandle in Upper Haight because many of them are healthy and under 30 with minds at least coherent enough to think up some pretty savvy approaches. I have no problem shutting these types down, and often enjoy doing it. Some of these people are just aging trust-fund kids pursuing their store-bought punk rock dreams. Others are just flotsam and jetsam looking for enough money to score some beer and a 20sack before wandering back into Golden Gate Park for the night. Others are natural born entertainers that really ought to catch the first bus to Hollywood, still others are swindlers, thieves and straight-up criminals.

Accordingly, why should we fuel their self-destructive habits? Why should we work to give them money when nothing besides their own choice prevents many of them from earning their own money? Why should we be connived? Indeed, those are all valid arguments, and sometimes the best thing to say when these types ask if you have any change is, "Not the kind you need."

On the other hand, some of these people meandering around the Haight are teenage midwestern girls who got stuck here with dogs that look like they haven't eaten in weeks. Some are elderly widows that just can't hold it together anymore. Some are mothers with children that quite literally sleep in boxes. Others are dejected veterans who served our country and got shit on. Still others – like Incense Man – are diligent entrepreneurs doing the best they can with what they have and trying to live a respectable life in a world that mostly looks down on non-clock-punchers. Regardless of how or why each of these people got there, they would all clearly benefit from varying degrees of fiscal assistance.

Isn't there a world of difference between giving these people money vs. the people in the previous paragraph? Is it rational to behave on the logic that just because many who panhandle connive, all do? Although it's not my place to say what others ought to think, if we want to talk logic, that's the genetic fallacy, pure and simple.

I understand the motivation behind not wanting to have one's generosity taken advantage of as good as anyone, but does this mean we have no other option than across-the-board denial? There are literally all kinds of ways to help people without giving them money: food, dog food, smoke if they smoke, water, a cup of coffee, half of your bagel, even simple interaction, a smile, or basic eye contact. Other times, money is the best help a person can get. Aren't critical thinkers supposed to assess each situation individually, as opposed to blindly following rules?

Now, I'm not going to be unsympathetic towards the business woman who was raped by panhandlers and resolves to never interact with any of them again. Still, even if we believe across-the-board denial of panhandlers is justified for whatever reason, what of the difference between reactively helping those who ask vs. pro-actively helping those we genuinely believe need help?

Consider the differences between the 30-something panhandler on Haight with a smirk on his face and a sign that reads, "Go fuck yourself," and the 50-something woman sitting alone on a pile of trash behind a building not asking anyone for anything. If not being taken advantage of is our concern, but we still want to help people, perhaps positively helping people that one believes genuinely need help is less risky than helping those who ask? After all, most connivers and charlatans are at least assertive if not downright aggressive, so that right there gives valid reason to suppose the meek are more likely to be genuine.

The bottom line is, each situation is individual, so our responses should reflect that. An across-the-board rule of "I don't give anyone anything anymore" seems irreverent towards critical thought, and interestingly, I see a parallel between this crude attitude and that which says we should reject all ideas without empirical evidence.

Brilliant minds frequently intuit correct ideas via brute theoretical experimentation, ideas far beyond that which the current tools of the scientific trade can pass definitive judgment on. Sure, there's a certain psychological security that comes from adhering dogmatically to an across-the-board rule where we only accept ideas supported by empirical evidence, but this also means we'll never accept a correct idea that isn't currently supported by empirical evidence just because it happens to be ahead of its time.

What happens if we take this crude, all-or-nothing approach towards philanthropy? Should we equally reject all who ask for help until they show sufficient empirical evidence to prove they need it? On one hand, if we give money to everyone who asks, we'll soon run out of money! On the other hand, there's a certain psychological security in denying all panhandlers so we'll never get burned again, but this also means we can never give anything to any panhandler who truly needs it.

As with most things in life, the more reasonable choices are usually somewhere between the extremes. If giving money to whoever asks is foolish and shows contempt for critical thought – as most who call themselves critical thinkers would unabashedly agree – what of denying money to whoever asks?

I'd feel bad if I adopted that strategy, too – especially if I fancied myself a critical thinker.


  1. Tommykey


    Hi CL, glad I could provide you with inspiration for a new post.
    Just to be clear, at least with regard to me, if you read my comments in my post, you will note an instance where I did pay for dinner for a lady and her kids who were down on their luck. I don’t have a blanket ban on never helping out a stranger who asks for it. As you mention above, there is a spectrum between always giving money to panhandlers and never giving any, and an area in between wherein we make judgments based on our perceptions of the person doing the asking.
    There is also a certain measure of idealism in that when we make a donation, we want to be sure it will make a positive difference in the life of a person who truly needs it. If I donate $100 to Oxfam or Doctors Without Borders, I can take some pleasure in knowing that I am helping in some way to provide assistance to people who are in dire circumstances. If I provide a direct cash transfer to a stranger on the street, I run the risk of being the enabler of someone’s alcohol or drug addiction. However, if I buy a meal for a stranger, still feel that I am doing a good deed, because regardless of the person’s circumstances, I at least helped that person avoid hunger.

  2. cl


    Damn. I purposely left the person anonymous because I wanted to address the ideas and not the person. I wasn’t referring to you at all. It was one of the commenters who abides by the “across-the-board” ban, not you. In no way is this post intended to be a dis or criticism of you or your OP. At all. Everything you said in your OP pretty much sums up my own attitude towards the issues.
    It’s just that this commenter’s thinking on philanthropy seemed to parallel their thinking on epistemology; I thought it was pretty interesting, and in my opinion, highlighting the comparison really reveals the inherent flaw in the attitudes described.

  3. Tommykey


    I wasn’t sure if you meant me, and I was the only person named in your post. I just didn’t want any of your readers assuming it was me who was abides by the “across-the-board” ban.

  4. cl


    No, I didn’t mean you, I didn’t want to name names and I thought by noting this person was a commenter in the thread I figured I could avoid most any problems. I named you in my post because I wanted to connect your name with the “burning suspicion” comment which I thought was spot-on. So far, I don’t think you’d be the type for across-the-board anything, really.

  5. Karla


    I believe in being Spirit-led not need-led. Ask God what you can do for the person asking for money. Peter and John said silver and gold have I none, but what I have I give to you and they healed the man. Maybe I don’t have money in my pocket that I can give, maybe they need healing from something. Or maybe God shows me what to give them monetarily or where to take them for a warm meal. I think being Spirit led is the key.

  6. Karla


    Also, it’s the kindness of God that leads to repentance, so even if they aren’t in need or are going to use the money unwisely, God can show us the way to show them His love.

  7. cl


    With the exception of the commenter who made the across the board ban, whether were atheists or believers, it sounds like what we’re discussing essentially amounts to treating each case individually and not being bound by formula.

  8. Karla


    Yep I think it’s a case by case basis on what the right thing to do is.

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