Urban Altruism

A blog growing out of the seminar "Seeking the Welfare of the City" (PHIL 390) at Calvin College, directed by James K.A. Smith. For more info visit http://www.calvin.edu/~jks4/city

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Systemic Altruism

A recent article in the Grand Rapids Press once again noted the disturbing difference between infant mortality rates for white and blacks--in both Kent County and Grand Rapids proper (for 2002-2004). The breakdown is as follows:

Black infant mortality in Kent County: 19.1/1000 births
White infant mortality in Kent County: 6.6/1000 births

Black infant mortality in Grand Rapids: 21.4/1000 births
White infant mortality in Grand Rapids: 7.0/1000 births

In sum, black babies are three times as likely to die as white babies in this region. Why? A host of reasons from lack of access to quality healthcare (including all kinds of "barriers" to prenatal treatment, from lack of transportation to cultural disempowerment) to things as basic as "safe sleeping environment." The issue is complex, and while I think a privatized healthcare system bears some of the blame, other kinds of institutional racism also play a role.

But what does this have to do with altruism? I saw this article shortly after we read the chapter by Monroe on social science literature on altruism (as other-regarding concern). Something that has always bothered me in the social science literature is the valorization of "philanthropists" as altruists, even quasi-saints. That's never sat well with me, since it often seems to be the case that one gets to be a "philanthropist" by first making a pretty good buck in the cut-throat world of the market. In other words, does altruistic, other-regarding concern after one has made one's millions just overwrite one's earlier (enthusiastic) participation in a system that fosters egoistic self-regard? Again, as we discussed, I think the focus on altruistic acts obscures the issue here.

And so back to the case of black infant mortality rates. Just what would count as "altruism" in response to this situation? If a certain wealthy family in Grand Rapids (gee, who?) were to donate 30 million dollars for a program to reduce infant mortality rates in the city--but at the same time worked to foster policy and elect politicians who favored the systems that caused the problem, would they in fact be "altruistic"? Or should we instead think about a kind of systemic altruism? If so, discrete acts of philanthropy--even a general pattern of philanthropy--would not count as "altruistic" if, at the same time, one is fostering policies (maybe even trying to get elected as governor!) that systemically cause the injustices that require philanthropic giving. A fireman who rescues a child from a house is not a hero if he's also the arsonist who started the fire.


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