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Why should you be “forced” to help someone else?

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I’m sick. I don’t get sick much. Somehow I still don’t quite believe I will ever get really sick but the statistics say there is a 100% chance I will die of something. So that means it’s either a violent end, or one day I get really sick.

Statistics also say over 70% of my readers are American, and some other statistics say that one-seventh of them do not have health insurance.

I’m making this statistic up, but for those without health coverage, probably a good 50% of their fellow Americans believe that their lack of health insurance is deserved. If they get sick they deserve no medical attention, because they didn’t tend their own garden well enough.

In America, you’re free to seek and acquire everything you need. Somehow, many people think this means the same as: if you don’t have everything you need, then you don’t deserve everything you need. No health insurance? Didn’t work hard enough. Simple.

My sinuses are blocking some of my brain right now so maybe I’m oversimpifying it, but isn’t that the basic philosophy, for many, many people?

The population contains two hundred million self-professed followers of Christ and most of them believe that it is absurd to pay a dime for someone else to see a doctor.

Makes me think of a joke:

How many Ayn Rand objectivists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

None. The market will sort it out.

I generally don’t talk about single political issues here. And I’m not right now. This post isn’t about health care. Or Capitalism. It’s about something way bigger, as always. 

There is a terrible notion out there that is relatively common: that haves deserve to be haves, and have-nots deserve to be have-nots. It sounds sensible if you don’t really think about it.

If you do think about it you’ll quickly realize that it means, to begin with, that the disadvantaged (for whatever reason) deserve less, are worth less, and that there is no justice until they have less. If someone gets to see a doctor without paying for it, for example, then they are getting away with something.

It implies that the mythical quality of “strength of character” is all that separates the haves from the have-nots, and that this quality is all the disadvantaged are truly missing, and that rightly they are to be blamed for that.

It presumes that being poor in a nation with a free market economy can only be a moral failing — rather than an inevitable product of the system, rather than a social condition whose existence is necessary in order for other people to be rich. Being poor can only arise from some kind of choice to be not good enough, as the popular “get off your ass” sentiment goes. Many people really do believe this.

If you get into an argument about this, all the rebuttals you’ll face can be boiled down to this:

Why should *I* be forced to help someone else?

Here’s why:

Because you’re better off if other people aren’t suffering so much.

Even if you truly cannot see a reason why the suffering of another person is relevant to you, there’s still an ice-cold pragmatic reason to redistribute wealth, if you need one.

No matter which way you dice it, you’re better off if you live in a society that does not create large numbers of destitute people as a part of its nature. Even if they don’t live next to you.

Crime, distrust, self-destruction, poverty and other conditions we all hate grow directly out of lives that are missing something vital. Education. Health. Self-respect and the respect of society.

Even the richest are better off if they are made to be slightly less rich in order to reduce the number of poor and destitute. Not even to be kind, necessarily, but just to live in a society that is unwilling to bear the enormous social problems created by a huge, incurably destitute lower class.

And such a society cannot exist without an obligation (not a suggestion) for the haves to contribute to the quality of the lives of the have-nots, even if it is more than they might “deserve.”

Nobody is able to create by themselves all that they feel they deserve. Even those who live at the top of the pile.


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Mary November 7, 2012 at 3:49 pm

I just ‘stumbled’ here. I love this piece! :)

murielar November 16, 2012 at 10:50 am

I guess helping others, as many other things in life, depends not on morality or religion or politics, but on having a clear conscience and feeling a better human being. We have all heard about people dying in wars and other countries, but it usually does not disturb our conscience, we are so used to it… When someone bothers about it, he or she joins some organization and takes action…and feels better with himself.

Diane December 8, 2012 at 10:51 am

Thank you for expressing this so well.

Padukah Tangerine March 23, 2013 at 11:07 pm

Oh David, I was about to be in love with you because of some of your other writing, and ask if you’d consider marrying a surgeon, but in response to your question, “Why should you be forced to help someone else?” I can only ask: what is force? and, why should anyone ever use force on another?

David March 24, 2013 at 9:55 am

Well, if we live under a government, we are required to comply with their laws. If we do not, we can be forcibly imprisoned, fined, etc.

Taxation is in this sense a form of force. Some people think it is wrong for that reason, but most of us realize life is better with a functioning government than with no government and taxation is required for one.

Democratic societies are supposed to ultimately decide what services the government provides with the tax revenues. Being taxed so that public healthcare may be provided (even to people who pay little or no taxes) could be called “being forced to help someone else.”

Padukah Tangerine March 25, 2013 at 6:52 pm

Oh, I agree that “Being taxed so that public healthcare may be provided (even to people who pay little or no taxes) [IS] “being forced to help someone else””!

But I cannot believe that increasing the potential violence [force] in this world is the way to improve it.

Surely there are voluntary and peaceful ways to accomplish the goal of improving access to healthcare whilst improving healthcare generally… I don’t know of any voluntary methods other than giving and trading– both of which work splendidly when not corrupted by corporate-government collusion. People are so quick to use violence as a means to their ends. Sigh.

David March 31, 2013 at 2:53 pm

Don’t miss the point reacting to the word. Nobody said increasing the potential violence in the world is the way to improve it. Do you understand that the word “force” in the title refers only to the appropriation of tax dollars — something we do anyway, and which all reasonable people acknowledge is necessary? The title is a rebuttal to conservative viewpoints on public health care, which often claim that public services are tantamount to forcing them to help someone who doesn’t deserve it. I am using their words.

Padukah Tangerine March 27, 2013 at 7:29 pm

Apologies, I should have made that a question: do you think violence is better than non-violence to ensure that “everyone” get what you think they need?

David March 31, 2013 at 2:54 pm

No. You seem bent on missing the point here.

Garrett April 19, 2013 at 9:27 pm

First of all, I appreciated Carl’s link to the “Just World Fallacy” article. The myth that anyone with great monetary wealth surely must have worked hard is (or should be) terribly transparent.

Secondly, I’d like to make a simple point about money as a way of providing some food for thought. This thing referred to as “money” is merely a social construct with no intrinsic value. Does it strike anyone else as absurd and inhumane that billions of people are denied that which does have intrinsic value (food, clean water, clean air, etc.) because they lack that which does not?

Garrett April 20, 2013 at 12:04 am

Those who are tossing around the term “theft” seem to be making the false assumption that their position/status isn’t itself the product of one kind of theft or another.

A reading recommendation: http://www.amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html. And that applies to the members of any historically dominant group.

Historical injustices, such as Social Security benefits being denied to all but white males for a lengthy stretch of time, have lingering effects. To say nothing of present day injustices…of course, there’s no such thing if you subscribe to the “just world fallacy.”

There is no “free market.” Never has been, never will be. It’s a Randian Fantasy. Read Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. And, as I said in my previous comment, the very notion of money (this abstract social construct) is an absurdity if you think critically about it. I highly, highly recommend reading David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5000 Years. Here’s a link to a review: http://thenewinquiry.com/blogs/zunguzungu/david-graebers-debt-my-first-5000-words/. If you follow the link that appears in the second comment in the left hand margin (to the Ludwig von Mises Institute site), you’ll find a discussion in which Graeber himself thoroughly rips to shreds the argument put forth by his critic.

While we’re on the topic of social constructs, borders/countries are utterly arbitrary. “My country” this, “my country” that…it’s all nonsense.

All that said, ‘A Critic’ has made some very valid points. Most notably the fact that government – in the sense being discussed here – is run at the behest of Big Banks like Goldman Sachs (Timothy Geithner as Sec. of the Treasury), Big Pharma, Big Oil (Exxon, etc.), the military industrial complex and other transnational corporations. The revolving door (between the FDA or the EPA and the very industries they are meant to regulate) would make your head spin. The foxes are ‘guarding’ the henhouse. That’s no conspiracy. It’s out in the open. And the nation known as the “United States” (again, an arbitrary designation) is certainly not alone in that regard, even if the supporting evidence might be more egregious here than it is in, say, Canada or Japan or various European nations.

I’m afraid the notion that “government is we the people” is quite naive. As is the idea that “we the people” simply need to elect less corrupt people. It’s not just naive; it’s laughable, really. I suggest becoming familiar with Dunbar’s Number. To quote the Wikipedia page, “Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.” That number would seem to be right around 150. So, yeah, that’s a bit less than 320 million (US population). Another reading recommendation: http://www.jeffvail.net/2005/03/theory-of-power-online.html.

People have been purposely scared into believing anarchy (or “left wing libertarianism,” which shouldn’t be confused with Ron Paul/Ayn Rand nonsense) is synonymous with “chaos,” but it’s not necessarily so. It’s like when Christians imply atheists or agnostics must frequently engage in horrifyingly immoral acts. We know that’s not true, and we know there have been many anarchic societies throughout human history that have not produced the results one is propagandized to believe must be the result of “anarchy.”

David, I love your blog. I discovered it this past weekend, and I’ve found so many of your posts (such as “Forget World Peace”) to be deeply thought-provoking. I’ve probably read 30+ of your articles already. I hope you’ll have a chance to respond to the emails I’ve sent you.

Garrett April 20, 2013 at 12:32 am

See, I fell into the trap myself. Instead of “the nation known as…,” that should read “the body of land known as…”

Garrett April 20, 2013 at 12:33 am

Of course, that last comment of mine won’t make sense unless my previous comment passes the moderation process. :)

Eusebio Mccrobie July 14, 2013 at 7:55 am

not whenever they seriously dont care about our survival which they dont it may be bullshit but when it does occur it would most likely be somthing similar to this . NO warning whatsoever, thats why all of the key governments of the world have already been developing underground bunkers which probably want operate anyway

Louise July 16, 2013 at 5:07 pm

Hello David,

Great article! I grew up in the UK but now live in the US, and often ponder the dramatic difference between the two countries when it comes to their approach to healthcare.

I think, in part, it comes down to the American Dream- although I appreciate its optimism, it also has potential to be highly destructive (see Willy Loman…). As Malcom Gladwell (“Outliers”) and others have pointed out, success is in fact often as much down to luck as individual merit.

You might like this talk by Alain de Botton if you haven’t already seen it.
At minute 6, he starts talking about meritocracy.


Many don’t deserve their misfortune. When we fail to see this, we inflict untold harm on our fellow citizens and simultaneously do ourselves (as a society) a great disservice. When we do see it, perhaps we’ll develop greater compassion and things like universal healthcare will be embraced.

Thanks for being a voice of reason,

Don September 18, 2013 at 11:40 am

“Should you be forced to help someone else?”

The author asks a great question. The answer is simple, NO. I’m shocked that there has been so much discussion without anyone answering the actual question.

Even if the question was asked ‘should’ you help another person depends on many factors. Should you help them up when they fall? Yes! Should you help them rob a bank? No!

As always, the discussion will wind it’s way this way and that, with lots of great points made and no agreement reached. Let’s see if we can all agree with one thing. Each person has the right to choose for themselves, they have agency over their lives, freedom to choose what they will do in each situation (do not confuse freedom of choice with freedom from consequences). Does anyone disagree that this is we all have this ability to choose for ourselves what we do every moment of every day?

It is because I believe every person has the right to choose for themselves what they do with their lives that I also believe no one has the right to choose for someone else without their consent (agency).

It is wrong for individuals to force their will on another individual. It is wrong for groups to do the same. When all is said and done, that right (call it agency, freedom of choice, ??) is the most important thing you have, a gift from the cosmos that no one can take from you even if they try.

So the answer is simple. No, you should not be forced to help anyone.

Alison Moore Smith October 25, 2013 at 3:50 am

I’ve had chronic sinusitis since 1998. Send me your money. I deserve it. In fact, it’s my right.

P.S. Conservatives give significantly more of their own money to charitable causes. Weird. But I’m happy to give your money away. Put your money where your mouth is. I accept PayPal.

Matt November 5, 2013 at 8:24 pm

As far as US government taxes watch Walter Burien CAFR reports on youtube. Even if you only get through 40 min it will blow your mind.
Reality blogger is another good one. Fact based research that will leave you changed how you look at the government and our so called rights.

One of the most scary and interesting things I learned was the legal definition of freedom.
Bottom line is you need to unlearn everything you learned in government run school.
The truth is very scary indeed.

Homer November 28, 2013 at 8:26 am

The rich helping the poor is certainly a case of reciprocation, because the rich are only rich in the first place because they exploit the poor.

E.g. that smartphone in your pocket was only possible because of slave labour, at several stages in its production, from mineral mining to assembly.

But the moral obligation to help the poor goes far beyond mere reciprocation, it’s also about compassion.

If you came across a road accident victim in the middle of nowhere, and just walked away without at least calling an ambulance, thus condemning him to death, that is no different, morally speaking, than consciously deciding to murder him.

Similarly, being aware of any other sort of plight, having the means to help, but refusing to do so, makes you just as culpable, morally speaking, as if you caused that plight in the first place.

So yes, I strongly believe that those who are able but unwilling to help others should be forced to do so, for exactly the same reason that a murderer should be forced to go to prison, because they both deliberately and maliciously cause harm.

Asking “what’s in it for me?” is a bit like expecting there to be some sort of reward for NOT murdering someone. You don’t get a prize for being a decent human being, and you’re not supposed to, but you should be punished if you’re not.

Jimmy January 3, 2014 at 10:03 pm

Unbelievable I just read all the articles first time I’ve given up my e-mail address in years your recipes for living life are very similar to mine especially what you said about beliefs. It’s so true believing anything wholeheartedly just closes your mind to a truth that could be right in front of us one day. And you’re on the money about everything else look forward to reading more very refreshing. As I’m sure you know it can be extremely hard to walk between there perceptual reality. and our ever-changing ever evolving concept of it. It is hard to retain your sanity in a room full of insane people that refuse all logic and reason. Thank you for shining your light

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