Thursday, August 07, 2008

Losing the other - a philosophical divergence

The State of California is operating without a budget. This happens just about every summer, as governors and legislators nit and bicker and fool around with people's lives.

This year, my local paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, has been covering the story by looking at the impact of state budget shenanigans on individual Californians. These stories feature pictures and stories of the workers, family members, and children who get medical coverage through Medi-Cal (the state health insurance program) - and who won't have access to that care when clinics stop getting paid because the State has no budget. The gist of the stories - "These are the folks who benefit from Medi-Cal."

But here's the thing. I benefit from Medi-Cal. So does the rest of my privately insured family, all of my privately-insured colleagues and friends, my doctors, their hospitals and practices, their families, my neighbors, and so on. Yes, Medi-Cal benefits those who use it directly. But everyone else benefits as well. Healthy people are good for healthy communities. I benefit when I am insured, I benefit when you are insured, you benefit when I am insured. I benefit when I can care for my health, I benefit when you can care for yours, and you benefit when I can care for mine.

These same principles apply well beyond health insurance - to education, employment, nutrition, public safety, land use, clean air, water, etc. etc.

I worry that we've lost sight of these inter-connections. Headlines that make it seem as if only "others" benefit from certain programs and services are symptomatic of that loss. Losing any sense of interconnectedness shapes how we vote (is it good for me or only for others?), how we give ( others...for others...) and what we prioritize as a society.

This is complicated in philanthropy, because many of us and our faith traditions and giving cultures emphasize the importance of doing for others. Sociologists, philosophers, biologists and fundraisers study and opine on a concept of altruism that emphasizes doing for others without benefiting oneself.

But we are all connected. Communities require balance, systems don't work when broken into parts, and caring for others because we are all part of a whole is a lesson found in the Q'uran, the Torah, the Bible, Buddhist and Hindu teachings and (I expect) most other traditions as well. Social biologists who argue that there are individual evolutionary benefits to helping other members of a species get cross-eyed receptions from modern day philanthropy philosophers - do we really want people thinking about how they themselves benefit from helping others? Isn't it better to do for others without considering oneself?

I'm not a social biologist, philosopher, sociologist or other big thinker. But I think the notion of "others" as separate from "us" is not helping when it comes to really considering one's role in giving, voting, or acting for a better world.

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