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Our Socrates Cafe discussion group generated seven questions tonight: 1. If the law excludes other people should it be a law? 2. Why does God do bad things to good people? 3. When shouldn’t you help other people? 4. When should I commit suicide? 5. Is truth subjective? 6. What book should I be reading now? 7. A paragraph-long and complex question, read from an outside source, that I couldn’t write down quickly enough to maintain the gist? Our method of voting tied #3 and #4 on the first round where we vote for all the ones we like, and chose #3 on the second round which is a this-or-that vote.

As is our custom the person whose question is chosen gets to talk first and that sets the general tone of the following discussion, which proceeds clockwise, one by one. The current speaker controls interruptions which are kept to fifteen seconds by the chosen general moderator. This format is simple and works well with a group of a dozen or so.

We covered many different situations, from helping homeless beggars, to crazy relatives who are unable to help themselves, to general categories of helping our civil society. Everyone stated their willingness to help other people, but there was a huge hesitancy to helping panhandlers who appeared to be using what money they had to buy alcohol or street drugs. There were specific stories to accompany the many situations, and mention of the current news scandal of several prominent and monetarily successful charities spending over 90% of their takings for personal indulgences.

My comment was that I was hesitant to give money when it will be detrimental to the receiving person’s own ability to take care of themselves. Others said that when they felt the person was lying about their need, they wouldn’t give, and the test of lying was that they were verbally justifying their need instead of confronting it. There was a discussion of compassion fatigue, and that a small gift wasn’t going to help a major problem, so why bother. Those who had lived in big cities like San Francisco seemed particularly inclined to the burnout attitude. We considered the philosophical trolley problem of choosing to kill one person to save five others, but this hit a wall instantly, because by pulling the control switch you caused a person to die and that act made you into a murderer, whereas just letting things take their course just left you feeling bad. We got into the idea of hurting no one, and helping as many as possible. Strangely that brought us around to the fact that by giving money or your possessions you were hurting yourself. We turned to Mother Teresa’s ideas of giving for help, but it seemed like an insufficient phony help because the tiny gifts were only symbolic and really didn’t help anyone, and only confirmed and entrenched their poverty and need. It was said that the most help a person could give to the truly indigent was spiritual help, but that seemed to be simply helping the person to continue digging themselves into a deeper pit of poverty. We worried over the problem of whether we should give to people who didn’t ask for help, because we were invading their privacy and violating their self-esteem.

At the end, while still on the staircase and out the door we decided — Don’t help others if it hurts anyone, thus don’t help if it hurts you, don’t help if it hurts them, and don’t help if it hurts the health of society.