From the outstretched hand to the Voices that are heard… Renewed essay on donations and altruism

Blog, Quebec Hub

Corner Saint-Denis and Mont-Royal Avenue, crouched down, with an empty gaze, a man reaches out his hand, inviting the passerby to respond to his sollicitation. This first hand asks for a donation; the second has the choice to accept the invitation or not. Among the passersby, only a few will accept to respond to this invitation.

Why do some people respond positively, while others ignore the request? Altruism seems to work in some cases and to fail in others. What mechanisms play in favor or against the recognition and legitimacy to solicit and to give? Sharing, as an instinctive or cultural response, operates, it would seem, in the image of an alternative current: sometimes yes while others no.

Generally speaking, the fact of accepting help is coined “donation”. Still in the general order, it is often thought that this action represents a response to the suffering expressed by the person who is asking. In the end, by taking a step back, we realize that the donation of the passerby inscribes itself in an informal collective effort. The donor knows that other people will give. For them, their donation is an active part in an uncoordinated collective action. It represents one link in the daily help brought to the asking party. The donor can then content themselves with a mini contribution, collectivizing the weight of the help that was given.


What feelings determine the act of making donation?

 Altruism is the moral feeling to which the passerby would respond to make a donation, which at first glance seems like a selfless act.

Solidarity would be the ethical feeling shared collectively by the entirety of donors who help other members of the community that are deemed to be in a difficult situation.

Even then, such feelings – altruism and solidarity – are activated at certain moments and not at others. The passerby that gave a coin is sometimes solicited at a corner a few blocks down. The choice is present once again. Will they give or not?

It is clear that a person on their own, or a group of people on their own, cannot take on the socioeconomic weight of the measures that need to be put in place.

It isn’t surprising that the social response is made formal through institutional measures, in so gaining in density and in sustainability, thus adding a sociopolitical and sociocultural dimension to the social transaction that the “donation” represents.

Historically, these responses, institutional in nature, gave way to ways of acting ranging from slightly to very structured.

  • Collectivism, as a “domestic” or “communal” method of distribution and redistribution of wealth; through the associative path of mutualfunds, cooperatives, and non-profit organizations.
  • Spontaneous (donation by the passerby), artisanal (donation by the MECENE) or organized (donation by the philanthropic foundation) philanthropism;
  • Clerical(managed by the Church) or public (managed by the State) providentialism .

It is just as clear that the answers to the greater issues of society, the great questions – social, cultural or environmental – asks of private, public or collective actions, put in place through philanthropism, providentialism or collectivism, to be also thought up and worked on conjointly with each other.


Why is there this need to act together, in a well-thought of and concerted way? For one simple reason.

The more the complexity of a society or group of societies increases – globlization is a good example -, the more the social, cultural and environmental needs grow in number, in diversity and in importance. The complexity makes it so that the determining factors, those at the base of the problems met, start combining themselves and interacting with each other, aggravating the difficulties endured by the affected people or social groups. Finally, the more the complexity intensifies, the more it becomes inevitable to work upstream in order to work on the actual source of the problems being met.

Even then, this obviousness of working in concertation and collaboration, to aim for prevention, in the “We” instead of the “I”, in and by the crossing of knowledge, of assets and of powers, by acting in an inclusive, transparent and respectful manner, is not necessarily perceived or felt as being without saying.

The temptation is strong, for the donor (from the spontaneous donation to the organized donation; from the sacred providentialism to the public or collective providentialism), to individualize their action in order to make, through their act, “THE difference”. The temptation is also strong to justify the pertinence of depending on a repertoir of individualized actions by thinking that such actions, as diversified as they may be, don’t have to be coordinated or thought of together. The multitude of sources of donations alone would ensure a natural and more efficient ajustment to the existing requests for help than if coordination were to take place.

The outstretched handhides a social and cultural reality, that of “determinants” at the basis of the problems being met. We can of course act out of altruism and solidarity to reduce, remedy, alleviate the suffering of others. This doesn’t remove the fact that this suffering has, in the majority of cases, a social or cultural origin. This suffering is the fruit, again, in the majority of cases, of negations and deprivations made in the name of the affirmation of the supremacy of private interests over public interest stemming from a “collective humanity”.

Seperating children from their parents, as the Trump administration is currently doing, is inadmissible and stems from a private understanding of and interpretation of the common and public interest of the United States. This is how the fact is denied that by and in the process of globalization, we have generated a new social reality, at the global scale, and that this new reality claims loud and clear that there does indeed exist a common humanity and that it must be taken into consideration regarding our rights and responsibilities.

In this case, the outstretched hand is taking the shape of chilldren’s voicesdemanding the “reparation of the rights they have been stripped of”. The piercing screams of children remind us of duties and call for a collective transborder responsability to find appropriate solutions to an injustice that is just as inadmissible as the others. To do it, of course, to respond to the suffering  caused by the separation of children from their parents, but also due to the requirement to recognize the international conventions that we have collectively given ourselves, since 1945, and that we have great difficulty in respecting or upholding.



N.B. Depuis la rédaction de ce billet, l’administration Trump est revenue sur sa décision. Le 20 juin 2018, le président a signé un décret mettant fin à la séparation des familles de migrants à la frontière !