I recently listened to a speech by Peter Singer, the world’s most influential living philosopher, according to The New Yorker. Much of our compassion and charity is misguided, Singer argued. We should be focusing on how to do the most good for the most people.
As an example, Singer mentioned the noble cause of providing seeing-eye dogs for the blind. It takes $40,000 to train the dog and the recipient, whereas a treatment costing just fifty dollars would cure a person of the eye disease trachoma in an under-served country. How can we justify training a dog for one American blind person when the same money would prevent blindness in eight hundred people elsewhere?
That kind of cold logic makes disturbingly good sense—until you attempt to apply it consistently. Last year Thailand mounted a massive operation, involving 10,000 people, to rescue twelve young soccer players trapped in a cave. Why not let the twelve boys die, and use that amount of money to feed the hungry? And how can we justify expensive medical treatments—for cancer, or infertility, or keeping premature babies alive—when, as Singer proposes, the same money invested in malarial nets would do more good for more people?
This philosopher, who wrote the main article on ethics in the Encyclopedia Britannica, has also suggested that “defective” newborns and some adults no longer qualify as persons and could be euthanized. Even so, he continued to support his mother financially after she showed signs of dementia. “I think this has made me see how the issues of someone with these kinds of problems are really very difficult,” Singer told one interviewer. “It is different when it’s your mother.”
Listening to Singer, I thought back to my time working with Dr. Paul Brand, my coauthor on three books. Paul and his wife Margaret, also a physician, devoted their careers to helping leprosy patients in India. A few pennies a day can arrest leprosy’s progress with sulfone drugs. But it requires thousands of dollars, and the care of skilled professionals, to rehabilitate a patient in whom the disease has spread unchecked.
Paul Brand experimented with tendon and muscle transfers until he found the very best combination to restore movement to paralyzed claw-hands. Surgeries and physical therapy stretched over months and sometimes years as he applied similar procedures to feet. Restored feet and hands gave leprosy patients the capability to earn a living, yet soon they faced a new problem. Who would hire an employee bearing the scars of the dread disease?
Paul and Margaret Brand worked together to correct other damage caused by the disease. They learned to remake a human nose by building up a new nasal structure from the inside with bone transplants. They sought to prevent blindness by restoring the ability to blink. Leprosy deadens the tiny pain cells that prompt a healthy person to blink several times a minute, and eventually the dryness leads to blindness. Margaret learned to redirect a muscle that is normally used for chewing, tunneling it up under the cheek and attaching it to the upper eyelid. By chewing gum all day long, her patients simultaneously moved their eyelids up and down, lubricating the eyes and thus averting blindness.
All this elaborate medical care went to “nobodies,” often from the Untouchable caste, many of whom had subsisted by begging. Some who arrived at the hospital barely looked human. Their shoulders slumped, they cringed when other people approached. A year or so later these patients, Lazarus-like, would walk out of the hospital and proudly head off to learn a trade.
After working with Dr. Brand, I realized that I had been seeing large human problems in a statistical model: percentages of Gross National Product, average annual income, mortality rate, doctors-per-thousand of population. Love, however, is not statistical; we can never precisely calculate the greatest possible good to apply equally to the world’s poor and needy. We can only seek out one person, and then another, and then another, as objects for God’s love.
I have sometimes wondered why Jesus so frequently touched the people he healed, many of whom must have been unattractive, obviously diseased, unsanitary, smelly. He could have waved a magic wand, which would have affected more people than he could personally touch. He could have divided the crowd into affinity groups and organized his miracles—paralyzed people over there, feverish people here, people with leprosy there—raising his hands to heal each group efficiently, en masse. Instead, he chose a different style.
Jesus’ mission was not chiefly a crusade against disease (if so, why did he leave so many unhealed in the world and tell followers to hush up details of his miracles?) but rather a ministry to individual people, some of whom happened to have a disease. He wanted those people, one by one, to feel his love and compassion. Jesus knew he could not readily demonstrate love to a crowd, for love usually involves touching.
I was privileged to know Mother Teresa, who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her work in Calcutta among members of India’s lowest castes. Her order of sisters sought out the sick and dying in the streets and garbage dumps of Calcutta’s alleys, and among these were beggars deformed by leprosy. Several times I consulted with her on the proper treatment of the disease.
The Missionaries of Charity carry on her work today. When they find beggars in the street, they bring them to the clinic and surround them with love. Smiling women daub at their sores, clean off layers of grime, and swaddle the patients in soft sheets. The beggars, often too weak to talk, stare wide-eyed at this seemingly misdirected care. Have they died and gone to heaven? Why this sudden outpouring of love, why the warm, nutritious broth being gently spooned into their mouths?
A newsman in New York once confronted Mother Teresa with those very questions. He seemed pleased with his journalistic acumen. Why indeed should she expend her limited resources on people for whom there was no hope? Why not attend to people worthy of rehabilitation? What kind of success rate could her clinic show when most of its patients died in a matter of days or weeks?
Mother Teresa stared at him in silence, absorbing the questions, trying to comprehend what kind of a person would ask them. She had no answers that would make sense to him, so she said softly, “These people have been treated all their lives like dogs. Their greatest disease is a sense that they are unwanted. Don’t they have the right to die like angels?”
Another journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, struggled with the same questions. He observed firsthand the poverty of Calcutta and returned to England to write about it with fire and indignation. But, he comments, the difference between his approach and Mother Teresa’s was that he returned to England while she stayed in Calcutta. Statistically, he admits, she did not accomplish much by rescuing stragglers from a sump of human need. He concludes with the statement, “But then Christianity is not a statistical view of life.”
Indeed it is not. Not when a shepherd barely shuts the gate on his ninety-nine before rushing out, heartbroken and short of breath, to find the one that’s missing. Not when a laborer hired for only one hour receives the same wage as an all-day worker (Matthew 20:1–16). Not when one rascal decides to repent and ninety-nine upstanding citizens are ignored as all heaven erupts in a great party (Luke 15:4–7). God’s love, agape love, is not statistical either.