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We can't help everyone, so how do we decide who to help?

Updated: Jan 5, 2023

By Paul Ewans

Paul is a Trustee of the Uganda Humanist Schools Trust. In this article, he outlines three simple principles to help us decide who to help.

Principle 1

There will always be people who need our help, and it will often be possible to help at least some of them, but we cannot help everyone. Who then should we prioritise? It is notoriously difficult to find moral rules and principles which are always reliable. Most rules have exceptions, and even the most promising principles are inadequate in some situations. This means that we can usually only find satisfactory solutions to moral dilemmas by weighing a range of rules, principles and values against each other. Experience shows that there are some principles which are often helpful when we are trying to decide what to do. An obvious example is the principle that we should help those who we can help easily and at little cost. These people will often be members of our own immediate circle – the people we live with, our colleagues and our close friends. And it is often possible to help a stranger without too much trouble – by giving them directions, for example. In fact, research shows that around eight in ten of us will help a stranger if there is no cost involved and it is obvious that the stranger really does need help.

Helping a stranger

Principle 2

A further principle is that we should help those whom no one else is likely to help. Our own relatives often fall into this category because there is a reasonable assumption that we will care for them, and other people therefore see no particular reason why they should do so. Orphans, solitary adults, people with poor mental health and those with disabilities may be neglected, as may outcasts from society such as convicted criminals, and those who are not generally accepted to be full members of society such as refugees and foreign workers. People in these categories often do not get the help they need.

Principle 3

The last principle to bear in mind is that we should help those who need help most. The obvious example is helping people in an emergency. Paramedics confronted with several victims of an accident will generally act in accordance with this principle, though they will also consider how effective their help is likely to be in each particular case. But many of those who need help most are not members of our own community, and we are unlikely ever to meet them. They are the global poor. They live far away, and we do not often think of them. Even so, they are our fellow human beings, and they badly need our help. We should not ignore their claim.

We have many opportunities to help others, and we can often do so at little cost to ourselves. We should not undervalue these ‘simple acts of kindness’ as George Eliot called them because they make life easier for everyone.

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1 Comment

Richard L
Jan 08, 2023

The article says ‘research shows that around eight in ten of us will help a stranger if there is no cost involved and it is obvious that the stranger really does need help’. For the example given in the article - giving a stranger directions - I find it hard to believe that the figure is not higher. Can anyone say more about the research (or perhaps give a reference)? What sort of help did the researchers look at?

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