How can we help others?

Some people believe our ability to help is boundless. Such people think we can set our sights on helping the collective, where more individually minded people (often the majority) say that if we all help just the few in our inner circle everything will be ok.

Suppose that you buy the former argument; is it possible for just any of us to help the many? How should one do it?


  • Hey, Robert. Excellent questions here.

    I spend my life helping people. The problem with helping the collective is that we are only helping a stereotype of people, not actual people. Real people are complicated and most people are square pegs that we want to fit into our round hold of public assistance. Some people get help that way, but it doesn’t work.

    On the other hand, if we only help a few individuals– our family and a few friends– then, again, there will be many, so, so many that need help but don’t receive it.

    My answer is to create a flexible agency that helps those most in need, trying to listen to and meet their most unique needs. This means having an army of social workers, of volunteers who would do their best to help those in greatest need. Once those needs are met, they can meet the needs of the less greatest, and so on until everyone’s needs are met. It’s an ideal, but it can work because giving and helping is so addictive.

    • Thanks Steve. I couldn’t agree more, and in fact it’s something I’ve pushed for before.

      The utilitarian argument suggests that emotional responses can be calculated in a sort of cost-benefit analysis. But as I argued once in a piece for the London School of Economics well-being is best measured by subjective evaluations I.e. on an individual basis. After all a lifetime’s supply of chocolate would make some very happy. But some people don’t even like it – it’s true by the way, I met someone who hates it. No two people are the same, and thus inflexible, single issue policies are never going to fulfill our potential. But as you rightly say, neither should we resign ourselves to less ambitious aims.

      Now some people would think the idea naive. For the right wingers it requires something like David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, where the majority are supposed to volunteer with little to no incentives besides the old threat “we’re not going to do it for you anymore, so if you don’t no-one will”. And for the left wingers it involves real incentives, but also very real costs, with all the economic benefits, as well as many of the social ones, in the long term. So how can we practically create such an ideal support network?

      First of all we must look around the world to see if it’s already done anywhere, and although it isn’t as a fully formed idea, it is in large parts. For instance in Luxembourg schools employ at least one psychologist. As you will probably be able to say better than I Steve, mental illnesses and psychological problems are estimated to cost billions to the economy, and so even looked at from the economic perspective employing such a strategy, and including businesses as well, should prove beneficial.

      Next we must think about practicalities. If it’s so beneficial then why don’t we all do it already? After all it’s well proven that helping others often increases happiness in those doing the helping. One reason Luxembourg can do it is that it’s a small country, and another is that it’s the second richest in the world per capita. But all countries have strengths. And you wouldn’t want to implement such a policy in the same way in all countries anyway, or in entire countries. It might start in small villages or urban centers. It might be designed to target particular problems or regions. It might be started with taxes, or it might be started with philanthropy. But this wouldn’t have to be seen as either left or right wing, and nor would it have to bankrupt the state. In other words if there’s a will there’s a way.

  • Are we debating ‘help’ to mean helping emotionally? I will take it as so.

    I might suggest that one of the best ways to provide emotional help for people is to ensure everyone has a strong support network, or in less modern parlance, friends and confidants. And I suggest the best way to enable the building and maintenance of support networks is to design our living environments into close communities.

    To me the ideal community is of village size, approx 5,000 people, with easy access to neighbouring communities. However, not only is size (or lack of) an enabler to breed more consistent daily interaction with others in your community, but time is also an important factor.

    There is little realised benefits of living in a small community if you are so busy with life/work outside of the community that you spend little time within it maintaining or building friendships.

    Pursuit of economic goals is the usual barter for which time is traded, and many people now have long commutes to and from the office because the pay is better in other locations, as well as shop outside of the community because prices are lower in other locations.

    And these factors help undermine the ability of the community to support itself and its inhabitants.

    And this isn’t even mentioning the difficulties of building communities within large metropolises.

    So for me it is possible to assist people in large numbers if we design the environment to be one that is more supportive. But this is a very difficult thing to do.

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