One time, when I was a boy at summer camp, about age 11 or 12, the camp director built a big fire, which we all gathered around, and told us the story of the little girl and the starfish as he played some chords on his acoustic guitar. It goes like this:
A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.
She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her. For our intents and purposes at this juncture I like to suggest that people imagine him with a villainous mustache and a top hat, because he’s the bad guy. He said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!”
The girl seemed crushed, suddenly defeated. However, after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man, gave him a steely glance, and replied proudly, “Well, I made a difference to that one!”
In some versions of this tale, which is adapted from “The Star Thrower” by Loren C. Eiseley, the man, who we will call Dastardly Dan, has a change of heart and helps the girl, and then everyone on the beach joins in and they save all of the starfish. In the version I heard, my ending was the end of it.
Like every morality tale, this is meant to convey a moral message. The version I heard as a boy was meant to convey that one ought to be doing the right thing for the right reasons, even if they’re in the minority, even if the odds are stacked against their success, because what is right is what is right, so there. The other version is meant to suggest that a group of committed people can combat injustice, and that they will come to your aid in your hour of need, if your cause is just.
Even as a child the story didn’t sit well with me when I heard it, though I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly I thought was wrong with it at the time. A week or so after I heard it the idea came to me that even if you threw all of the starfish into the water, they would likely wash up on shore again one day, and this was no good. From a purely pragmatic perspective I thought, “Sure, okay, put the starfish in the water and save them, that’s good, but then aren’t they always at the mercy of good samaritans whenever this tragedy befalls them? What if next time it’s Christmas and they’re not around to help? Or, what if next time they are around but don’t feel like helping because the little girl isn’t there to inspire them?”
I thought surely it would be more constructive to use our intelligence to devise a net or an artificial coral reef, like I’d heard in school they sometimes do in situations like this, to make sure the starfish didn’t have to be dependent on the presence and good will of other people. All of the sudden I thought that the little girl was as immoral as Dastardly Dan, because while the little girl was willing to stand up for the rights of the starfish when it was convenient for her to, she wasn’t willing to stand in moral outrage that no one was acting to insure this tragedy didn’t happen again. If it is true that starfish are worth the effort of being saved from near death, then it must equally be true that the starfish are worth the preventative measures needed to save them from suffering the exact same fate in the future. If we wanted to reappropriate Oscar Wilde for the sake of our allegory we could say that what she didn’t realize is that, “The proper aim is to reconstruct [the coastline] on such a basis that [starfish dying slowly in the afternoon sun] is impossible.”
Little did I know of my socialist tendencies at the time, and that what I was really coming up against was a harsh life lesson, namely that society is content to let the less fortunate among us have their livelihood and general well being held as a privilege, one that is at the whim of how charitable we’re feeling. What people don’t seem to realize is that we always get something in return for our charity, and it’s really quite ironic. Those who believe in charity accuse those of us that call charity immoral of being unwilling to act on behalf of others, to make a difference, and yet this inaction is exactly what the charitable get in return; they get to take less action than will actually resolve the issues at hand, and they get to sleep well at night doing it, feeling as though they’ve done everything that should be done, or at least, all that can be. In exchange for charity people feel they don’t have to do the harder task, they don’t have to build the reef or cast the net, they don’t have to reconstruct society on such a basis that their charity is no longer needed, and along with it, people’s dependence upon it. They get to celebrate having given food to someone who will be starving again in a short while, and will then have to hope some other kind soul will perpetuate them in their poverty with additional sustenance.
I am not saying for a moment that we should merely let people starve, any more than I think the little girl should have let the starfish rot on the beach, but what I am saying is that we’ve become desensitized to the direness of our situation. If people are worth enough to give food to when they are starving, to save their lives, then people must also be worth enough to prevent them from starving in perpetuity. If the situation is dire enough for charity, then the situation is dire enough to reconstruct society, and to justify anything less would be a contradiction and a hypocrisy.
If your question is, “But how are we supposed to accomplish this?”, I’d say I don’t know, but that, perhaps, this is a project that is at least as equally worth expending one’s energies on solving as acts of charity are worth performing.