As Citizens, We’re Not Obligated To Help. Maybe that’s the Problem.

As Citizens, we’re not Obligated to Help.  That’s the problem.


The thought crossed me in the most mundane of circumstances.

We’ve all had this experience: you order something off the fastfood; in a few minutes it arrives and you realize you’ve forgotten the utensils.   You point that out to the server, and either of two things happen: if the server happens to be nice, he goes out of his way to get them for you.   But usually, the server simply points out where they are and you get them yourself.

Now, many of you who had the experience would point out that the server was being rude; that he should have accommodated the customers as much as possible.   Or that it was part of his job to assist in as much a way as possible.

However, in his defense: he wasn’t obligated at all to help you.   The utensils were neatly stacked in a place where customers were obligated to get it as soon as they order.   It wasn’t their fault if the customers were not diligent or absentminded.   It was their job simply to serve the food.  No sarcasm, no cynicism implied.   There is a difference between duty and an act of charity.

While this was a simple analogy, you could apply it in far more serious terms: onlookers seeing a man getting beat up from across the street would hide their faces and run as far away as possible.   There was a case where a man who had been hit in an accident lay paralyzed on the road for a good many hours in front of a school before someone came to assist.   And who could forget the case study of the woman who was assaulted and killed in an apartment and no one of her neighbors did anything to help?

It’s a simple case of duty, and the limits of it.   If you were paid, or had the duty to assist or serve in what way possible, as one from the medical industry or the police, then by all means assist.   If not, then why would you come to assist in something when it does not impact you in any way?  Why would you actually help an elderly person plodding away at a stairs when you could just climb down from the other side past him?

There’s even logic behind not helping: there are many cases where Good Samaritans trying to keep the peace and avoid a possible fight themselves get beat up to an inch of death.   “No good deed goes unpunished” so the saying goes.   So why should you go above and beyond what you are obligated to do?


I read this in the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, and found the term used to refer to those acts that go above and beyond what is asked of you: supererogation.    Acts that you are not called upon to do, as it does not impact you, or make you a better person (physiologically or physically), and acts that might even do more harm than good.

In the secular, individualist world, we are not called upon to act beyond our primal instincts of self-preservation.   Our help and duty go only insofar as friends and family are concerned.   Maybe we go above and beyond to profess our affection towards another.   But to complete strangers?  It is frowned upon.

Catholic teaching, however, calls on you to make these “acts of charity” when they occur.   If someone is being beat up or suffering a form of violence, you are called upon to act to help.   If an elderly or a sick person is in need of assistance close to you, as a moral being you are called upon to show acts of mercy.    Where your obligations so far as secular society goes stops, your duty as a Christian begins.

And nowadays, acts of charity are enforced as obligations, such as encouraging individuals to offer their seat in public transport to the elderly or the weak.  We drop a few coins to beggars on the streets because we are taught to do so. But even small, mundane acts of charity are called upon us as believing, moral individuals.   We are so conditioned to act only on what is just, we forget that we are also thought to act on what is charitable.


But of course, at the end of the day you are not obligated to go above and beyond what is just.   The secular world does not demand beyond that.  I confess that I don’t plan to start any time soon.   There’s a strong pull in me and in all of us to live our lives privately and reach out only if we are duty bound to do so.

But the thought here is: maybe it should be different.   As moral beings we should also act on what is charitable to people.    Maybe we should give equal importance to charity as much as to justice.


On a related note, maybe Government should act with as much Charity as they do Justice.





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