Are we really a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns?

Philosopher Peter Singer, who gave the 2017 Sir Malcolm Knox Lecture at the University of St Andrews.
Philosopher Peter Singer, who gave the 2017 Sir Malcolm Knox Lecture at the University of St Andrews.

In the immediate aftermath of the Manchester attack last week there was an inevitable desire to ‘do something’.

For many this was to give money to a quickly established fund – not so that we could then sit back with that nice fuzzy feeling when we give to a worthy cause – but because it was at least a tangible way to express empathy with the dozens of families affected by the tragedy.

As of yesterday, the We Love Manchester Emergency Fund had reached £6 million, with another sizeable boost set to come from a just-announced benefit concert featuring Ariana Grande and others.

Which is an amazing testament to our wish to help and show solidarity.

The day after the Manchester attack there was another atrocity, another attack by Islamic fundamentalists, another scene of carnage in which 68 children’s deaths were claimed as a victory by Isis.

Only this time it didn’t make the headlines or have us reaching out to show solidarity with the heartbroken, devastated families.

Was this because it happened in Syria and the attack was on a bus transferring refugees?

One of the very Scottish sayings I have always been proud to be brought up believing is “We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns”, underlying that all of us, no matter our colour or creed, nationality or whether we were born in a mansion or a hovel, have the same human value.

I was reminded of this last week when I was able to bag a seat at the 2017 Sir Malcolm Knox Memorial Lecture at the University of St Andrews when the guest speaker was Peter Singer, one of the world’s most influential living philosophers and ethicists.

His lecture was entitled Living Ethically in the 21st Century, and more specifically was about ethical giving.

He touched on the fundamental question of whether one life is worth more than another, on giving in a way that results in the greatest good to mankind and the moral responsibility to give if you have more than enough to live a comfortable life.

Singer has been described as the father of a movement called effective altruism – I highly recommend your spend a few minutes finding out more about it here – and argues that those who have enough to spend on luxuries but don’t share even a tiny fraction of their income with the poor, have to bear some responsibility for deaths that they could have prevented.

If we’re all born equal and the money we are willing to give could result in a greater good, for example, preventing blindness in 40 people in India, then surely it would be better going there than donating to provide a guide dog to help a single blind person closer to home. It chimed with my belief that we are all equal but also caused some uncomfortable soul-searching on how much I give, to what causes and why.

And also brings some difficult questions. If £6 million is being donated and we’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns, is it morally wrong that it goes to help a – relatively – small number of people in the UK rather than having a massive impact elsewhere?