“A dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself.”
I remember seeing this painting about a year ago, on a day out exploring London. It seemed so out of place amidst the rooms full of royal portraits, mythic murals and noble marble statues. Staring at these tragic, starving orphans was a stirring reminder for me that poverty has been part of the public consciousness for centuries, yet we would often prefer to remember the works of opulence and affluence. Painted two years before the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, this painting shows a different side of an era that is usually remembered for the great progress of science, industry, and women’s rights. Industrial progress was counterbalanced by increasingly difficult social issues, including orphaned children living on the streets. The upper classes romanticized orphans in literature and art (think Jane Eyre), but treated them with disdain in daily life.
Now, imagine that it is 1892, and you are a wealthy, educated man gazing upon this painting. These melancholic children remind you of your own beautiful daughters, and you realise that they cannot have chosen this condition or have been the cause of their own misfortune (common beliefs of the time). Your sentiments turn from “I wish we could get rid of all these filthy urchins” to “I wish that I could help these poor, innocent children”. You want to find ways to drive change in the society of London, but you have no idea where to begin… And this is where I get to the point: In issues of morality and social justice – where opinions diverge and actions influence the livelihoods of vulnerable people – who should a person turn to for advice?
Let’s say you’re a religious man, and you look to the words of Pope Leo XIII for guidance (Rerum Novarum/Concering New Things, 1891). The Pope speaks to the evil fruits of economic liberalism, including child labour, poverty and societal inequity, but he also renounces Marxian socialism for preaching class hatred. He states that all men have the right to earn a fair wage and own property, so that they may improve their own condition and sustain their own families. However, if anyone is incapable of meeting the needs of their families, all people are regarded as part of the commonwealth and therefore should be granted public aid. “To suffer and endure is the lot of humanity…” as a result of sin, but charity and religion can remedy these ills. “No one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own necessities and those of his household… But when necessity has been supplied, and one’s position fairly considered, it is a duty to give to the indigent out of that which is over.” You might take these words to heart and, knowing that your family lives in comfort, you donate all of your excess earnings to the church and give alms to any poor children you see.
Conversely, you might consult Friedrich Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, and come to a completely different conclusion about how to treat the poor. Nietzsche had no affection to spare for the unhappy and pitiable common man, who sought consolation for his repressed state in the “slave ethics” of religion. He thought that trying to create equality for the weak would drag society into a downward spiral. Instead, he proposed a Social Darwinist theory where the strong, noble “barbarians” were the creators of the greatest societies, and the weak were resentful, cunning, and manipulative in their preaching of religious virtue. (For anyone who’s seen Cloud Atlas, Tom Hanks’ 19th Century Doctor sums up this line of thought with: “The weak are meat, and the strong do eat.”) If you subscribed to this ideology, you might revert to your initial desire to get rid of those filthy urchins. Perhaps, if you met one orphan who displayed particularly tenacious leadership qualities, you would adopt him/her. Otherwise, supporting the children of the least successful members of society would be counter-productive in improving society as a whole.
I don’t think that either of these approaches would create much lasting change, but they illustrate how variations in advice and interpretation can lead to dramatically different outcomes. The thing is, you are ultimately responsible for the outcomes you create. To paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, if you seek advice from the Pope, you have chosen this Pope; “you already knew, more or less, just about what advice he was going to give you. In other words, choosing your adviser is involving yourself.” Furthermore, he believes that you bring your own interpretation to the advice you receive, and you are directly responsible for any action you choose to take as a result of this advice.
This existentialist viewpoint is both liberating and terrifying, given that we presently have access to more opinions and more opportunities for action than ever before. Today, when we face countless images like the one below, who should a person turn to for advice? We could visit the website of a charity, or watch an interview of Dambisa Moyo, or read a book by Tim Harford, or listen to a Development Drums podcast, or find an appropriate TED talk, or simply chat with a friend who’s done their research. The options are endless. And when it comes to taking action, things get even more confusing…
For now, I’ve just been telling myself this: when seeking advice, try to be conscious of the information you receive and accept, and try to think critically about it. I am a dwarf who would like to see further, but I’m surrounded by giants and I have no idea whose shoulders I should be standing on.
 1885 was also an important year in terms of British Imperial efforts in the “Scramble for Africa”, with the Berlin Conference taking place. This is obviously relevant to Ugandan history, but I won’t write about that today.