Opinion: Coronavirus Charity As ‘Moral Masturbation’ And Beyond

A family stocks up a "Sharing Pantry" for others in need on May 14, 2020, in Satun province.

Last Sunday I walked past an empty ‘sharing pantry’ in front of Chatuchak Park and it got me thinking. The pantry, a new concept introduced earlier this month, was empty.

Was there no more donated goods being refilled? Were there too many people taking away whatever that’s available too often so the shelves ended up empty?

I do not know.

What’s clear is that there has been a lot of passionate debate about the phenomena of giving and its merit since the spread of coronavirus sent millions into economic hardship in Thailand.

On one hand, some criticized those better-to-do Thais who engage in such giving while criticizing some receivers. Or at least that these ‘givers’ are using charity to promote themselves or make them feel superior and morally good.

Those who take away too many items from some sharing pantries were branded as selfish and opportunistic. At the same time, those who criticize the takers as selfish have in turn been criticized by some as taking an unnecessary moral high ground and engaging in an act of “moral masturbation”.

It seems we are seeing a debate between two camps: moral masturbation versus intellectual masturbation.

Yes, ideally giving should be done without expectations. But even those who do not flaunt their act of charity or philanthropy do in fact obtain something in return – be it a sense of satisfaction that one is doing something good, worthwhile or accruing merit and good karma. Givers can also feel superior if they want to.

Giving is never a one-way transaction, even for those not wanting to flaunt. Whether you want to post photos or video of your act of generosity or not or would rather remain anonymous, the givers automatically get something in return as well.

In flaunting one’s charitable deed is nothing new in Thai society despite a Buddhist saying that one could do good quietly like putting golden leafs at the back of a Buddha statue so no one can readily see.

Many who donated money to Buddhist temples have their names or that of their mother or father emblazoned the new pavilion. Even many of the much smaller items such as donated chairs have donors’ names on it too.

Some temples are even named after their benefactors including Wat Kanika Phon, a temple in Bangkok which can be translated as the temple or sex workers’ deeds. The temple’s benefactor made money off sex workers as she was brothel owner and ‘Mama San’ or the madam in charge of sex workers. This temple dated from the era of Rama III and is over 180 years old.

Also, if one wants to be utilitarian about it, flaunting one’s donations can also lead to a competition that could be at least healthy to a point. 

Likewise, people who accept charitable assistance may feel ‘inferior’ and ashamed if their faces are publicized. The whole notion of sharing pantries is that people in need could just anonymously come and take whatever they need.

Installing CCTV cameras to monitor activities at some sharing pantries thus defeat the purpose of anonymous assistance. It also runs the risk of violating the privacy of the people who are taking some items from the pantries.

The debate can be endless especially when one aims at achieving the moral or intellectual high ground. What’s clear however is that we need our society to become more giving and caring. Many more will continue to face economic hardship in the months if not years ahead as the impact of measures to contain coronavirus infections continue to ravage the economy.

On the other hand, it’s time to discuss and push for a better and more comprehensive social welfare system. By making Thailand at least a partial welfare state, people would not have to depend on the whim of private charity and those wanting to engage in ‘moral masturbation’ as some accuse them of.

Private charity alone, be it the in-your-face type, self-glorifying, or anonymous have its limits. A caring society is admirable and necessary but it’s alone insufficient. We need to create a more equal society and that cannot be done without a better welfare system and more opportunities for the poor and equality.

For those who continue to give during this trying time of economic depression, we are grateful. Nevertheless, please be humble and remind yourself that you are getting something in return as well. Please also remember that in the long run, we need to go beyond charity and strive to make Thai society less dependent on charity.

Charity can be helpful. Those who can and care should do whatever they can especially now. In the end, private acts and initiatives, no matter how generous and well-intended, cannot replace a publicly-funded welfare system that will ensure adequate social safety net for all those in need.

So let’s the debate move beyond moral masturbation versus intellectual masturbation.