We are supposed to help those who are in need. The scriptures seem to be quite clear about this. And that, of course, is the problem. I have phrased the issue in what legal theorists call the ex post perspective. We take need as given and the morally relevant question is what our response to the need should be. Our decision is seen as being an after-the-fact (in this case the fact is need) event. The problem, of course, is that we can also look at our decision from what legal theorists call an ex ante perspective. Rather than seeing it as an after-the-fact event we look at it as a before-the-fact event. The event that our decision is “before” in this case is the reaction of others to that decision. Let me give a concrete example:
Imagine a woman ? a member of the church ? addicted to drugs, who has a young daughter. She has no money because she has spent it on drugs and contacts the ward to ask for cash so that she can buy food. The ward provides her with cash. As a result, she adjusts her spending habits. She take the money and buys drugs instead of food. The ward responds by providing her with food. This still frees up more of her ? very meager ? income to purchase drugs.
Now lest you think this example is overdrawn, I can assure you that it is based on at least two concrete cases that I have personally been involved in. The ex post response to the woman’s need is to provide her with resources. However this response creates ex ante incentives for her future behavior that are not good.
Now before everyone starts quoting King Benjamin and Hugh Nibley at me, I am not arguing that because charity can create bad ex ante incentives we shouldn’t help the poor. I am genuinely puzzled by the ex post-ex ante dilemma. It seems to me that we are frequently (but not always) faced with circumstances where ex post and ex ante perspectives point in different directions. What I want to know is how people deal with this problem ? other than those who suggest that it never really exists, which in my opinion is demonstrably false.