How can I justify having luxuries while others lack necessities?
February 22, 2009 12:05 PM   Subscribe

How can I morally justify spending money on luxuries while others lack necessities? Many reputable charities offer ways to save or vastly improve the lives of people in extreme poverty for small donations. What type of person am I if I spend $10 on a movie ticket, for example, that could be spent on mosquito netting to protect a poor child from malaria or to vaccinate dozens of children against measles? I don't see how giving a fixed percentage of my income, such as tithing, absolves me of further moral responsibility.
posted by espertus to Religion & Philosophy (66 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
 
Is a fancy handbag a luxury? Not to the guy who works in the factory that makes it.

If you, and everyone else, stop going to movies, what happens to the people who work in the theaters?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:12 PM on February 22, 2009 [7 favorites]


I find this to be a really difficult questions. I've thought about it a great deal, and I always end up concluding that I cannot morally justify spending on luxuries. But that's a really inconvenient conclusion, isn't it...
posted by mikeand1 at 12:16 PM on February 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Perhaps chatfilter, but I'll try to give you an answer.

I'm not sure that you can justify why you have more than others. It's a lucky spin of the wheel in life. Some people get wealth or good looks or luck in love or intelligence. A few lucky folks get all of it and others seem to get crap all around. The world is not a fair and equitable place that cares for each of us equally.

Giving all of your money and volunteering all of your time isn't going to fix the fact that life is not an even steven proposition. I try to give generously (and joyfully) when I feel I can help. However, I'm not giving to appease my guilt that I got a better deal in life than someone else.
posted by 26.2 at 12:17 PM on February 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


You might consider restricting how much disposable income you have so you can't buy the $10 movie ticket. Have the excess automatically transferred to a different account, then donate it.

For example, I looked at how much I was spending each week. I cut that back by 25%. Every week, that 25% cut is automatically transferred into an ING account. The rest I withdraw as cash every Sunday. I can spend only that cash during the week on food, books, etc.

When you can only spend the cash that's in your pocket and can't get more until next week, you're less likely to buy a $10 movie ticket and more likely to go to the library and check out a DVD. The money you're not allowing yourself to spend is earning interest, and you can donate it (I like Kiva.org) or use it for some other purpose that you feel is moral.
posted by PatoPata at 12:18 PM on February 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


You don't have to justify having luxuries. See Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer. His main premise is that if people are starving and you have more than enough food, water, and shelter (clothing) then you are morally in the wrong.

You also don't have to worry about who to give the money too, anyone who is starving is fine, although he does advocate for OxFam.
posted by aetg at 12:18 PM on February 22, 2009


Consider this: you'll go mad if you don't. We did not evolve in an environment that confronted us with all the troubles of the human race at once, but if you have access to the Internet these days that is very nearly what you are saddled with when you check out the news.

There is at least one philosopher, Peter Singer, that considers every first-world person under a permanent obligation to those in less fortunate circumstances anywhere else. It seems to me, however, that a human should first look to the needs of kin and peer networks, then of the community on a wider scale - working outward not for know-nothing or selfish reasons, but because he himself is a limited resource.

What I'm saying is, volunteer, raise awareness, and then go to the movies, because you have a life to lead, and were not born to expiate a blood-guilt.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:18 PM on February 22, 2009


I think movies are a poor example, considering that there are many movies that provide information and perspective about these very people you speak of (documentaries especially).

However, things that are purely luxury: i.e. an 8-slice toaster to replace your 2-slicer that you currently own are ludicrous, and shouldn't ever be bought in the first place.

I think you're definitely right to be questioning your own motive for spending, but you have to find that fine-line between these two kinds of purchases: many support culture, while others only support the culture of spending for no reason at all, and in those cases, definitely, the money should be going elsewhere.
posted by tybeet at 12:19 PM on February 22, 2009


You can't save the world.

Giving a percentage of your income to a charity you deem important is worthwhile. If you feel like you are behaving immorally by going to the movies or buying cashmere socks (you're not) you can stop buying these things and find a job in the social services that directly improves people's lives or join the Peace Corps. Instead of thinking and dwelling, take action.

Your income alone cannot save every poor person. If that poor person could afford a movie ticket, she'd be at the movies.

Don't be so hard on yourself. While I think Americans and other Westerners do spend way too much money on crap, and a whole lot of us are actually are defined by our crap nowadays (which is a horrible, bankrupt existence), you shouldn't "suffer" just because a person is going without. Spend responsibly, enjoy your life, help your local community by volunteering and giving what you can. Thinking about the world's problems puts you in a paralyzed, hopeless state. Volunteering in your community gives you a sense of control and productivity. By volunteering regularly, you can rest easy that you're actually a contributing member of society and not just another narcissistic consumer. Good luck.
posted by Fairchild at 12:19 PM on February 22, 2009 [8 favorites]


A nun once told me basically "You are human. You are not perfect. You want things. Only God is perfect. Do what you can to help people within your means. Be a good person. If you are the type of person to give up your life, and move to a poverty stricken village then that is fantastic, but a lot of people cannot emotionally do that and you shouldn't beat yourself up if you can't."
posted by UMDirector at 12:30 PM on February 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


I struggle with the same issue, but I worry more about big-ticket items like the thousand dollar purses. I don't think the man in the sweat shop making that purse benefits so much that we should justify outrageous costs. He could just as well be employed making cheaper purses that don't put as much money into the pocket of the execs of the company.

The thing I really struggle with is luxuries for animals. I love animals and I'm pro animal rights, so spare me any lectures. I read an anecdote somewhere of an African immigrant staying with an American family. When he saw the food given to their dog, he asked what service that animal did to the family. He assumed it was a herder or whatever because why else would the family invest so much in the animal's food? People in his country are starving, and we're feeding dogs prime cut meats with rice and peas in it. There's something wrong with that. Dogs have feelings but they really don't know the difference between fancy and cheap food, so that seems like a crime to me. (Don't get me started on doggy daycare.)

So I guess what irks me is when we choose expensive over good-enough items. If you could be spending $10 on a movie ticket but instead bought a $100,000 home theater and never gave to charity, I would think you were a jerk. But if you spend $10 on a movie ticket instead of sitting at home and staring at the wall, you're ok with me.
posted by parkerjackson at 12:52 PM on February 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


How can I morally justify spending money on luxuries while others lack necessities?

We can rationalize it but not really justify it IMO. Soon there will be seven billion people on this planet, and population scientists eventually expect us to top out at 9.1 billion later this century.

The vast majority of newcomers being born into families unable to produce the wealth to support them with the basic "necessities" of a modern, convenient, hygienic life.

The issue becomes a debate between charity and Malthusian arguments that charity will not solve the problem but just expand it into a bigger one as more and more people are born into areas lacking sufficient economic opportunity.

But the important thing about morality is that there is no universal moral code we must follow. We are free to (largely, within some traditional and sometimes arbitrary legal bounds) live by our own morality.

To turn the question around, by what moral right can another person on this planet demand charity from you?

Georgists think they have the answer to this in their proposal that we all have the right to the products of our labor, and an equitable opportunity of access to the wealth of the natural universe. If I were the charitable sort I would support the fight against poverty on this ideological plane.

IOW, fight the disease, not the symptoms. This is cold compared to true bleeding-heart liberalism that is fighting the actual diseases that the billions of poor people suffer from every day, but a middle way between that and the current practice of just blowing off the majority of the plane as non-persons who are screwed by fate.
posted by troy at 12:57 PM on February 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Answering a subquestion:

What type of person am I if I spend $10 on a movie ticket, for example, that could be spent on mosquito netting

The sort of person who spends money on the odd luxury here and there instead of giving absolutely everything from their lives to succor those in dire need is:

Probably not the greatest saint the world has ever or will ever see.

That's about all that it says about you.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:26 PM on February 22, 2009


It might help to think about it this way: that $10 you spend does indeed give you some degree of pleasure, but it also keeps the movie theater in business. Aside from employing a few dozen people, that also does some small bit in keeping the movie studio in business, which employs thousands.

The immaculate gardens that the eighteenth and nineteenth-century English aristocracy maintained strike us as unconscionable luxuries, but they served a very important purpose: they employed the dozens of gardeners. Same with all the other "idle" activities they engaged in: you need a falconer to go falconing, a dogkeeper to go fox hunting, stableboys etc. to support horses... What would these people have done if not for the "idle rich" spending gobs of money on what we would consider to be "luxuries"?

Starve, is what they'd do.

I do think the rich have a duty to their community. That duty consists in spending lots of money. Have a housekeeper or two. Put the kids in private school. Buy an extra car and keep it in excellent mechanical condition. Hire a landscaping company to mow your lawn. Buy that TV.

New York is currently experiencing what happens when the rich don't do this: a projected multi-billion-dollar shortfall in the city budget.

Spending $10 on a movie is actually one of the best things you can do with your money. That $10 pays the salaries of the wage slaves that take your tickets, sell you popcorn, and clean up after said popcorn. The money that doesn't go there goes largely to American corporations.

Is this a better option than giving it directly to a deserving charity (i.e. one you're sure does what it says it well and doesn't waste its money)? Maybe not. Some charities, particularly things like local food banks, are probably a far more "effective" way for caring for those in need than buying consumer goods or consuming services. But those consumer purchases are important too, because there are plenty of people who would much rather work than take a handout, and unless the rest of us buy those things which go into their employment, they'd all be out of a job.

So while you might want to think long and hard about how much of your income you're spending on yourself, remember that even what looks like "selfish" spending can, if done thoughtfully, be at least as beneficial to those in need as giving them money.
posted by valkyryn at 1:30 PM on February 22, 2009 [9 favorites]


You are thinking in extremes... absolutes. How can you eat a nice meal if someone is starving? How can you wear warm clothes is someone is cold? It doesn't work that way in reality.

I think you should think about it in terms of balance. As a working, contributing member of society, you have a right to enjoy what you've earned. And, as Chocolate Pickle points out, you are also contributing to the health of the economy around you.

As a compassionate being, you want to help others. Decide what is an acceptable balance for you and structure your expenditures and charitable efforts accordingly.

Maybe it's not about money. Perhaps you should get involved with a charity/group/cause that gives you a more tangible sense of contribution.

Then give up the guilt. It's not serving a purpose for you.
posted by ecorrocio at 1:31 PM on February 22, 2009


Years ago I made my living as an artist, yes an actual working artist who sold paintings, and used the income to pay the rent. Incredible. This was unbelievably fulfilling personally, and a lifelong dream.

As my paintings got into better and better collections, and I started getting more gallery shows, and the prices went up, I started also getting a clientele who thought absolutely nothing of spending several thousand dollars on a painting to decorate their living room or office (which half the time they weren't even choosing themselves; they sent the decorator). In the end, I got very uncomfortable being part of this system, where I was a facilitator, an enabler of a lifestyle that was based on personal indulgence. These people were nice enough, but their idea of charity was buying a table at the art museum Gala and writing a big check to their kids' private school. I just couldn't bear the idea that I was part of a system where someone could waste $6,000 on a painting while our public schools were falling apart, children were getting shot in the street and Africa was dying of curable diseases. It sounds arrogant, but it was a huge crisis of faith for me.

So I stopped selling my art. I found that my love of the creative process could not be reconciled with my contempt for the lives I was indulging. I went into nonprofit management where I could have more of an impact on the ground. I tried moving to social services, for many of the same reasons that got me out painting, but could not break into it. About 10 years ago I started teaching. This keeps me involved in the arts, satisfies my need to give something to the society, and helps me sleep at night.

I miss making art like a physical pain but the mental contradiction wasn't worth it. My suggestion to the OP is to stop buying as many of those frivolous things as you used to. Instead of buying the candy bar, drop the money into a mitzvah jar every night and empty it into a SalvArmy ringer's bucket next Christmas.
posted by nax at 1:41 PM on February 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


i'm one of those people who indulge my pets. i had some degree of guilt associated with the amount of money i spend on fancy food (probably in the neighborhood of $100/month) and outrageous toys (another $25 or so per month) on a couple of cats. so what i do is, i try to make at least an equal monetary donation to *some* worthy cause. most recently it was giving $200 to a friend who still has a job but lost her health insurance & couldn't afford to go to a dentist; another time i found out about a thrift shop aimed at the working poor that was having trouble making its rent--so i paid rent & utilities for them for 2 months. i can always find a cause.

organized charities make me winch; real need makes me wonder how i can make a difference. i'm not saving the world, but i like to think that i'm making some small positive difference. my cats are finicky as hell but well fed, and i sleep very well at night.
posted by msconduct at 1:54 PM on February 22, 2009


This is the kind of thinking that leads to vows of poverty.
posted by smackfu at 2:06 PM on February 22, 2009


This is the kind of thinking best answered by a moral philosopher?
posted by puckish at 2:10 PM on February 22, 2009


Why does it have to be justified? Just don't compare yourself with others. If you give to worthy services that help those you feel guilty about, then maybe you could volunteer. There's lots of ways to have an effect and there are lots of inequalities in the world. How many are you really planning to account for? Maybe just doing the most good you can is enough.
posted by rhizome at 2:11 PM on February 22, 2009


You could really take this to the extreme. Why should you enjoy a morning run when there are paraplegics, or kids with no legs due to land mines? Why should you enjoy a good book where there is illiteracy in some countries? Should you, if you are straight, marry when gay people are legally prevented from doing so? Should you live in a 1 bedroom home when there are homeless on the street? There are religions where ideas like these are taken to the highest degrees. That doesn't mean that the rest of us have to live lives of asceticism.
posted by Piscean at 2:14 PM on February 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


becasue its your money! you went to work, you earned it, you deserve to spend it any way you please.
posted by swbarrett at 2:21 PM on February 22, 2009


What would these people have done if not for the "idle rich" spending gobs of money on what we would consider to be "luxuries"?

Starve, is what they'd do.


I think David Lloyd George adequately skewered the core immorality underlaying the economic position of the (well-)landed gentry with this quip: "To prove a legal title to land one must trace it back to the man who stole it".[1]

This ties into my Georgist point above, with George's aptly-named first book.
posted by troy at 2:23 PM on February 22, 2009


One person's "luxury" is another person's basic salary/wages, and a portion of the purchase likely goes to taxes which ultimately help somebody somewhere. I figure that unless I'm simply running dollar bills through a paper shredder or setting them fire, or buying things that are illegal, every dime I spend is ultimately for the common good. I also regularly give to money charities and make other kinds of non-monetary donations. No guilt here.

What I think is wrong is deliberately overspending and trying to live so far beyond your true means that you end up having to be "bailed out" to the tune of billions of dollars, courtesy of many who weren't so profligate.
posted by fuse theorem at 2:25 PM on February 22, 2009


I figure that unless I'm simply running dollar bills through a paper shredder or setting them fire

money is not wealth so doing so actually makes us all richer.

every dime I spend is ultimately for the common good

Depends on what is produced. 40 Yamaha learner's pianos is a better "common good" than one Bosendorfer, even though an equal amount of labor and materials go into each.

Needless luxury is a great, great sink of a Nation's wealth. The opportunity cost of the investment in labor is where one measures the damage to the national weal; this decade featured several years of feverishly building rather non-economic McMansions and luxury lofts in pursuit of profit. It's quite arguable that this was malinvestment of labor and material on a vast and ultimately damaging scale.
posted by troy at 2:31 PM on February 22, 2009


Combine PatoPata's and valkyryn's, and you've got a decent practical approach, I think. Spend, but thoughtfully. Direct your money to industries that produce jobs, and some more to good works.

I've struggled with this a fair bit myself, and continue to. Perhaps the closest I've come to progress is to think about it as a parallel to original sin (something I've never felt connected to in its Biblical-literalist sense): this is a wrong that every human commits, almost just by being alive. Everyone is better off than someone, and we are obligated to help those not as fortunate as us. Take to its absolute conclusion, that would mean spending every cent and every possible moment on furthering completely equitable distribution of resources and equal quality of life. None of us do that. Not even Mother Teresa or Paul Farmer. Even people who give up all their possessions to others aren't necessarily absolved, because perhaps they could sleep less and spend the extra hour helping someone, perhaps they could eat less, etc. The fact that we don't do this is the great sin that we cannot be absolved from. But if we did do it, what would happen to the world?--to making art, and spending time playing games, and swinging with our kids? To live a human life worth living, we need to take some time to relax and be creative and have fun. It's all a big continuum: we must do everything we can to help others, but we have to be a little selfish to participate in things that make life worth living and keep us happy enough to keep going. The fact that we'll never get that balance quite right is the burden that comes with being human.
posted by hippugeek at 2:43 PM on February 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


As mentioned above, your question parallels one famously asked by Peter Singer. Here's one response to Singer.
posted by ewiar at 2:59 PM on February 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


All the goods whose unequal distribution you're worried about-- food, shelter, luxuries, etc.-- are unimportant as things in themselves; the key thing about them is that they're productive of human happiness, i.e. they represent some utility. So whether or not you buy that there's a firm line between "necessities" and "luxury", what you're really worried about is the unequal distribution of the utility or happiness that goes along with having material goods.

Thing is, there are so many other things that have utility and determine human happiness-- good health, for instance. Good looks. Intelligence (ok, debatable!). A charming and optimistic personality. Close, loving friends and family. Some of these correlate to a certain extent with others, but by and large, none of them are equally or fairly distributed. Some people, by no fault of their own, are simply born into a more unhappy situation than others. And even if you could fix the economic inequality to the last penny, all these other factors still mean that the key measure, human happiness, would be wildly unequally and unfairly distributed. Why obsess about one tiny corner of things, when the whole system is built that way? Or does a naturally pretty person have an obligation to spend their lives giving makeup consultations to the less fortunate?

I think charity's important because we all have an obligation to help other people. But as others have said, I can't see doing it specifically out of a feeling of guilt about what one has.
posted by Bardolph at 3:01 PM on February 22, 2009


^ Bardolph, your above is treating distribution of economic opportunity as if it were an act of God or beyond the control of man, or a past sin not a present one.

Each person in the first world lives with an economic footprint orders of magnitude greater than the third world. A lot of the capital that drives this wealth creation came from actual oppression and outright poorly-compensated export theft of wealth by our forefathers, rationalized away by apologists of global capital.

Beyond that, what is really non-uniformly distributed on this planet is civility and, for lack of a better word, social intelligence -- societal capital embodied by rational-basis -- classical liberal -- laws, fair judges, respect for others' justly-acquired property, lack of dumbass religious moralists and other social misfits with their counterproductive superstitions.

There is plenty of work to be done to improve the present & ongoing failures of mankind here. It is an impossible task but I trust someday, eventually, it will be solved, and I applaud the poster for facing it honestly.
posted by troy at 3:31 PM on February 22, 2009


You ask how you justify having nice things when others have nothing.

I'll be following this one closely because I have this same problem, and my current answer is:
You don't. You either accept that you're a terrible human being, or you make a vow of poverty, or you just die and stop wasting resources. (I try to convince myself to do that last one at least once a week, but I'm too selfish to kill myself.)

So, um, good luck?
posted by dust.wind.dude at 3:37 PM on February 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Chocolate pickle, thanks for replying, but I don't agree with your objection. Instead of paying someone to work making luxury items, I would be paying someone to make malaria nets, or provide other items or services that have greater utility.
posted by espertus at 3:38 PM on February 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Some posters mention guilt. My motive isn't guilt. My concern comes from a desire for justice and a belief in equality. I consider both of these positive values.
posted by espertus at 3:40 PM on February 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


> You can't save the world.

My goal isn't to save the world, which I agree is outside my power, but how does that imply that I shouldn't save as many people as I can?
posted by espertus at 3:43 PM on February 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


> Why should you enjoy a morning run when there are paraplegics,
> or kids with no legs due to land mines?

That's not the same. My depriving myself of a run wouldn't benefit anyone. My giving money to an effective organization rather than spending it on a luxury would.
posted by espertus at 3:48 PM on February 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


A number of people suggest I should get involved with local charities. I already do. I'm not sure why people assume otherwise.
posted by espertus at 3:49 PM on February 22, 2009


ewiar, thank you for the pointer to the paper. That's very useful. Here's an excerpt from the paper for those not familiar with it:

My main question is: if we have a duty to rescue in a local emergency, must we also have a duty to rescue people from chronic famine in foreign countries? Most of the literature in this area seems to consist of reflections on thought experiments. It’s not my style, but it seems apt for this topic, so I follow custom here. The basic puzzle is illustrated by the following pair of cases.

ACCIDENT: You come across a traffic accident. You know that one of the victims will survive if and only if you stop to help. You also know that if you stop to help, it will cost you a hundred dollars.

Compare this to:

FAMINE: You receive a letter in the mail asking you to send a hundred dollars in support of a famine relief effort. You know that a life will be saved if and only if you contribute. Are these cases morally different?
posted by espertus at 3:56 PM on February 22, 2009


Are these cases morally different?

I would argue 'yes' because the famine is a failure of man and unless you're treating the root causes you will just find 2.5X more people being put in that shitty situation down the road.

So the real moral argument for you should become the division of support between present relief work and actual reform effort.
posted by troy at 4:02 PM on February 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Related to my original point of turning the question around -- what rights do others have to charity -- is another answer to the car crash case, which is living your life by the Golden Rule of treating others as you would be treated.

If you were the car crash victim, you would hope for if not expect the immediate aid. If I were the remote famine victim through no fault of my own, I would hope for both immediate aid and assistance in creating conditions where this situation wouldn't recur. But there's no 1:1 direction connection between needer and giver here, and there quite possibly needs to be better infrastructure and accountability in place before we can expect immediate aid to produce more short-term good than long-term harm.
posted by troy at 4:07 PM on February 22, 2009


I don't see how giving a fixed percentage of my income, such as tithing, absolves me of further moral responsibility.

It does. You're picking up the slack for the people who don't do it at all.
posted by Zambrano at 4:14 PM on February 22, 2009


Espertus, I, too, used to feel very guilty that I had when others didn't. How dare I buy that movie ticket? I was definitely being a selfish person and I would be plagued with thoughts of how I could spend my money so as to be a better human, and flogged myself for any little luxury.

Then I talked to my mother about it, font of wisdom that she is, and she gave me this little gem:

"The best way to help the poor is to not be one of them."
-– Mark Victor Hansen

I have found this to be true. You can help a lot more people if you're not poor yourself. Yes, you can buy malaria tents, and you can also go to the movies. These are not mutually exclusive, and I would consider those luxuries to be little "recharge" moments so you can get back to the bittersweet business of helping those in need.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 4:15 PM on February 22, 2009


Bardolph,

> what you're really worried about is the unequal distribution of the utility
> or happiness that goes along with having material goods.

No, it's not the distribution of utility I'm concerned about. It's the total amount of utility. There is less utility in my spending $X for a luxury than if the $X were spent on a necessity for someone else. It's not even a question of whether the money is spent on me or someone else. There's greater utility in buying myself a necessity than buying someone else a luxury.
posted by espertus at 4:16 PM on February 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think David Lloyd George adequately skewered the core immorality underlaying the economic position of the (well-)landed gentry with this quip: "To prove a legal title to land one must trace it back to the man who stole it".

Did he have a quip for those who worked for their money? Seriously.

I'm with the circulate-money-however-you-can school (assuming no blood diamonds, ethically challenged coffee beans, rain forest beef- you know, the usual suspects). Preferably locally. Charity beginning at home and all that sort of thing. That includes the projectionist, the ticket taker, the concession sales man, and all the Little People who make movies possible. Charity is nice, but work is morally better.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:20 PM on February 22, 2009


dust.wind.dude,

Thanks for your reply.

> I'll be following this one closely because I have this same problem,
> and my current answer is: You don't. You either accept that you're
> a terrible human being, or you make a vow of poverty, or you just
> die and stop wasting resources.

I don't think that dying would be the moral thing for me (or you) to do. Lots of resources have gone into raising and educating us. I believe that I am far more valuable to the world alive, serving people through paid and unpaid work, and donating a good chunk of my income, than I would be dead (although I suppose that raises the question of how many lives I could save by being a multiple organ donor, but let's not go there).

Additionally, our dying, especially through suicide, would cause great suffering to people who know us. Definitely not utilitarian.
posted by espertus at 4:22 PM on February 22, 2009


> "The best way to help the poor is to not be one of them."

Would you have said that to Mother Teresa or others who live in poverty while helping the poor?
posted by espertus at 4:25 PM on February 22, 2009


People have mentioned that aid to the poor sometimes perpetuates poverty. That is true of some charities but not all, so I don't view it as a fundamental response to my question. Almost none of my money goes to direct aid. I support causes such as micro-finance and education, which increase people's ability to help themselves.
posted by espertus at 4:28 PM on February 22, 2009


My opinion is that if you can forego your luxuries and be happier through charity, do it. However if you find coping without creature comforts difficult bear in mind that the human psyche is very well equipped to deal with a hard life when it doesn't have any choice as with most people in 3rd world countries, but ill equipped to deal with it when it can choose another way.
posted by fearnothing at 4:35 PM on February 22, 2009


Did he have a quip for those who worked for their money? Seriously.

Not needed since Georgism concerns itself with increased if not confiscatory taxation of rents in favor of reducing the tax burden on actual wage-earners. That's why they were also know as the Single Taxers.

Almost none of my money goes to direct aid. I support causes such as micro-finance and education, which increase people's ability to help themselves.

Then I would say you are doing things right! To the extent you deny yourself luxuries in favor of helping your fellow man you are leading an enlightened life.

If we all freely did that then the better world for all would be worth the loss of $1000 handbags and $10 movie tickets.
posted by troy at 4:39 PM on February 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


I might have, had she asked this question...

Asking if you should take a vow of poverty is different than asking if buying a $10 movie ticket is immoral. No, I don't think you are absolved of all moral responsibility by tithing, but neither should you let the poor devour you.

We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.

~Mother Teresa
posted by Grlnxtdr at 4:49 PM on February 22, 2009


How can I morally justify spending money on luxuries while others lack necessities?

You need to be clear about what your moral basis is. If your definition of morality is "maximize social utility" then you can't justify spending money on luxuries.

What if you looked at morality differently, though? Lately, I've been toying with this idea for myself: Maybe a moral lifestyle isn't defined as one where you maximize everyone's utility personally, but one that would maximize everyone's utility if everyone lived it.

With this moral outlook your personal responsibility to raising someone else's utility is lower, since anything that you do is multiplied by everyone around you. Whereas before if you made $100,000 a year you'd have to spend it all and bring yourself down to the poverty line, now you can reason, "If I spend X% of my income, then that means everyone spends X% of their income, and the world is best off. I'm not sure whether X=10 or 50 or what, but it's something. Or maybe what you spend is 50% of your income over the worldwide average income, or something like that.

Or, maybe your mindset is that everyone locally should be taken care of. Then you can test the morality of that mindset by placing it on everyone and you'll see that it almost works, except some communities are so bad off that no one in there could help them. So you'd have to believe something like, "I will help out the most in my community, but I'll help out the most unfortunate communities, too, in some way." That mindset, projected into everyone's minds would result in all communities that can help themselves being well-off, and an outpouring of money and support into the very worst off.

So, anyway, I've long struggled with what to call "moral" since I lost the comfortable (if not easy) moral absolutism that my Catholic belief gave me. And this is something I've been toying with. It's more manageable in that it doesn't lead you to a spartan life of poverty, and it seems reasonably justifiably moral to me.
posted by losvedir at 5:47 PM on February 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


espertus, I'm glad you feel that way. I'd hate to think someone else is stuck feeling like me :)
posted by dust.wind.dude at 6:04 PM on February 22, 2009


I think this is a common description of what should be given from a Buddhist view:

whatever can be given freely and without resentment, through a feeling of sympathy for those who are in need. (reference)

That may sound simple, but I think there is a lot there in the words "freely and without resentment". Maybe you could expand on that to say something like "without making a big deal about whether this supposedly makes me a good person or not".
posted by dixie flatline at 6:37 PM on February 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Look up the Jewish concept of tzedakah. Jewish law requires that you give ten percent of what you have (commonly interpreted as 10% of your after-taxes income) to people in need. This isn't charity: it's like this money is not even yours to begin with, but belongs to the greater good.

However, Jewish law forbids anyone to give more than 20%. I don't know the exact reasons for that off the top of my head, but I can extrapolate that you do deserve what you have. You worked hard for it, or your parents worked hard to give you the opportunities you had to get you where you are, etc.
posted by thebazilist at 6:45 PM on February 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


The people who need help are mostly far away, so most of us are able to live privileged lives without thinking about people without water, food, medicine, shelter, etc. Giving as much as you can is moral. Living a life without pleasure or social interaction would be unfair to you, and you live in the privileged world. You might be able to maximize your impact by working for social change that would benefit those most in need.
posted by theora55 at 7:06 PM on February 22, 2009


I struggle with the same issue, but I worry more about big-ticket items like the thousand dollar purses. I don't think the man in the sweat shop making that purse benefits so much that we should justify outrageous costs. He could just as well be employed making cheaper purses that don't put as much money into the pocket of the execs of the company.

Parkerjackson, the cost of the good doesn't really impact how much money the execs get. Proctor & Gamble, for example, makes lots of affordable stuff and I'm sure their execs are well compensated. It is more of a marketing decision on product or brand placement. If Rolexes were cheap, they'd probably be chased out of the market by Timex. Timex is not inherently a more moral company than Rolex is, and in fact the mass producers are more likely to use unskilled labor which is easier to exploit. Generally, higher ticket items = more expensive labor.

Also, those execs or business owners have no incentive to open factories at all unless it puts money in their pocket.

What type of person am I if I spend $10 on a movie ticket, for example, that could be spent on mosquito netting to protect a poor child from malaria or to vaccinate dozens of children against measles? I don't see how giving a fixed percentage of my income, such as tithing, absolves me of further moral responsibility.

Espertus, I gotta tell ya, you're making me feel mighty shallow about posting a question about what hat to buy today.
posted by txvtchick at 7:16 PM on February 22, 2009


Perhaps ask the question, why are people starving? What causes this?

Then, consider that there may be better ways to prevent people starving than by giving away your earnings.

The amount of money in the world is not fixed, to be divided between you and me. If instead of giving away your earnings, you worked less and used the time freed up, you might help someone to generate more wealth than the earnings you gave up.
posted by dave99 at 7:45 PM on February 22, 2009


Seems like you've answered your own question pretty well. You definitely should devote all of your excess resources to the less fortunate.
posted by Wood at 8:10 PM on February 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


I asked a very similar question awhile ago. Maybe some of the posts there will help.
posted by pinksoftsoap at 8:46 PM on February 22, 2009


Here's why I think you should go to the movies, or have a nice dinner, while continuing to gradually increase the percentage of your income you give to worthy causes.

If you give so much away that you can't even do things you enjoy, like going to the movies, it will be very hard to maintain this behaviour for your lifetime, even with the best of intentions. It's like healthy eating: you can try to completely eliminate every one of your favourite junk foods from your diet, but it's far more sustainable to have small, controlled treats so that you enjoy the plans you have for your eating.

If I've been donating, say, 5% of my income to Oxfam for a year, at the end of the year, I'd find that donating 5% was not difficult--in fact, it would feel like the norm. It wouldn't be a stretch to increase the percentage to 8% or 10% in the next year. It wouldn't be a major belt tightening, and I'd still be able to find myself buying things I liked, which means there would never be any reason to stop my plan of gradually giving more away each year.
posted by surenoproblem at 10:20 PM on February 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


> whatever can be given freely and without resentment, through a
> feeling of sympathy for those who are in need.

Thank you for the Buddhist perspective, although I'm not sure how much weight to give it, since the mother of a child saved probably wouldn't care whether I gave the money cheerfully or out of a sense of moral obligation.
posted by espertus at 10:26 PM on February 22, 2009


thebazilist, I am Jewish and thought I was knowledgeable about Tzedakah, but I'd never heard of the maximum. Unfortunately, the full version says the limit can be exceeded to save a life.
posted by espertus at 10:35 PM on February 22, 2009


Thank you for the Buddhist perspective, although I'm not sure how much weight to give it, since the mother of a child saved probably wouldn't care whether I gave the money cheerfully or out of a sense of moral obligation.

No, does she want to live in a world with people parading their charity or bitter about their sacrifice? This is, in the end, about a common good, no?

Also, Kant.
posted by phrontist at 11:39 PM on February 22, 2009


Short answer, you can't justify it. And it seems from your replies that you realise this.

Decide what you are going to do, and do it. Sitting around worrying about a $10 movie ticket isn't going to help much. Give what you can, and be happy. Stressing over $10 here or there doesn't help the poor overmuch, and causes you a lot of heartache, for not much practical return (how many extra mosquito nets does your worrying actually buy?).
posted by humpy at 2:17 AM on February 23, 2009


When I worked for The National Outdoor Leadership School the concept of Expedition Behavior was explained to me this way: the achievement of common objectives requires the full participation of every member of the expedition--if one team member isn't fully committed to the success of the expedition, the expedition will fail to achieve its objectives.

Doubtless there are people who will argue that it doesn't matter what you do--in cosmic, big-picture terms. I think as citizens of the universe it is our duty to fulfill our potential, to be the best we can be and do the best we can do. And if you hold that improving the quality of life for all should be a common objective I, for one, would agree with you, I believe human beings have the potential to do that very thing.

But things are pretty grim, I'm pessimistic about our chances. It's a shame.
posted by Restless Day at 9:12 AM on February 23, 2009


Profit allows companies to make innovations that help everyone lead a better life. Bill Gates is now leading the fight against Malaria with the billions upon billions of dollars that he made selling "luxury" items to people with money to spare. Your job most likely exists to provide some luxury to end-users, which provides you with an income which you use to pay taxes. These taxes then fund science research programs that are fighting aids, cancer, parkinsons, and hundreds of other horrible things.

Certainly we could all in principle agree to live a life of very meager means, but we'd never have technological or medical innovations.
posted by RobotNinja at 11:10 AM on February 23, 2009


To follow up on the full version you linked, it does say that there are exceptions to the 20%, like saving a life.

But I'm almost positive that that only applies when you're sure that the money you're giving is directly going to save a life. Otherwise, with the assumption that people are dying of hunger and disease and gunshot wounds everywhere all the time, your requirements would be limitless. If someone on the street in front of you, or a family or friend, would die without your money, then you would be required to give more.

Tzedakah is really about your surroundings, your family, town, community, city. Yes, we're living in the global community, but you need to accept that it isn't your responsibility to do so. Allow others to share in the responsibility and leave these problems to Bill Gates.

You'll also notice on the same page that your requirement goes up if there isn't a community organization or charity service already in place to deal with the people in need you're worried about -- there are. Tzedakah does not require you to go around seeking people to help. The mitzvah is for you to help those around you, under the assumption that everyone will help those around them. You should never assume the worst of others (that's Jewish, too).
posted by thebazilist at 7:00 AM on February 24, 2009


Dharma.

Seriously, though, might I recommend giving a not-insignificant portion of your income to a charity that you find does good work? Kiva and Modest Needs always come to mind as helping from the bottom up.
posted by talldean at 4:29 PM on February 27, 2009


You have to figure out who you are in relation to any situation life presents. For example, I've made my peace with the fact that I can't save every kid in Africa, so I no longer feel guilty dropping $20 at a restaurant.

If giving up all your luxuries and moving to a third world country to build houses for dying families helps you find inner peace, then do that. If not, find another way to deal with the fact that everyone is dealt different obstacles.

On the other hand, if worrying about it is keeping you up at night, you should take this issue off the back burner and find a solution before moving on to any other big decisions.

It will make other things easier to deal with once you have a clear mind and conscience.
posted by carielewyn at 11:39 PM on March 3, 2009


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