How can I do more good?
September 24, 2011 4:47 AM   Subscribe

I'm in a panic because of a moral crisis. How can I justify owning anything recreational when others have nothing?

Two days ago I started wondering how I could justify owning a macbook pro instead of a very cheap computer or no computer when there are people in the world (in my own town) who struggle to feed their children.

My wife and I are relatively pretty generous. I work at a non-profit, she volunteers and we donate about 3% of our income annually. But I'm just plagued by the sense that it isn't right that I have more of everything than I absolutely need to survive when there are so many with not enough to get by.

I have a lot of questions. I am not a religious person but I am deeply concerned about living an good, intentional, mindful and meaningful life. Am I going to have to sell everything but the bare essentials and live a vow of poverty now? (I don't know if my wife will like this idea.)
How can I do more? (We have a little bit of debt, barely any savings.)
How can I ever be honest with myself and spend a dollar I don't absolutely need when I could be saving that for a charity that does life saving work?
posted by meta x zen to Religion & Philosophy (47 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
I think that comes down to the distinction between that which is morally praiseworthy and that which is morally required . I think eschewing comfort entirely to ,in what must be a failing attempt given the size and scope of the problem, to ensure others have the bare minimum is praiseworthy but not required.
posted by Rubbstone at 5:06 AM on September 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Because these thoughts have deliberately been put into your head by the actual, much more powerful, perpetrators of social injustice. You feel guilty so they don't have to!

Having said that, you might want to see if you can increase your donations to 10%, either to give to charity (in the UK the Salvation Army is the second biggest provider of social services after the government) or to people you may know who might need it.

I would also add that wealth reduction isn't actually the way to reduce poverty. If you stop buying consumer products, that does nothing to help people stay in work. Of course, you have to buy responsibly, but the whole world isn't and shouldn't be one big nonprofit.
posted by tel3path at 5:09 AM on September 24, 2011 [18 favorites]

I asked a similar question a couple of years ago and I still haven't figured out a fully satisfying answer that can guide me in my daily life. Anyways, here's where my reasoning has brought me:

* It is rarely wrong to buy something expensive of better quality as this generally means less wear and tear.

* When I want something I ask myself what I honestly believe it will give me in the long run. I try to minimize stuff that's purely for entertainment or superficial in some sense. Things or experiences that can help me grow as a person are pretty ok to buy.

* Me purchasing less doesn't reduce poverty or suffering in the world. I can, however, choose not to buy things that somehow can harm people, society or nature. Buying ecofriendly stuff is also good because I'm encouraging companies to create substitutes for stuff that is more harmful to us.

I think it's important to be mindful about these things without letting them consume you in a negative way. The fact that you seem to live a normal life and do lots of volunteer work and donating to charity seems like a good balance if you ask me. Selling all your stuff and putting your family in a financial risk zone is ultimately counter-productive; you might even end up as one of those poor people you want to help.

If you feel like you're not doing enough, there's always the political sphere. Voting, influencing your politicians, participating in meaningful political discussions - these are things that could help change the world for the better. But honestly, I don't do any of these things so I'm hardly in a position to preach to you.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 5:13 AM on September 24, 2011 [6 favorites]

Wearing a hair shirt doesn't help anyone. You could cut out any kind of spending other than that absolutely necessary, and give all of your money away, but I doubt that that kind of lifestyle would be very sustainable. Especially if you're wife isn't on board with it.

One thing to remember is that "how much people have" is a continuum. There will always be people with more and less than you.

If you having a good job means that you need a nice suit, then you need a nice suit. Having this nice suit means you can give more money away to other people. If you didn't have a job, you wouldn't be able to give them anything, and would in fact be just as much of a drain as they are. Them having nothing doesn't mean that you have to have nothing. If something as small as a nice suit means you can give a much larger amount of money to the poor, then it's a good thing to have.

If you want to do more, pay off your debt then get some savings going. Donate any surplus to those who need it. The more savings you have, the more you can donate. Or you could volunteer more.

At some point, you have to work out your own value system, where a latte at Starbucks is worth X points and donating that money to charity is worth Y points. If Y is of a higher value, then donate it. If X is a higher value, then have the coffee. Allow yourself a set amount of discretionary spending, say $50 a month, and then decide how many lattes you want vs how good you want to feel for donating. You might find the values fluctuating - maybe you've worked hard at work and feel that you deserve a latte for that. That's fine. Maybe you're just gulping the latte down without actually tasting it, in which case you could get a cheaper coffee and donate the difference to charity.

Ask yourself how much you're going to pay to feel good about yourself. How much is that worth to you?
posted by Solomon at 5:26 AM on September 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Tradionally (in the abrahamic religions) people tithe 10% to their church/charity. I know people who have done this while near the poverty line -- 25% is too much of a cut, but 10% seems to be just low enough to work.

Also, if you feel badly about buying new computer equipment: donate your older but still perfectly good stuff to someone who could use it but couldn't afford it. We have a tradition in our family of always asking around on who needs what when upgrading: We've passed on monitors, CD writers, netbooks, iPods.
posted by jb at 5:30 AM on September 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

also, if you are worried about food insecurity specifically, donate/volunteer at your local food bank.
posted by jb at 5:32 AM on September 24, 2011

Because these thoughts have deliberately been put into your head by the actual, much more powerful, perpetrators of social injustice. You feel guilty so they don't have to!

I think there is something to this - and you can see it in situations like African aid camps, where you could give literally every penny and thing you own in an hour and the problem would be not one measurable whit better.

Part of modern capitalist, western life is an ongoing campaign to blur the lines between structural, societal, public, political problems, and private, individual, micro, problems & actions & "solutions". This is why we have so many products that encourage us to buy our way out of societal problems and issues, but it's a false dichotomy. Capitalist society is underpinned by consumerism and a belief that the individual is both paramount and capable of almost unlimited power. But it's not true. Individual action - however good - is absolutely no substitute for public, political, legislative, structural, societal action.

Does this mean you should feel great about buying the environmentally damaging shit made by kids in sweatshops? Hell no! But, you should recognise that some knowledge, and power - and responsibility for this situation is beyond you, or at least beyond anything you can or can't do, at the cash register. Change will not come from the cash register, it will come to, and through, but not from.

If you feel like you could - and should - do more, who am I to say otherwise or try to stop you? But consider how you can foster that societal, structural change in your actions, and buddy another ten bucks - or thousand, or ten thousand - at UNICEF ain't gonna do it.

Also, two ancillary points:

1) The problems we face in the current world took centuries and millions of people to create, and they are likely to take that long and that many people to undo as well. Maybe you can't change the world, but perhaps you can change your home, maybe your neighbourhood, maybe someone's life. That's a great place to start, and you're already on the track there with your NGO work.

2) This problem is as old as human culture, and there are thousands of incredible thinkers, writers, artists etc who have tried to grapple with it in one way or another, ranging from Plato to Philip K. Dick. Maybe you will find some wisdom in their thoughts.

I grapple with these feelings all the time myself, and I look forward to your follow-ups sharing with us what you learn and put into practice along the way. Good luck.
posted by smoke at 5:48 AM on September 24, 2011 [33 favorites]

Well, I am religious, so take this with a grain of salt, (ha)

but I believe the good things you have are blessings. These are gifts you should use to make good stuff happen. See The Parable of the Talents.

So yeah, it is a good thing to be like "hey, I am ridiculously privileged and other people are not." and "What can I do about it?" but yeah, be smart about it. Use your position and your gifts to make good stuff happen. If you are paralysed with guilt then you aren't going to be able to do good stuff!

These are things I try to live by:
  • Try not to be selfish.
  • Don't purchase stuff which is, really, (expensive or not) junk.
  • Pay out your debt and live within your means.
  • Try and be responsible with your purchases.
  • Do good. (for me, this has a lot more to it, like, listen to God, do *that* good thing)
Good question, good inner debate, use it to make good stuff happen. :)

A tangentially interesting blog article here about the Make Poverty History movement and questions like these.

I removed some stuff which was very "this is what I believe"- feel free to memail me if you're interested.
posted by titanium_geek at 6:10 AM on September 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

A MBP pays for itself in time and stress saved compared to lesser computers. As long as you need any computer at all, you might as well use one that frees up your time and mind to volunteer. You might want to buy used to donate the premium for new, but if you use a computer to do useful things you should use the most effective one, not the one with the cheapest parts and software.

If you strongly think you should live a simpler life that does not require a computer or many possessions, by all means go ahead. Many people have done this and are happy.
posted by michaelh at 6:18 AM on September 24, 2011

I don't know if this will allay your feelings of guilt but think about it anyway:

Presumably you've worked hard for your money and your using your own money (and not stollen money) to buy a tool that you think will help you get what you need to do done.

I'll say it again in a different way:

You worked hard for your money and you shouldn't feel guilty about spending it on something nice.

I felt this same way when I finally (after 11 years and thousands of miles) upgraded my car to something most people would consider luxurious (even though the new car itself was over 5 years old when I got it). I felt guilty about owning such a "nice" car for a while but then realized that that was the whole reason why i go to work and earn a paycheck, is to make my life easier.

You're already doing good by donating 3% of your income. Maybe you can increase that a bit?
Or you can go ahead and buy the cheaper laptop if you feel that bad about it.

I think ultimately it will come down to weather you need the Macbook Pro to get your computing done or you just merely want it.
posted by eatcake at 6:26 AM on September 24, 2011

ehh...also, please forgive the obvious spelling/grammar mistakes in my reply.
posted by eatcake at 6:29 AM on September 24, 2011

Without spitting out a bunch of platitudes and preaching to you - this is it: if you want it, get it. Nothing precludes you from owning an expensive laptop and doing some good for other people. If you morally feel obligated to do some good for other people, clean up your old machine and give it to someone that needs it - then donate the differential in price (or equivalent hours worked) between your old laptop and your new laptop. You don't have to donate it all at once - take your time, but if you feel morally obligated to net zero in terms of good will on high-end purchases - choose to net zero. Don't agonize about it.

Agonizing about that instead of doing something about it is privileged guilt. Avoid that.
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:41 AM on September 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Here's another previous, similar question with some good responses. It's probably also helpful just to see that other people have similar worries.
posted by one_bean at 6:50 AM on September 24, 2011

Maybe you would feel better if you returned the mac book pro and got something cheaper, and then donated the difference. Imagine doing it and see how you feel about it.

Do you genuinely feel like a better person? If so, it is worthwhile.

(This is why religions have rules about tithing and the like, by the way--this is a common moral issue that is largely papered over by consumerist ideals that hold that if you can afford it, you deserve it, despite the fact that the distribution of wealth has nothing to do with who deserves what)
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:51 AM on September 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Aside from the last two hundred years or so of history, populations have grown to their Malthusian limits and stayed there. Drought, famine, disease and plague have generally raised the standard of living, because people die off and there's a few years for the population to grow back up to those limits. Food windfalls have lowered the standard of living, as population grows to temporarily exceed those limits, and then has to fall back.

For the ten thousand years or so of recorded human history, civilizations have grown and fallen, and life has gone on.

Since the industrial revolution things have been different in select parts of the world. There's disagreement over why and what that means and whether this is just a longer swing, but look at your actions in terms of the larger context: Are your efforts really going to change the longer-term path of humanity, or are they going to provide band-aids which enable unsustainable behaviors?

I'm not sure how much we give to our community. We (my partner/wife/whatever you want to call the other half of my primary relationship) are not all that concerned with tax exempt status, so we don't do a really strict accounting, and we tend to fill out our volunteer hours worked forms, hand them to the organization that benefits from them, and carry on. It isn't unusual for those forms to have 40 hours a month from me, so we're probably giving quite a bit more than the Abrahamic traditional 10% tithe.

However, we do what we do for selfish reasons: we put our efforts towards projects that will make our community more enjoyable to live in, in which we can see ways that our neighbors talk to each other, share more. We work to make sure that underprivileged kids get the sorts of experiences we got as children so that they don't end up growing up to have more kids than they can support, like their parents did.

To that end, are you sure that your donations are teaching people to fish rather than showering them with cornmeal? Are your efforts leading to the spread of cultures which encourage education and self-determination and freedom?

And what are the broader impacts of your spending?

You can't save the world. In fact there's good evidence that trying to "save the world" in big nebulous ways just results in lower standards of living for lots of people. But picking particular projects in your community, where you can see the results, that has direct impacts on making your life better. As well as making the world better.

Don't sweat the intangibles, make sure you're not a drain on your society, and make your community the best you can. Then put a little human effort into figuring out the bigger question of why those people are struggling to feed their kids, and what you can do to change that situation generally, and why it may or may not be your responsibility to feed the kids they brought into the world.

Keep the MacBook.
posted by straw at 6:56 AM on September 24, 2011 [6 favorites]

I'm impressed by the thought behind some of the answers above, because having wrestled with this issue I've often felt one cannot justify wealth that's orders of magnitude above that of one's fellow human beings. I've tended to view any attempts at rationalizing one's position as arising from the discomfort at our hypocrisy. I imagine a better future in which people have a difficult time understanding how the people of our era stood idly by while our social and economic systems perpetuated such a colossal injustice.

On the other hand, I haven't given away all that I have in order to embrace a secular monastic life. I suppose the reason is ultimately selfish, and I must face the fact that I'm a selfish person. But there are other reasons. I'm part of a system in which the power I possess allows me to change the world around me for the better, and in our system, money is one expression of that power. In other words, the more you have, the more you have to direct where you think it should go. Second, your possessions are not the sole means at your disposal to help others. If I gave away my car, I might be able to get a low-paying job within walking distance, but I wouldn't be able to do my current job, in which I do more good for more people.

When you're troubled by this question, I don't think there's a good solution that completely obviates the fact that you're the beneficiary of a geopolitical lottery, and you possess relative riches for reasons that have less to do with your goodness than you'd like to think. Looking back from the distant future, what would you expect someone like you to do with that gift?
posted by itstheclamsname at 6:57 AM on September 24, 2011 [5 favorites]

I really struggle with the feeling that I can't do anything about structural inequality. For instance, I'm very concerned about the education of poor children, but nothing in my extensive reading and thinking about this subject has shown me an action that might make any kind of significant difference. While I continue to ponder this, my partner and I look for opportunities to be generous. Yes, you can increase your charitable giving (I dream of reaching 10% but we are far short of that right now ourselves). But we also tend to to give things away when we're done with them instead of selling them. Old toys, clothes, household goods, things that many of my friends sell at garage sales or consignment, we freecycle. I don't sell homeschool curriculum I'm done with, even if it might get me $100 on eBay: I find a family who can use it. Five years ago, a family we knew was in crisis because they didn't have a reliable car and couldn't afford a new one, and lived in a place where public transportation was unavailalbe. We gave them our second car, which had a blue book of about $6000 at the time. We gave a diamond ring my partner inherited to a friend who had always dreamed of having a diamond despite thinking it would be a frivolous thing to spend money on; it had been appriased at about $5000. When the son of a friend of a friend was broke and unemployed, we invited him to live in our house rent-free while he got back on his feet. Last year, a single mom of two children moved in with us for three months while she saved up for a new place to live--this, in an 1100 square foot house with three bedrooms and one bathroom. (And we are a family of 5 ourselves! That was an adventure!) When I heard second-hand that a friend of a friend had suffered modest damage to her car that she couldn't afford to fix but that meant she wasn't comfortable driving it with her infant in it, I sent some money to help pay to have it fixed. I treat the children of lower-income friends to outings with my family that they might not get to have otherwise. And so on.

I'm not meaning to toot my own horn, because all of this has worked out very well for us: deepened friendships, given us the pleasure of seeing friends happy, reminded us when we're feeling broke and whiny of just how much we really have. And during a rough time a few years ago, we were the recipient of a great deal of this kind of person-to-person help. It's not going to change the world, but it has made a difference in our little corner of the world. I'm just saying, I guess, that my partner and I (I learned this from him, he's always been a very generous person) don't always think about what's going to be best for us financially, or most convenient. We think: we hear this person has a need. Can we help? We try to look outside the boundary of our little nuclear family and feel some responsibility for folks in our community. There are always these kind of needs.

This isn't everything a good person can do in the world, and it doesn't absolve us of responsibility for all the other things we might also do. But it is a thing we do.

And I think there's some merit to what folks have said about giving away everything leaving you powerless to do anything. My partner and I found it so satisfying to provide housing to people who needed it--it felt like it cost us so very little and did them so very much good, that the ROI was huge--that we are thinking of getting a bigger house, not just because the 5 of us would like more space ourselves, but because it would be easier to offer a place when we hear about these kinds of needs.

Right now in our lives, this is the piece we can do, so it has to be good enough for now.
posted by not that girl at 7:09 AM on September 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Your user name contains the term "zen", but I'm unsure how much you know of Buddhism.

Maybe it would be a good idea to look into religion. Parts of Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity, and other religions have mendicant orders. Now, I don't suggest signing up, selling your possessions, and running away into the woods, but talking to practitioners of these religions who have taken vows of poverty would provide another perspective on this question.

Though at first it may seem they all join to serve God or achieve Nirvana, remember most of these monks at some point lived lives like you or me, and some weren't born into the religion that they have dedicated their life too.

Talking to them might yield an epiphany, or it might not. More likely you'll get some thought provoking answers that you'll be able to incorporate into your own life.

And also, when you mention a vow of poverty, often that means beyond the bare essentials to owning essentially nothing. There are mendicants that rely on begging to get through their day.
posted by FJT at 7:22 AM on September 24, 2011

I'm going to straight forward and brutally honest in my opinion. It's nothing personal, but there is an aspect to your question that needs to be pointed out.

You sound extremely self absorbed with an unrealistic understanding of the world. You owning a Macbook Pro has nothing to do with why someone else is poor. If you sold your computer and gave them the money, they'd still be poor.

All of your actions and thoughts in this question are ultimately about how YOU feel and/or what could make YOU feel good. That's not inherently bad, but it is something to recognize. Because everything you're thinking of doing (vow of poverty, giving money) is, at the heart, about making YOU feel better, with the side benefit of helping someone else. Sure, you're doing a good dead, but you lack understanding of what will help and instead just seem to be flinging ideas at the wall to see what will stick.

The reasons for poverty are complex and varied. Probably the single biggest thing you can do is volunteer to teach people. Giving someone money can help in the short term, but if they don't know how to save, how to shop economically, how to read, how to think how to plan for goals, how to budget, how to apply for bank account, how to use that account to their advantage, how to avoid credit traps and bank fees, then they're just a target for the various tactics people are separated from their money.

I think you need to ask yourself why you personally feel so guilty about what you're able to afford and why you feel fixing other people will fix that guilt.

Again, that's not a personal knock against you or giving money. It is good to give money to charity, but it's the only or even best thing to do if you really want to help. Your heart is in the right place, but I wonder if your emotional health is.

Good luck!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:32 AM on September 24, 2011 [21 favorites]

The morality of owning items is a human concept. Whether or not you own a particular laptop does not change the condition of the world. Whether or not you give up everything you own will make only a negligible change in the condition of the world. Barring external ethical rules (religion, typically), you need only decide where your own lines lie, and then live in a way that you can, well, live with.

Am I going to have to sell everything but the bare essentials and live a vow of poverty now?

You get one life. Your choices about how to lead it aren't going to be made by reading Ask MeFi posts. Most of us have decided that we can be good, ethical actors without doing this. Not everyone makes the same choice, or even makes the choice consciously.

How can I ever be honest with myself and spend a dollar I don't absolutely need when I could be saving that for a charity that does life saving work?

Why is it all your responsibility? Where did that idea come from? How do you know that life is ever just, fair, or balanced? Where does your delineation of good and evil come from, and how do you measure an act against it?

Personally, I've never found a solid objective external ethical set of guidelines that worked. Closest I've come it "what lets me sleep at night", which sucks as a system for anyone but me. Maybe that's what you need.
posted by ellF at 7:48 AM on September 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd also start thinking about whether you're working in a non-profit because you'd feel guilty about having a higher-paying job. If giving away money was really that important to you, you'd be obsessed with making more money to give more of it away.

What triggered this was that you bought a Macbook Pro. Is this about wondering if you can help people more or feeling bad about yourself because you're doing things (making money, buying stuff) that cause guilty feelings to rise up in you?
posted by deanc at 7:50 AM on September 24, 2011

I have struggled with this issue a lot and have managed to come to some conclusions that help me in my own life. Perhaps they will be useful to you.

- It is very important that in order to be a person committed at some level to social justice that you take care of your own organism such that you can tend to the people and things that need your help. This is the old "put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others with theirs" principle. You have to determine what is a reasonable level to which your organism needs to be maintained, people will have different levels. For me, I need to live alone. So, this is an extravagance to many and I would be a better steward of resources were I sharing space, but this is just what I need and that's that. People who try to guilt me about this are met with a blank stare

- Which leads me to my second point, some people just like to get in your business, both people you know and people you don't know who want to sell you something [whether it's a lifestyle or a product] and having your own moral center makes it easier for you to deal with these people. You are not, ever, going to make everyone happy and this is a bad goal state. Being able to respect yourself and your choices will allow you to be more empathetic to other people and their own choices [working with people in poverty, it's an easy thing to fall back on, so second guess other people's choices and sort of think that they are responsible for their own bad situations - this is a trap, generally speaking and should be avoided, even though there is some truth to the surface level part of it]. This goes for choices like vegetarianism -- where different options are better choices depending on what your social and personal priorities are -- as well as choices like what laptop to buy.

- Figure out your priorities and try to life a life with integrity that is more or less internally consistent with these priorities keeping in mind that there is more wrong with the world than you will ever personally be able to tackle.

- Lastly, view too much obsessing or navel-gazing on this topic to be counterproductive and not useful. The more time you spend agonizing over your laptop choice, the less time you have to actually get shit done. If it helps you solve a problem, buy the damned thing and move on. I call this the "even the Dalai Llama eats a little yak now and then" principle. Do what you feel you need to do, trust yourself, and look at the agonizing as, itself, a mark of privilege and set it aside in favor of doing things. See the parable of the monk helping the lady cross the river. Just put the ideas that are not helpful towards your goal DOWN and move on.

Of course it's useful to check in once in a while with your family or community to see if you really ARE being effective, being true to your goals, whatever. And it's worth having negative-goals. One of mine is not being a pain in the ass about my own choices to people who have made different ones. I have not accomplished much if people look at me and say "well jessamyn made those choices to be a better citizen of the world but she's absolutely HORRIBLE to be around because she won't stop talking about it" There are many people who are so pleased with their own view of themselves in the world that they think the solution is that everyone should be just like them and they approach this task with some level of urgency (you see this on metafilter a lot) Don't be that way. Strive for happiness for you and others and diminished suffering for you and others. Start small, dream big, Good luck.
posted by jessamyn at 7:53 AM on September 24, 2011 [9 favorites]

Are you doing this because a)you want people to see how "good" you are - or b)because you are taking away from those who suffer when you give to yourself?

If you live in the US, on b)you might as well just hop in a coffin now if you use just about anything mass produced.

If a) you're not actually concerned about the people you're "concerned" about - you're just worried about how it looks. Your ego is lying to you, and the higher self that does not wear or roll in personal BS knows it.

There's nothing wrong with buying a Macbook if you can afford a Macbook. That money still feeds someone, and not just Steve Jobs' dog.
posted by medea42 at 8:23 AM on September 24, 2011

Me purchasing less doesn't reduce poverty or suffering in the world.

That's not correct, and the OP's instinct is. If you purchase something, prices rise (marginally) across the board, and it becomes harder for the poor to buy what they need. Another way to express the same assertion is: if you purchase something, producers will produce more of that thing and less of what the poor need.

You worked hard for your money and you shouldn't feel guilty about spending it on something nice.

That's a conflation, too. Yes, you earn -- and very plausibly "deserve" the use of -- the wealth you create, but it nonetheless may be morally ideal to forego the use of that wealth in order to assist others.

I don't sell homeschool curriculum I'm done with, even if it might get me $100 on eBay: I find a family who can use it.

Although that's a kind thing to do, it doesn't increase the wealth in the world. One particular family gets a windfall, and another several families (which may have had a more valuable use for the curriculum) wind up paying a little more apiece since there are fewer curricula on the market. This is a redistribution of wealth at most.

One response an economist might give is as follows. Charity lies in generating more wealth than you consume, not in redistributing money. If you earn $100 per year in a non-criminal* enterprise, and you spend $80 on your own lifestyle (assume for simplicity that each person you buy from makes zero profit), leaving $20 in your bank account -- then, as long as that $20 is in your bank account, you have made the world $20 wealthier. (The mechanism for the donation is this: rather than raise the prices of goods, as you would have done had you spent the $20, your actions have lowered the real interest rate, which enables people to start businesses and get jobs even as they buy more cheaply.) The question of whether you then donate that $20 to charity is window-dressing at best; to donate is to suck these benefits (lower prices and lower interest rates) back out of the economy and concentrate them in the hands of the donee -- which sure seems morally neutral at best and potentially inefficient at worst.

So a morally plausible compromise would be to continue working at your relatively high-paying Western job, generating and accruing wealth, and then letting most of it sit in a bank account or investment account -- where you will have access to it in the event of emergencies and can point to it to assuage your partner -- all without actually spending it on anything ("consuming" things, in every sense of the word). That's my own ideal, which I sometimes live up to and sometimes do not.

*also proscribed as sources of real wealth: enterprises which simply cancel out somebody else's efforts, such as professional poker (shuffles money across the table without creating anything new) or activism (merely deletes the work of the activist on the other side) or gold mining (changes the price of everyone else's gold).
posted by foursentences at 8:37 AM on September 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Like many people who work in the nonprofit sector, I've struggled with this too. The best thing I ever did was disconnect my work from my compensation, using this mantra:

"I am helping, in the best way I know how, to alleviate poverty and societal ills related to it. I am lucky that I can do this and still earn a living. Someone else decided how much my work is worth, monetarily. The work I do is not diminished by what I earn, but is enhanced by it, because the more secure and happy I feel on average, the more effective I am at my job."
posted by juniperesque at 8:43 AM on September 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

First of all, stop taking your position in life for granted. What would happen if you lost your job, when you have some debt and barely any savings? It doesn't sound to me like you're all that wealthy, and yet you're still consumed with guilt.

Am I going to have to sell everything but the bare essentials and live a vow of poverty now?

Seriously, what would that accomplish? What good would that do? Start with paying off the debt you say you have, and focus on saving up money. Continue to give to charity what you can reasonably afford. You are living a life any number of impoverished people would be thrilled to live. Appreciate that.
posted by wondermouse at 8:46 AM on September 24, 2011

You have to put your own oxygen mask on first. If you can pay off your own debts and then save enough money so rhat you don't become someone who has to rely on public funds or charities--then you can start taking care of others. But living marginally, without your own house in order, might make you feel humble and pure, but doesn't do anything for "the poor". If you or your wife became disabled--could you still maintain your standard of living?

And buying a laptop doesn't mean the price goes up for the rest of us! That's nonsense--if we all could buy the latest gimzo, the company would have to increase the supply, othe companies would compete, etc.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:47 AM on September 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I asked myself this question many years back, and talked to a lot of people and read about it some.

In addition to the points people are making here, remember that while we Westerners may carry the "guilt" of benefiting and thriving while others suffer in poverty, we'll never absolve ourselves of that guilt. We can't, by virtue of individual (or even collective) action, undo the fact that every second we exist, we live on land stolen from natives, we buy the products of exploitation, and we accept the security and freedom we gained through militarism and war.

Best thing we can do? Accept that guilt as a given. Do what we can to lessen the suffering in the world. Live a good life, which is what (I assure you) all those suffering people would do if they could.

So yeah, living is enough to give you major existential vertigo, but every day we wake up and don't opt to kill ourselves, we're stuck with this (Sartre would say we even choose it, which for me makes sense). That's both depressing and liberating--I try to enjoy the liberating piece of it.
posted by Rykey at 8:48 AM on September 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I grew up poor and did without a lot of necessities, including food, health care, and electricity on some occasions. The idea of other people living well actually gave me hope for my own future. The idea that an average person in my very town might own a nice laptop, a car, and a house, and have money not only for food, but also for recreation, was incredibly comforting to me. Examples like yours demonstrated for my young self that I didn't need to be enormously wealthy to be happy.

Anyway, I'm not saying that you should become a total miser, and obviously I'm not the official spokesperson for poor people, but I think what you're doing is just fine.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 9:00 AM on September 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you have "some debt" and very little savings, then, for God's sake, do NOT increase your contributions to 10%. You will just end up on even shakier financial ground--perhaps driving yourself into even greater debt.
posted by I'm Brian and so's my wife! at 9:04 AM on September 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Am I going to have to sell everything but the bare essentials and live a vow of poverty now?

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has an endowment of US$33.5 billion dollars. It has that much money because Bill Gates is the richest man in the world. So if you really want to more for charity, becoming a billionaire is another way to do it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:07 AM on September 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

How to do more : you just bought Macbook -- that mean you can teach someone to work with Mac computer , it will help someone to have a better job . I can not afford such help ... and everywhere where they help "poor people " to learn about comp. , basic skills -- it is about Microsoft.
You can teach someone to use your old laptop that you will give away to that person .
posted by Oli D. at 9:12 AM on September 24, 2011

To both the OP and other commentors, I strongly recommend Peter Singer's book The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty -- also see the associated website.

Or, if you want a shorter read, check out his old paper from the 70's "Famine, Affluence, and Morality".
posted by kestrel251 at 9:15 AM on September 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Seriously, what would that accomplish? What good would that do?

Hmm. Sometimes the point of the vow of poverty is to accomplish nothing. Less money, less worries. Unchaining profit as a motivation to act. Hopefully that would translate to more focus on the issues that matter in one's life. Whether attaining enlightenment, doing good works for the poor, or something else. I'm kind of wondering the where the idea comes from that to be stripped of your wealth means to be stripped of your ability to accomplish anything.

Yes, it's not practical or realistic. But, why is it more realistic to be Bill Gates than Mahatma Gandhi?
posted by FJT at 9:16 AM on September 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Am I going to have to sell everything but the bare essentials and live a vow of poverty now?
This is something I thought about as a teenager: how to behave? If altruism is good surely more altruism is better...
I came to the conclusion that I could distribute all my possessions within the world and it wouldn't make a difference to every single person, I can't fix all things for all people on my own. So that's one extreme that doesn't quite work.
Also I came to the conviction that a certain modicum of selfishness is needed in life. As in: some things you need to fight for yourself; a job, a house, a mate. Just maximising on selfishness doesn't work for me though. Like most primates I have an altruistic urge. Taking care of others makes me feel good.
So in my view it's about striking a balance. So if you spend a tithe of 10% on charity, do no harm to others, try consistently to have a good influence on the world around you I'd call you 'a good person'.
And being a good person is pretty special. I don't think it's necessary to be even better. It's not a competition I don't think.
So my advice is not to be too harsh on yourself, not to take all the worlds problems on your shoulders, to be 'pretty good', i.e. within your means and within reason.
posted by joost de vries at 9:22 AM on September 24, 2011

I take kind of a simplistic view of how much it's okay to have versus how much to give.

As an example, I know that I have certain needs that may seem frivolous and nonessential (a certain type of face cream, special organic baking ingredients, a computer with a super fast processor) that allow me to be more productive and less distractable in doing my work, which ultimately helps other people. When I feel good about myself, I can give the most of myself to the ones I love. Since I'm not sweating those small things and being less ascetic in a few areas that bring me a lot of enjoyment, I'm able to sacrifice more where it really counts. I see it as a lifelong process, and don't lose sleep at night worrying about how imperfect my system is, or agonize over fixing the problems of the world that are ultimately out of my control.

Also, if I have something I haven't used in 6 months, I sell it. You can use that continuous stream of income to replace your old stuff without being feeling so wasteful and indulgent because you have so much unused stuff sitting around. Try to get that debt paid off, too. In these uncertain times, you wouldn't want to have so little to fall back on that you find yourself in a financially unstable situation which could really impede your ability to give back to society.

Having little $$ to give myself (gotta love student loans!), I just try to live by the words of John Wesley and focus on giving what I can when I can, which sounds trite, but can really open your eyes to the situations in your immediate environment where you can step up to the plate. Living in the present and being there for the people around you--giving of your time in big and small ways--can mean so much more than that money you're mailing out to organizations halfway across the world. Whether you're doing good in the first world or the third world, in your office or in the inner city homeless shelter, it makes a difference.

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

~John Wesley
posted by sunnychef88 at 11:07 AM on September 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I went through that crisis about 13 years ago. I was at the height of my career breaking 6 figures and one block from the high rise where I lived there were dozens of homeless sleeping on the sidewalk whom I passed every morning when I went to work and every evening when I went out to eat. I did not seem fair .

Here is what I did. Two things: First I reserved a certain amount of my income each week to buying dollar food coupons (like from McDonalds or Burger King). Every day when I walked past the homeless on the streets I gave out a couple of coupons to anyone who asked. Surprisingly 30% would not take food coupons - they refused them and wanted money instead which I would not hand out. The second thing I did was to not just hand out coupons but talk to them. I'd chat them up , find out how they got where they were and where they wanted to be. I think at least as many people appreciated the chat as they did the food coupons. No one actually talks to those guys. What I found out surprised me. I found out that about half were not without funding or actually homeless. They were there because they had an alcohol or drug problem and were trying to supplement their income to afford their addiction. Many were living in shelters already. Didn't matter , I still gave out the food coupons but it was an awakening.

Five years later I was homeless myself (no demand for 40-something women programmers with no college degree after 9-11) Literally homeless. I spent some time sleeping in the street (only three days but you have no idea how that affects you until you have no other choice). I spent a little over a year in a Vets shelter while I worked my way back up the job ladder again. It became clear to me how someone without the gifts I was born with would turn to alcohol or drugs. Were I less able I may have done the same. I never returned to the Middle class but managed to eck out a subsistence living with various low paying I.T. work until now where I find myself with money again.

Don't judge someone else because one day you may find yourself in their same shoes. Always err on the side of charity. You'll feel better about your own good fortune if you give some of it to those less able than yourself.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 11:25 AM on September 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Look, there's absolutely no best answer to this. I have relatively little (below US poverty line FTW!) but I still live in a relatively nice place, drink beers and am typing this on a (borrowed) very nice computer, and I still worry about this.

But I also realize that there's always going to be some way that I'm fucking it up for someone else, whether that's the poor bastards who have to pick electronic waste out of landfills because I can't afford to pay to have it recycled in the most ethical and environmental way possible or just contributing to the eventual heat death of the universe.

So I try to move from a few principles: That this is the only life any of us get, and with that, the best way to live is trying my best to make things better for everyone. Everyone should get to enjoy the privileges that I have, and I'm optimistic enough to think that as we refine civilization, that's more and more possible and a pretty decent goal to work toward. I know that I'm not going to be able to make it through without causing some suffering somewhere, and I'm not a Jain, so I try to just be a net positive. I try to keep my negative impact low, but I don't sweat that a beer for me is malarial medicine for a dying child, and I work for causes I believe in, but I try to do so in ways that maximize my direct efficacy. I don't have a lot of money to give, so I volunteer instead. Essentially a sloppy utilitarianism.
posted by klangklangston at 11:29 AM on September 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

A Catholic friend of mine once jokingly told me his favorite Catholic book was 'Guilt Without Sex'. His world had a lot of people in it making sure he always felt guilty about something; original sin, masturbation, being human in any way.

The truth in the humor is that we get guilted a lot. What is it that we're guilty of? Another mind, born the same day as you were over in the Sudan, is now having a much harder time with life. Whose fault is that? Arguably, it's the mom and dad that made that baby, but it's sure not the kid's fault, and it's sure as hell not yours. You have what you have because of where you were extruded into life; nothing more. You could be Indian, Korean, Sudanese, Polish, Iraqi. Those folks did nothing to merit their circumstances, either. It's just physics and randomness; unearned, unwarranted, and capricious.

All grass does not flourish. Seeds sown on the sidewalk don't grow. The ones that do are lucky, nothing more.

I counsel against feeling guilty about anything. Just do wise and good things that make your world a better place. Do it locally, or remotely. Work at giving more than you take and you'll be a net benefit to the planet. You can't be 'no impact' so be 'low impact' and a net positive. Succeed at that as much as you can.
posted by FauxScot at 1:01 PM on September 24, 2011

I think it is a trap to believe that your consumer choices are the best way to express your empathy toward other people who are suffering.

If the world is going to improve, we will need major changes. For me, that means I have to figure out how my life can contribute to systemic, widespread change. I do this by being a teacher by profession and teaching low-income students in the hopes that they will be able to find their way out of the cycle of poverty.

But in the meantime, it is also true that your money could help people get things they need. It is okay - it's good - to give something while not being required to give everything you have.

I also think that we are conditioned to think of our world as a place of scarcity - our society is dependent on limited resources and we see ourselves as being in competition for those resources - if we have more then others have less.

I don't think it has to be this way, and I hope we can build a more generous world where everyone can have what they need. It might help you to think about how your life fits into building this world.

Since I started teaching I have gone from being very guilty about a lot of my choices to feeling okay about them, because I think my work is more significant than the impact of which computer I buy, and I know it's going to exhaust me to try to be morally perfect.
posted by mai at 1:28 PM on September 24, 2011

Mod note: folks, please direct questions towards the OP and save lecutring for MeMail or the classroom, thanks
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:53 PM on September 24, 2011

How can I justify owning anything recreational when others have nothing?

This is going to be much more cynical than the other answers. What made it much, much more easy to justify it to myself was to see, over many years, what a lot of people without money did with money when they had it. And too see, especially, what they did with *my* money, particularly money that was given as a loan, not as a gift.
posted by Ashley801 at 8:03 PM on September 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your first responsibility is to your family - your wife, with whom you've committed to sharing your entire life and everything in it, your children, who came into this world with the understanding that you were their caregiver - for life, if necessary - and your parents and siblings and all. You may get the wild hair that says you're supposed to live a life of poverty and simplicity and give nearly everything you make to those who have less than you, but if that's the way you feel you should have entered the priesthood and taken vows to a life of poverty, not change your mind now and expect your wife and family to be right behind you.

Give what money you can - without seriously denying your family - to charitable causes and, probably more importantly, give time and energy to charities - work with them physically to improve the living situation for those who need it. Most charities need workers as much as they need money.

You have no reason to feel guilty that you were born into a country of comparative wealth. Some are born into comfort, some are born into misery - and that's true all over the globe. Do what you can, but do it with humility - in your heart, too - and don't deny your family your time or your support. Your children and your wife were also born into this good life - and none of you need do penance because that's the way it happened - so go ahead and enjoy life a little, even with recreational activities, and lose the guilt.
posted by aryma at 8:51 PM on September 24, 2011

If I live to be a hundred years old, and I want to, I hope not to forget the guy who gave my little ex-wife a hundred bucks, in like 1975, when a hundred bucks was one hell of a lot more than it is today. We were pretty much destitute, and moving in our tacky 1968 Ford Econoline van back up to the Chicago area after falling down in Clearwater Florida, and this guy was our neighbor, played tennis all the time, which spelled pretty much a zero to us, had him pegged as Joe College, blah blah blah, typical blue-collar jive; we liked him and all, but he wore white fucking shorts for chrisakes, he was as foreign to us as if he'd been from Portugal, or Connecticut, and of course we made our little jokes about him.

So anyways, Kathy was pretty much an artsy-crafty-creativy sort of woman, she could do pretty much anything with her hands, and this the mid 70s, do you remember macreme plant hangers? Kathy made them of course, and one she made was pretty spectacular, big as a Buick, enough rope and knots to keep FetLife going for two years; this guy gave her that hundred bucks under the guise of purchasing that macreme, and of course that's what it was he did, but we all of us knew what was going on -- he liked us, and we him, he wanted to help us, and he did so, and he did so in a way that took the sting out of us receiving his charity.

This guy was a total citizen, who knows, maybe someone had helped him out, back up the road. Or maybe he was just A Good Man. No telling.

I don't even remember his name.

I've given that hundred bucks back as many times as I've been able, mostly not at a hundred bucks a pop but as I've been able to. I've tried to live to his example, though without the white shorts of course.

Poet_Lariat: "The second thing I did was to not just hand out coupons but talk to them. I'd chat them up , find out how they got where they were and where they wanted to be. I think at least as many people appreciated the chat as they did the food coupons. No one actually talks to those guys. "

Yep.* They're people, and they absolutely do become invisible, esp once they've been on the street and pick up that red skin from the sun and the defeat in their eyes, so when you talk with them, just remember that they're family, open up to them, they are after all your brother. Of course don't open to them if you're getting a bums rush, for sure, and not if you feel unsafe, and if you don't know how to do this, begin to learn; it'll be part of becoming the person who asked your question.
* (I'm going to assume that everybody who's ever posted in MetaTalk is happy that I didn't write "This." and went with "Yep." instead)

Unlike Poet_Lariet, I do give money to people on the street, not all the time and not a lot of money, twenty bucks at most, usually a couple of bucks, sometimes a five-spot. I do not have a lot of money but that is absolutely not true compared to the people I give to; I've been given so, so much, including just having been given lots of good luck, and to have bought my little place when I did, to have been born into the family I was born into, on and on.

What is it that I've learned about people on the street, how do I determine which person I will give to? Well, again, if I get a bums rush or feel unsafe, not much chance I'll give much, if any, but other than that I literally use the expression "As the spirit moves me." and give money when I feel moved to do so. It'd be very easy to say that and then be a scum-bag about it, and just never let the spirit move me, my ego taking the reins all the time, but I don't do that, try to err on the side of giving but mostly try not to err, and just follow my heart, which absolutely does tell me, a lot of the time.
posted by dancestoblue at 12:45 AM on September 25, 2011

Oh, and this is important too: even if I don't give them money IE when the spirit says "Um, nope." I still do engage them, look them in the eye, talk with them (not to them) treat them as the person that they are -- once he was loved by a mother, who knew he was going to end up where he has ended up? I owe him respect, I try to give it.
posted by dancestoblue at 1:02 AM on September 25, 2011

This is (one of) the great consequentialist mindfucks - if giving money to somebody will create more happiness for them than it will suffering for you, then you are morally required to give it, because you are morally required to seek the greatest good - that is, the greatest amount of happiness and the lowest level of suffering for as many people as possible. The trick is in calculating these units of happiness and suffering and comparing them, then adjusting those calculations to account for a myriad of variables - will giving the money make my wife happy or unhappy, and by how much? Will giving the poor person money make another poor person unhappy because they're now another rung down the ladder? What if I give the money to somebody who I think is poor, but overlook somebody poorer? Where does my moral responsibility for the consequences of my decision end? Can I really be held responsible if the economy crashes? - and so on, and so forth, ad infinitum, and almost certainly getting things wrong on the way.

This might lead you to argue that it's all too hard - or, as some in this thread have done, that if you can't save everybody, there's no point saving just a few people, so yeah, buy the Mac. This is a path fraught with moral hazards - 'hard' or 'imperfect' doesn't give you a moral get-out-of-jail free card.

There's no easy answer to your question - people much, much smarter than any of us make very persuasive arguments one way or another, and even die-hard utilitarians like Peter Singer make compromises (for example, rather than encouraging everybody to live a subsistence lifestyle, donating their money to help as many people as possible to do the same, he's settled for asking people to tithe - what, 20%? - because it's less to ask, and more likely to taken up by more people, resulting in a greater total of happiness than if just a few people give everything.)
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:27 AM on September 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I might just be stingy, but this idea about morality revolving around taking a worldwide view of economic injustice and living as if you were a variable in some altruistic-utilitarian calculation, never really seemed credible or meaningful to me. It's too abstract, and like the economically smart people in this thread have pointed out, it isn't even necessarily financially correct.

But still. I think your crisis is a real thing, not just some middle-class first-world-problem anxiety or whatever. The answer won't be found in a justification or rationalization for buying luxuries. It's more about looking deeply into your values and your dissatisfaction. Maybe it's more useful to think of your question as a more basic wish to deepen your moral aspiration, something that a religiously-inclined person would call a crisis of faith or something.

Given your username and the fact that I'm totally, completely sold on it, I'd recommend zazen meditation as a way to become more intimate with this kind of thing and maybe get closer to a heartfelt understanding of what morality means for you in the real experience of your daily life.

There's a verse chanted in some Zen monasteries first thing in the morning that goes:
Vast is the robe of liberation,
A formless field of benefaction.
I wear the Tathagata’s teaching,
Saving all sentient beings.
Can you dwell with your MacBook in a formless field of benefaction and use it skillfully to save all beings? Then your MacBook is your vast robe of liberation!
posted by mbrock at 10:44 AM on September 25, 2011

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