Hunger and Hypocrisy

| November 24, 2009 | 15 Replies

Peter Singer offered this challenge in the Oct/Nov issue of Free Inquiry (not available on-line):

Imagine that you are walking through a park past a shallow ornamental pond, and you notice that a child has fallen into that pond and seems to be in danger of drowning. You look around for the parents or the babysitter, but there is no one in sight. What should you do?

Image by Timmy Brown at Flickr (creative commons)

Image by Timmy Brown at Flickr (creative commons)

Obviously, you should rush into the pond and save the life of the child. But wait a minute–you are wearing your most expensive shoes, and you don’t have time to kick them off. They will be ruined if you go into the pond with them on. Do your shoes make a difference in your decision? Everyone agrees that they don’t. You can’t let a pair of shoes mean more than a child’s life.

So how about giving just the cost of an expensive pair of shoes to an organization that is saving lives in developing countries? I don’t think it is any different than saving the child in the shallow pond. Yes, it is different psychologically but not morally. Distance doesn’t make someone’s life less valuable.

Singer’s implicit assumption is that your dollars are fungible. When you spend a dollar on a luxury, it is dollar that you could have spent to save the life of a dying child.  In other words, dollars don’t come pre-categorized such that some dollars can only be spent on luxuries.  You cannot escape this logic.  Therefore, If Jesus (or whatever God you might believe in) were watching, you closely, and you knew it, you couldn’t possibly pay $300 for a pair of shoes when perfectly adequate $100 shoes were also available and when you knew (as you always do know) that the other $200 could be used to save the lives of innocent children.

I get frustrated with those who think that the commandment “Do not kill” is not being violated by those who spend excessive money on fancy clothes, cars or houses (or buy any luxury) in the same world where children are dying every day and those deaths are preventable.

That said, I don’t think that “Do not kill” is a workable rule. It rings nicely to simple ears because it is phrased uncategorically, but we really need a new rule that recognizes that we are not exactly a nation of murderers when we buy a steady stream of unnecessary luxuries (especially at Christmas time), but it’s something like that when we completely unhinge our consciences from our wallets, which so many of us in sanctimonious American do almost every day.

I don’t really know how to articulate such a rule, but I do want to take this moment to recognize this undeniable fact as part of my “Life is Real” campaign:  Every day, most of us in American choose to buy things with dollars that could be used for saving the lives of real children.   That’s the way things are down here on planet Earth, and going around claiming that “Do not kill” only means don’t shoot or stab innocent people doesn’t change things one bit.

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Category: Altruism, American Culture, children, Food, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (15)

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  1. "The Christian ideal" as G.K. Chesterton noted, "has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried". Actually living in accordance with Christ's recommendations is close to impossible in a modern industrial society.

    Which is why so many alleged Christians find it easier to not even try and then simply claim that they do.

  2. Jay Fraz says:

    I think the problem is well outlined(indirectly) in this lovely free online book on "Authoritarianism". Bob Altemeyer offer a great deal of insight into "followers" and that includes church related peoples. I hate to be all promotional, but this is a really insightful book that will open your eyes on a lot of things…not to mention it is a free direct download.

    http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

  3. Tim Hogan says:

    I don't find human failure an excuse to bash Christianity. Sometimes the inter-connectedness of our human activity is something we are ignorant of or forget about in our daily lives. Thanks for the reminder!

    I have put myself to the task, and it is extremely difficult and puts your family at a strain. As a result my legal practice is a de facto non-profit organization, which we may no longer sustain.

    I'm now a soon-to- be 54 year old attorney who has supported himself and his family as a solo practitioner for nearly 20 years in search of more financially fullfilling employment.

    I don't see the future as one where I'm otherwise employed as one which means I'm less a Christian but, one where I'll be challenged to find other opportunities for expression of my faith through works. Faith without works is dead.

    Bashing Christians for being human and being sinners is an easy cheapshot. It is far better to say; be what you say you are, and God (or not) bless you!

  4. dog boy says:

    The *actual* commandment is Thou Shalt Not Murder, it was changed in the King James version. Killing and murdering are two different things.

    And, yes, the life of someone far away is less important than the life right next to you. Humans are tribal/pack animals. The fact that we invented a god and made up rules that contradict mean nothing. We focus on protecting those in our tribe and if need be at the expense of other tribes.

    Your comment I find an obnoxious irritant:

    "I get frustrated with those who think that the commandment “Do not kill” is not being violated by those who spend excessive money on fancy clothes, cars or houses (or buy any luxury) in the same world where children are dying every day and those deaths are preventable."

    The fact of the matter is that when a person spends their money they are not causing harm to some child in a third world country. Your correlation that they are is delusional at best, dangerous hyperbole at worst. Harm is not alleviated by people donating money or goods directly. Harm is alleviated by removing the objects that cause harm. Poverty is a symptom, and it's cause is always directly, and oft times very obviously, drawn to the government of the suffering.

    I think the naïve perspective you put forth is actually detrimental to your cause.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Dog Boy:

      I was raised as a Catholic and used the Catholic version of the commandment: "Thou shall not kill." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_commandments

      I know that it pisses you off to think that there is no moral holiday. You're not alone in this regard. I fully understand that you'd rather be left along to buy your fancy things, guilt free, while people die of poverty-related dangers (and they are strangers who are dying, not people you actually know). Rather than lashing out at me, though, consider this hypothetical:

      Your 5-year old brother is dying, and probably only has weeks to live. He needs a one-week prescription of medicine that costs $5,000 to cure him of his disease. Let's assume that his family (your parents and your younger siblings) can't afford $5,000. They can barely pay for their rent and food. You are fully aware of this situation. You are also living on your own, in your own luxury condo. Assume that, while your brother is dying, you come home to visit. You drive to your parent's house in your new $60,000 luxury car. At the dinner table you mention to the family (including your little brother) that you have just bought a $60,000 car "because it is cool." You ask how things are going. You family tells you that they are still desperately trying to get together $5,000 for the medicine that could still save your brother's life. You don't offer to help out. In fact, you then advise your family that you are about to put down $20,000 for an extended vacation overseas. You notice that your family is getting a quiet and emotionally hostile to you.

      You ask, "Hey, what's wrong with everyone? You all so emotionally distant."

      Your father explains to you that you are "an ass" because you are blowing money on luxuries when even a small part of what you are spending could save your brother's life.

      You get uppity with you father, and say: "The way I am spending my money is not causing harm to my brother."

      He doesn't buy this line of crap. You then snarl at your father, saying, "Your claim that my luxury expenses are causing my brother's death are delusional at best, dangerous hyperbole at worst." You then say "Harm is not alleviated by people donating money or goods directly. Harm is alleviated by removing the objects that cause harm. Poverty is a symptom, and it’s cause is always directly, and oft times very obviously, drawn to the government of the suffering." You then proceed to lecture your entire family that you have no obligation to help your dying brother and that they need to change their way of life such that poverty ceases to be a symptom, and you remind them that this could be a long-term project. Maybe a couple other of your siblings will die of poverty-related causes in the meantime. After finishing your meal, you get up to leave, reminding your family that your brother's death "Is not my problem."

      Two months later, your family dis-invites you to your brother's funeral. You shoot back a letter accusing all of them of having a "naive perspective."

      I'm curious how you'd react to this hypothetical. Maybe you'll argue that there's no problem spending lots of money on luxuries while your little brother dies of something that could be avoided if only you gave up a few luxuries. Or maybe you'll argue that, yes, one should help one's immediate family, but there's no obligation to help strangers. And then I'll be listening very closely to hear you explain why a stranger's life is less valuable than that of someone you know.

  5. Brynn Jacobs says:

    May I suggest a synthesis of your views? If I am understanding dog boy correctly, he seems to be arguing that there are structural problems which cause poverty. That seems indisputable to me, and many of those structural factors are at work in our own economy as well, as evidenced by the increasing inequality and poverty levels in the US. Erich seems to be arguing that we ought to do all that can be done to alleviate suffering in the world now, and that we are relatively privileged in the US.

    Both of these points are good, and deserve to be made. There's no reason why we can't all agree that we ought to pursue structural reforms of systems that create poverty and inequality, while simultaneously provided aid and comfort to those who are victimized by these systems.

  6. dog boy says:

    Eric – I'm sorry you were raised Catholic. You have my condolences. I've known many that were raised Catholic and survived to realize the fallacy of religion, especially that one. That, however, doesn't change what the text was actually written to mean. But that tidbit is an entirely different discussion on its own merit. I think a far better ethics systems to model other than anything from any Catechism, especially anything from Catholicism, is secular humanism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secular_Humanism).

    As to the points you made:

    Moral holiday? I assume you mean "absence of morals". No, I have no emotional attachment to the concept whatsoever. I am not "pissed off" at all. If you perceive my thoughts and perspective as "lashing out" then so be it; but it is not the case. I am very blunt, hold no punches, and many take that as a personal affront.

    Your example regarding "my brother" exemplifies the fact that you entirely missed one of my points. I'll reiterate what I said, "… the life of someone far away is less important than the life right next to you. Humans are tribal/pack animals… We focus on protecting those in our tribe and if need be at the expense of other tribes".

    You trying to emplace emotional distance or ethical ambiguity regarding my brother (in example) violates what I said. My point holds key that the life close to you is more important to you than the life of someone far away that you have never met, that is not part of your tribe. People will care for and protect their kin before they will care for or protect a stranger.

    That was my first point.

    My second point was that claiming that anyone spending money on themselves or their families is directly causing harm to others by the simple fact that their money could help a person in need is flatly wrong, misplaced, and egregious in all moral sense. The reason is that there is no direct action of causality. I buying a nice watch has nothing to do with the fact that a child starves in New Guinea. It also has nothing to do with the fact that a child starves in Bakersfield. The reason is that it is not a direct link and the two are not equal.

    I'll close by making nod to Brynn's post. He is correct. There is value in helping those in need, be it personal or societal. My entire point in this is not to rail against charity. The key reason that this suffering exists will not be alleviated by direct help. Any true champion for this will work to change the conditions that cause the suffering and not delude themselves that by throwing their money at someone in need they are helping. And they will not then try and make wrong those that either do not or choose a life-style that you personally find iniquitous.

    :-)

  7. Erich,

    I've been thinking about this since you posted it. There is a problem with your thesis, which makes sense on the face of it but has a moral problem.

    Of course you forego the expensive vacation and buy your brother his medicine. That's your choice and may even be your obligation.

    But to make the argument that to not do this, to go on the vacation (or buy the car or condo) is tantamount to murder reduces the equation to moral blackmail.

    The idea that we should all systemically do with less in order to alleviate suffering elsewhere while a worthy construction actually has the potential to eventually damage the ability to give.

    Let's put it this way—say I give X amount annually to alleviate hunger elsewhere, but I reserve to myself the ability to buy Gucci shoes and Armani suits and a Lamborghini. By what calculus would you assert that I am not giving "enough" and should forego the luxuries and give that money as well? If the goal is to reach a state where everyone can have enough and also treat themselves well, laying a guilt trip on me for treating myself well because what I do give to charity is by some standard insufficient means that I may not treat myself well as long as there are hungry people. Given that some hunger is unassailable due to local politics and the nature of international systems, there will never be a point at which I may treat myself well through no fault of my own. Which means no one will ever be there, because you can make that argument by steps all the way down the ladder. How dare the hetman in the next village buy ten extra cows when there are people 20 miles away who have no cows! The calculus is self-defeating and insoluble.

    And if the goal is to live well (however you define it) it seems ludicrous to say no one may live well until ALL can live well, because the same calculus can apply at all levels.

    Sorry, this is one argument I find insupportable. You may be correct in an absolutist sense, but you can only make that argument for yourself. Try to apply it to me and it's an overstepping of presumed authority.

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    I'm sensing that my post has gone awry. I'm not suggesting that one should never buy any of life's niceties. Nor am I suggesting that one should always sit around fretting about the people in far away lands who are suffering due to poverty.

    What I'm trying to do is to point out that the world is highly inter-connected, inconveniently so. That is the striking and undeniable consequence of the "dollars are fungible" idea. Those that should notice this interconnectivity the most are those who claim to live by simple rules. If you really believe that it's harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to make it to heaven, then "for God's sake" show it by giving away ALL of your money and fancy things to help the poor.

    I don't think these simplistic sorts of rules are workable, but many people nonetheless cling to them. Or rather, they CLAIM to cling to them while what they are really doing is cherry-picking the moments to invoke these rules. They apply their simple rules only when it is convenient. Help the poor? "You bet I will! Once a year, with a $25 contribution to Salvation Army! In the meantime, I'm making $500/month payments on my sports car." This is hypocrisy. It's hypocrisy even when I'm choosing to buy a $7 ticket to a movie when that $7 ticket can be sent overseas to save a life. But it's only hypocrisy to those who claim that they are bound by such simplistic rules.

    Instead of claiming to live by simple rules that are impossible to really follow, we ought to be formulating new rules that recognize that real-life morality is really a version of ecology. It's about living in ways that make sustainable sense. And yes, any respectable moral system should include the degree of empathy that compels us to choose to help others, rather than ourselves or our clan, on a regular basis. Therefore, respectable real life morality will of necessity be inconvenient.

    What I reject, even for those of us who scoff at simplistic rules of morality, is that we make life too convenient to ourselves by compartmentalizing the empathy, thus marginalizing the empathy. It's a matter of degree, of course, and thus my comment in the post that it will be an immense challenge to articulate a new meaningful version of rule-based morality.

    I think that people ought to have the guts to formulate, up front, rules that they are willing to follow, instead of hiding behind nice-sounding but unworkable "rules" that they choose to follow only sporadically. It's moral cowardice to claim be embracing rules that one follows only when convenient.

  9. Erich,

    I can agree with most of that now. The only thing I'd add, though, is a caution: it is one thing to claim that we need to stop compartmentalizing empathy (knowing as you recommend it that it can't be done) but we should realize that empathy unbound can drive you insane. Buffers are important lest we end up hermits in caves letting maggots feast on our flesh in shame for what we cannot do.

  10. rosa says:

    there is no way to know if that 200 dollars will ever help a starving child. to much fraud even in the charity organizations. people in this country donate billions to charities like these but yet children are still starving to death. obviously charity is not working either because it used as cover to get your money or because they are using the money in a wrong way. don't know for sure.

    ther is nothing wrong with spending your money on yourself, after all no one here that I know of caused the poverty in say africa or the phillipines or wherever. the problem of poverty is not a money problem it is a governmental problem. on both sides of the atlantic. you could just google world bank and poverty and you will see what I mean.

    all the money in the world won't reform corrupt governments, in fact money makes it worse. those people need real help, not money, tho it helps to some degree if they can actually get at it.

    corruption in gov/corporatons/banks are the problem not whether you spend your money on a 100 dollar pair of shoes or 200 dollars. it matters not to the poor on oppisites sides of the globe. personally I won't spend that kind of money on a pair of pointy, high heels shoes that kill your feet deforms them etc, but that is me not them.

    I am happy with my 40 dollar walking shoes. hate high heels anyway. I think they were invented by the rich to punish their wives and handicap them.

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