Money — a moral issue?

Do you think about how you spend your money? Do you think about how your spending affects others? Should you spend money on others? What do we owe others, assuming we owe them anything?

How we answer these questions will inevitably vary, but I find that many Americans — including myself, until recently — have simple ways of answering. They usually include phrases like, “I owe you nothing, you owe me nothing”, “Don’t tread on me”, and “Just leave me alone”. These answers aren’t wrong; rather, they are too quick — too unappreciative of the type of world we live in. Yes, independence is a crucial value to have, but in our rapidly growing world, we must become more aware of our interconnectedness, and interdependence.

Drawing by Peter Jellitsch.

When I was a student, I worked hard, and worked on my own. I rarely partnered up with people for study sessions. I lead the way when it came to group projects. I listened to others when they had problems in their school or personal life. I even managed to graduate Magna Cum Laude, with two degrees under my belt. Does all of this mean I’m an “independent person”? Absolutely not. I relied on my parents for financial help, my friends and family for fun, and my teachers for my education. Everything I have, I owe both to myself and to others. In the midst of adopting this mind-set, I came across one of the most powerful and intellectually convincing essays I’ve ever read: Peter Singer’s “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, which provides a Utilitarian perspective on how we should spend our money.

To provide a quick and messy background, Singer is what we philosophy-nerds call a utilitarian. Utilitarians believes that morality is about producing the most amount of happiness — or contentment, pleasure, et cetera — for the most amount of people. What is ethical, in a Utilitarian framework, depends on the consequences or outcomes of a moral dilemma. For example, a utilitarian probably wouldn’t agree with the statement: “Killing is never ever acceptable, no matter what the circumstances”. It depends, they would say.

So then, what’s all this talk about maximizing happiness have to do with money? Well, Singer tells us by summing up his piece “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”:

If you are like me, then your reaction to this video — at least on an intellectual level — should have been fairly dramatic. As silly and sheltered as it may sound, I had never thought about how I spent my money until I read Singer’s work. Sure, I thought about saving money up for different things, or how I should plan for later life, but never how my spending — indeed, all of my behavior — may fail to help my fellow-man. I would pass homeless people without giving them money, and justify it by thinking, “they want to be homeless”, or, “they aren’t starving”. (There is some truth to these two thoughts, after all). However, trying to justify my lack of donating to charities wasn’t so easy. What could I possibly tell myself, knowing that only a few dollars might help save a child’s life? The answer? Nothing. There isn’t a thing that can justify my lack of donations. The myriad of justifications I’ve heard for not donating to charity always sound tired, unconvincing, and ill-reasoned.

Many respond to Singer’s views by saying that they deserve to keep all of their money, and no one has the right to tell them otherwise. I’m not sure about this. Even if you legitimately worked for everything you have, couldn’t some of it be used to help others? Is it ethical to keep all of your money, never donating a dime? Some claim they don’t donate to charities because of their inefficiency. But, honestly, how inefficient must they be to stop you from donating? Even if 99% of a charity’s donations are wasted, that still means 1% could be used to help those desperately in need.  Isn’t donating worth it, even if one hundred dollars are lost for every one dollar spent? The only real justification I see for “failing to help”, is if you are already helping as much as you can. I know that not everyone has money to spare. The overwhelming majority of people have expenses in their lives that have to be dealt with before they can consider charity. However, for the minority wasting money on vacation cruises, overtly expensive food, and excessive fashion, there is no excuse.

Where does that leave me? Ethics is about applying standards to yourself — not just others. Since familiarizing myself with Singer’s work, I’ve started donating to both homeless people and charities, though in small amounts. My income doesn’t allow me to donate anything substantial — though that may be what I tell myself to feel better. I think Singer’s position is correct, but I don’t think we should expect anyone to donate every bit of surplus they have, leading some sort of ascetic lifestyle. I’m much more devoted to pragmatism than to utilitarianism, and I think that people should try to do their best. Singer himself admits that he could be doing a lot more, based on his level of income. Given the average American’s level of income, it is likely that we can help out others and purchase many of the things that make us happy. We may even end up consuming less, which would be beneficial to everyone. Personally, I’ll be saving up for these nifty headphones, but I’ll also be donating some money, where I can, and when I can.

Ending the post with these pretty headphones seemed less depressing than a picture of a homeless person.

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6 thoughts on “Money — a moral issue?

  1. Homa says:

    Well written and to the point. I think, as I get older, that my charity has changed in that I give closer to home than I used to. I wonder if I am doing that to benefit myself through the community or if it just is a function of knowing more needy folks in town?

    Found you via your brother, by the way. 🙂

    • jandrewhickey says:

      I was debating whether or not I should get into helping those closest to you vs. helping strangers that are more in need, but I think I’ll leave that topic for a later post.

      I think there is definitely some intuitive justification about giving to those around you. We all want to see our communities, (and our families), do well. There is definitely a psychological factor in helping those close to us — for whatever reason, they feel more “real”, and more immediate.

      If you are interested, Kwame Anthony Appiah talks about this a lot in reference to his views on Cosmopolitanism:

      He ends the video very nicely.

      Thanks for reading, it is very appreciated.

      Oh, and your site is quite nice too. :]

  2. H.E. Archer says:

    well written and, as a Canadian living in the US, hits close to home. very inspiring 🙂

    • jandrewhickey says:

      Thank you. Even if it only helps a handful — or even myself — to be more charitable, I think it is worth it.

  3. Ivan says:

    Yep, there’s no way around Singer’s point. I usually articulate it in terms of opportunity cost: every dollar you spend on yourself (e.g. “the price of a pair of shoes”) could instead be given to those in need (e.g. through Oxfam or UNICEF). That’s simply reality. Sure, we all draw lines somewhere, and most of us draw them far short of asceticism. But the underlying realities of global poverty, Western wealth, and opportunity costs never change, and we’re only deceiving ourselves if we forget about them.

  4. Jean says:

    “Giving” of oneself, is also wanting to learn about one’s world and beyond. That helps sometimes, where money that we donate or want to donate, where it can go.

    The hard reality is that one does tend to look out for themselves as one become more frail…no one else will be necessarily around to know us well and advocate for us.

    On a different tack ….

    so I could have fired off some electronic Christmas cards to close friends. It’s nearly free. But I chose to send some real cards in the mail, but only to a few close friends and family. I was willing to spend abit of stamp and card money because I know they want to hear from me and MAYBE put the card on their mantlepiece. I know if they didn’t get something, they would notice…even worry about me. (No kiddin’…but that’s kind of nice in a way for loved ones far away.)

    A virtual card,…is well disposable very fast.

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