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.
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.