Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Anyone else game?

One of our group, Steve Barney, was so convinced and moved by our last book that he has taken Peter Singer up on his invitation to do something concrete to help create a "culture of giving."  Below is his pledge to give more to save lives, at some cost to his own enjoyment.  And he has invited us to ask from time to time how he's doing!  Thank you, Steve, for giving us an example.

I PLEDGE . . . that I will make a matching donation, approximately equal to the amount that I spend on nonessential luxury items over the remainder of this year, to an organization, or organizations, helping people throughout the world who live in extreme poverty by giving it to GiveWell ( for the sole purpose of re-granting it to some of their top charities, according to their next round of charity evaluation research, without using any of it for their own operating expenses.

Steve Barney
Oshkosh, WI
June 23, 2012

PS: By making this pledge public, I hope that I am, in my own small way, "creating a culture of giving" (title of chapter 5):

"The most important reason for pledging is that by doing so you help to change the culture of giving."...
--The Life You Can Save --

This is my self-imposed luxury or consumption tax, similar to one described in Singer’s book:

"Israel Shenker, founder and CEO of the Philadelphia-based real estate firm ISS Development, is happy to tell others about his standard. He matches everything he spends on discretionary items—vacations, a luxury car, a larger house than he needs—with a charitable donation of the same amount." ...
"Shenker’s standard is a self-imposed consumption tax—if you spend extravagantly, you will also be giving substantially. But much will depend on how strictly the category of "discretionary item" is interpreted: Remember that bottle of water. On the other hand, a consumption-related standard allows those who are reinvesting their income productively to live modestly and continue to do so. The very rich, though, should go beyond merely matching their philanthropy to their consumption."...  (The Life You Can Save, p. 160-161)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Let’s Hear It For the Arts

In Singer’s Chapter Nine – Asking Too Much? – he argues that if rescuing people from dying is the greatest good – more important than anything else one could do – then all of our resources (beyond the barest necessities of sustaining our own life) should, for us to be ethical, be given to efforts that save lives.  “My argument does imply that it is wrong to spend money on those things [gourmet food, music systems] when we could instead be using the money to save people’s lives and prevent great suffering.”   Later on that page 149, after the example of buying good stereo equipment, he asks, “Can it be ethical to live that way?”  His implied answer is surely “No.”

Likewise, he says, giving to the arts is, in our world, “morally dubious.” 

Singer, of course, does not think many people will live by his argument that any expenditures beyond our basic needs should be given to help the extremely poor.  He realizes that, in fact, few of us will.  He contents himself to challenging rich people to give away a mere 5% of their income, and the rest of us perhaps 1%.  His challenge is quite modest, and achievable. 

As compelling is his logic, and as informative are his statistics (about poverty and about the super-rich), however, it seems to me that he neglects the human need to create.  We do not stay alive merely to stay alive.  There is something within the human spirit that longs for beauty, for joy, for creativity – the arts.  The world, of course, could easily do both:  pay for amazing artistic activities, and save the dying too.   If only the rich would just spare the rest of the world some change.

For our part we can donate to efforts that seek to save lives. But we can’t do that if we neglect other parts of the soul – community, art, joy, leisure, rest.   A culture that neglected these, I think, would soon care little for the dying, or for each other either. 

Is it possible that a dying soul is as bad as a dying body?

Monday, June 4, 2012

A New Standard of Giving . . . New?

I had a great aunt who in 1901 sailed as a young single woman for Africa, headed for 70 years of missionary work – in health care, as she was a nurse.  There she met and married Emil, a young man who felt called of God to bring Christianity to that continent, who (while Marie kept the home fires burning, literally, and cared for their children and operated a clinic) would leave home for months at a time seeking out villages who had never heard of Jesus.

Their own children, once they were old enough for school, spent their formative years in missionary boarding schools, and in fact Marie and Emil didn’t attend any of their weddings, that being expensive (they had little money) and they were busy serving people, and offering salvation.   Marie and Emil left everything because they were convinced that their “higher calling” was to God, and indeed missionaries made great personal sacrifices because they believed that people would be lost eternally if they the missionaries did not warn them.

I see a similarity here to Singer’s argument that we who have so much should give up (nearly) everything we have in order to save as many people as possible -- not from spiritual death, but physical death.  Emil and Marie valued other people’s children as much as their own – because their worldview told them that people were lost without God.  And because God had called (commanded) them to give up everything to act on that belief.   Their motivation was twofold:  emotional (thinking about people lost forever, in hell, moved them to act, to save them from such a horrible fate) and rational/volitional (given what they believed about God and eternity, it made sense that they do everything possible to tell people about God’s love.  What is even a great sacrifice in this short life compared to eternal joys to come in the hereafter?)

Singer has made a careful, convincing, logical, argument about the need out there.   And that we who have much can give a whole lot more than we do without much of a personal sacrifice.  Logically speaking, how can I justify any expenditure beyond my most basic needs?  If my round of golf means one more person dies . . .   Logically, I’m had, aren’t I?  

But what of the emotional motivation needed?  Here is the harder part.   How do you feel badly about millions of people? Have can I care enough to do something – a lot, or anything -- about millions of needy?   Emil and Marie had the advantage of having the need constantly in front of them.  People dying all around you, in body or in spirit, would provide the emotion needed, although compassion fatigue is a hazard of any helping profession.  As for me, I have stories about poverty, and photographs . . . but doesn’t one become numb to the enormity of the need, even if it’s "only" on TV?

Wiser, more compassionate ones:  enlighten me!