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Problems of Affluence in Morality

Do we have a duty to give to charity? Kevin Smith weighs up the possible responses to an ethical dilemma we’ve all faced at one time or another.

A letter arrives at your home. It is a mailshot from a respected Third World charity, asking you to donate a modest sum of money (say £100). The letter assures you that your donation will help save the life of at least one impoverished Third World child. Your first instinct is to send the money. However, before you even reach for your chequebook, you remember that you had been promising to treat yourself to a new jacket. Your old jacket is still serviceable, but its style has become rather outdated and the fabric is a bit threadbare. Thus, you now face a moral dilemma. Do you send your £100 to the Third World charity, and so save the life of an impoverished child, or do you spend your £100 on the relative luxury of a new jacket?

The above is an example of a common moral dilemma faced regularly by most people living in affluent nations. This case is one of many in a family of dilemmas encountered by those of us enjoying relatively affluent lives. What should we do in the face of this sort of moral problem?

One possible ‘solution’ is simply to ignore the problem. Applying this amoral response to the Mailshot case, you would spend your money on the jacket and give the matter no further thought. This approach has the ‘advantage’ of ducking any philosophical resolution of the dilemma. However, such avoidance is anathema to the philosophicallyminded, and should fail to satisfy any reflective person facing a similar dilemma.

What philosophically respectable responses may be made to this sort of dilemma? Two polar-opposite possibilities exist. The first is an egoistic response, in which the dilemma (although recognised) is deemed not to generate a moral obligation. The alternative is a philanthropic response: the dilemma is held to entail an absolute obligation, requiring us to do all we can to assist those in need.

Applying the egoistic response to the Mailshot case, you wouldn’t be criticised for choosing to spend your money on a new jacket. On the other hand, the egoistic response is not incompatible with the opposite action. From the egoistic perspective, you are morally free to choose either to make a ‘luxury’ purchase or to perform a morally praiseworthy but supererogatory act. ‘Supererogatory’ is a term originally from theology, for actions which aren’t morally required but which nonetheless win you moral brownie points if you perform them. It means “over and above what is asked.”

The philanthropic response, by contrast, holds that you are morally obliged to send money to the good cause. Thus, to spend your money on a new jacket would be reprehensible.

To make progress, we need to ask: pitted against each other, which does best philosophically, egoism or philanthropy? Alternatively, it may be that we ought to reject both extremes and opt instead for an intermediate position. I shall come back to this possibility later. Meanwhile, however, it would be wrong to reject either egoism or philanthropy simply because they are extremes. Plenty of philosophers have argued for undiluted egoism or undiluted philanthropy as guides to moral action.

The Egoistic Response

What is the ethical basis of the egoistic response? In other words, what differentiates it from the amoral response? Two possibilities are (a) rights, and (b) the idea of best consequences. According to (a), you have a moral entitlement to behave in a particular way. Applying this to the Mailshot, you could simply invoke the (commonly held) ‘right’ to spend one’s own money as one pleases. Possibility (b) is a form of ethical egoism: the notion that the World would be a better place if each of us pursued our own, agent-centred projects.

As attempted justifications of the egoistic response, rights and ethical egoism have some intuitive appeal. We (in the West at least) are heavily steeped in the language of rights, so that various rights are often claimed reflexively (the ‘right to life’, the ‘right to freedom’, etc). Thus, we find it easy to justify our actions in these terms. Similarly, ethical egoism attracts us because most people feel naturally inclined to behave in a self-interested manner. Moreover, history holds many examples of selfless ‘moral’ behaviour leading to very negative consequences (for example the Crusades), suggesting that it may be best if people mind their own business instead of attempting to improve the World.

Although rights and ethical egoism appear seductive, these notions face powerful objections. For rights, a damning objection is lack of foundation. In the Mailshot, the agent might invoke the right to spend one’s own money as one pleases. But how can this right be justified? Is it possible to justify it? Perhaps so, but a justification is not immediately obvious, nor could it be an inherent part of the right itself. If it is permissible to claim a right in the absence of any explicit foundation for that right, then there is nothing to stop a counterclaim being made. In the Mailshot example, the charity could reasonably claim that impoverished children have the right to receive assistance from affluent persons. In other words, the language of rights can be used either to support or to oppose the egoistic response. I therefore conclude that an appeal to rights fails in the present context.

What about ethical egoism? Consider the following case:

The Pond

You are walking through a quiet park when you hear a young child’s cries. They are coming from an ornamental pond; a child has fallen in and cannot swim. There is no one else nearby to help. You have two options: (a) wade in and save the child, ruining your clothes in the process, or (b) walk away and let the child drown, thus sparing your clothes. What do you do?

For the ethical egoist, the altruistic option (a) would be supererogatory, so you would be morally entitled to select the non-altruistic option (b). This conflicts very sharply with our common intuitions: normal persons feel very strongly that you are morally obliged to save the child, and that not to do so would be monstrous. Further reflection is bound to support this intuitive response: leaving the child to drown in order to preserve your clothes certainly does not bring about the best consequences. Cases such as this rout socalled ethical egoism as a moral doctrine, so it can do nothing to support the egoistic response.

Stripped of its alleged ethical justification, the egoistic response to dilemmas such as the Mailshot isn’t philosophically sustainable.

The Philanthropic Response

The polar opposite of the egoistic response is the philanthropic response. What are its prospects? At first sight, philanthropy produces morally good outcomes. This clearly holds with the Mailshot and the Pond. However, this truism is clouded by a serious difficulty. The problem is one of psychological incompatibility: as the basis of decision-making, philanthropy implies total altruism, a mode of conduct irreconcilable with our natural self-regarding behaviour.

The altruism entailed by the philanthropic response demands nothing less than the donation of all the agent’s available resources to good causes. Logically, this altruism stops only at the point at which the agent’s income-generating potential is threatened. For example, you ought to purchase all your clothes from jumble sales in order to donate the money saved to charity. However, you should not economise (too much) on soap, since excessive body odour may cost your job and thus reduce the amount of your money available for good causes.

Such self-abnegating altruism directly threatens the psychological wellbeing of the agent. In the Mailshot case, the philanthropic response implies that spending money on the jacket is morally reprehensible, akin to leaving a child to drown, essentially a form of murder. Yet, it is a fact that most if not all people in the affluent West spend money on nonessential goods for themselves, instead of using it to save Third World children. An adherent of philanthropy would therefore be obliged to view family, friends and colleagues as murderers. Clearly, this view of the moral status of fellow humans represents a huge threat to the agent’s psychological integrity. Further, being seriously out of step with society’s normal range of fundamental values, the philanthropist risks becoming an outcast. Indeed, any person aspiring to a life of total altruism would do well to consider whether such unusual behaviour might not be a form of madness.

In considering the extent of the demands entailed by philanthropy, there is good reason to believe that even donating all one’s resources to good causes may be insufficient. We need to ask: are there any natural limits to the demands of total altruism? Consider:

The Offer

A sadistic but very rich businessperson makes you an interesting offer. A large sum of money, enough to save and transform the lives of several hundred desperately impoverished children, will be sent to a respected Third World charity – but only if you agree to a ‘forfeit’. The forfeit is that you submit yourself to six weeks of continual torture at the hands of the businessperson. For this purpose, the businessperson will use an electric shock machine guaranteed to inflict on you the severest pain imaginable. What do you do?

If you adopt the philanthropic response, you are morally obliged to accept the sadist’s offer! Of course, it may be that you aren’t brave enough to do so, but the fact remains that if you can accept the offer, then philanthropy dictates that you ought to do so. I think that most people would agree, intuitively and upon reflection, that the unlimited moral demands entailed by total altruism, as exemplified in this case, are so extreme as to expose the philanthropic response for what it is: an inherently repugnant morality.

Unsuccessful Claims to a Middle Ground

From the above, it appears that we ought to reject both extremes and opt instead for some intermediate position between the purely egoistic and the absolutely altruistic. This middle ground, however, is elusive. The problem is that the (necessary) rejection of the egoistic response yields the corollary that there must be some duties (as opposed to supererogatory acts) required from the affluent to aid the desperately poor. So what are they?

I believe that certain supposed solutions are clearly inadequate. Some philosophers think that one’s duty is limited to not causing harm; thus, any positive actions to help people are supererogatory. According to this doctrine, you have (for example) a duty not to steal, but no obligation to give money to save starving Third World children. However, this doctrine can be rejected by an appeal to cases such as the Pond. Merely not causing harm allows the agent to view saving the drowning child as a supererogatory option, but of course this is not what most of us believe.

Another supposed solution is the appeal to distance. In other words, we have duties to aid only those who are physically or geographically close to us. This doctrine obligates the agent to assist in the Pond case, but not in the Mailshot. But why give moral weight to mere distance? Certainly, the onus is on distance proponents to provide convincing arguments that distance matters. I know of no such arguments.

Searching for the Middle Ground

Is it possible to find a middle ground between egoism and philanthropy? A negative answer would be philosophically and emotionally depressing. Philosophical depression would arise from an admission that, despite rejecting two polar opposite positions, no ‘third way’ could be found. Emotional depression would come from the failure to see a means to translate natural compassion into practical action to aid seriously impoverished people.

I believe that an effective middle ground does exist. To establish it, we need to ask ourselves two questions. First, what are the purposes of morality? Second, what restrictions are there on our ability to act morally? With answers to these questions, it should be possible to match moral purposes with a realistic notion of human psychology.

By way of an answer to the first question, concerning the purposes of morality, I suggest that morality should: (a) make the agent a better person, (b) directly improve the wellbeing of the World’s inhabitants, and (c) self-perpetuate.

Purpose (a) is axiomatically part of any successful system of morality. I shall say nothing further about (a), except to note that both the egoistic response and the philanthropic response may not necessarily fulfil this agent-improving criterion.

Purpose (b) contains the philosophically contentious notion of ‘wellbeing’. However, in the present context, there is no need to waste time debating the meaning of ‘wellbeing’, because it is usually very easy to see how the desperately poor may be assisted. By anyone’s standards, alleviation of Third World poverty will raise the level of wellbeing in the World.

In contrast to Purposes (a) and (b), Purpose (c) is not directly concerned with improving persons or their lives. Instead, the purpose of (c) is to self-perpetuate morality itself. Thus, an effective system of morality should contain within it the means to allow itself to spread throughout society. Of course, such a ‘reproducing’ moral system may not successfully reach and transform all sectors of society. Nevertheless, unless it has some ability to spread amongst persons, an otherwise workable moral system will be a non-starter.

I turn now to the second broad question, concerning restrictions on our ability to act morally. I have suggested that the overwhelming majority of people are not able to conform to the demands of philanthropy. A plausible explanation of this inability is the existence of key features of our inherent nature as human beings. I propose the following features as relevant: (a) we are motivated by a desire for happiness; (b) in the absence of happiness we lose our motivation; (c) to be happy, we require freedom to pursue our own (agentcentred/ kin-centred) projects; (d) to be happy, we must have normal relationships with family and friends; and (e) to be happy, we must be accepted members of society.

I propose that the existence of such features serves to limit our scope for moral action, and that attempts to ignore these natural features are bound to lead to personal unhappiness, which in turn will reduce our motivation to act morally. I invite the reader to reflect on these propositions: I believe they are self-evidently true. Of course, a counter-argument is possible on the premise that, although such human features do exist, they are not part of our inherent nature. However, such a denial would fly in the face of current neuropsychology and evolutionary theory.

Realistic Personal Morality

It is commonly held that “each person’s morality is a matter for themselves”, or that “there are as many valid moral positions as there are individuals”. This view is called moral relativism, and it does nothing to solve moral dilemmas because it provides no guide for individuals to choose between alternative actions or systems. However, I suggest that there is a grain of truth in the view that each person’s morality is unique. I refer here to features (a-e) above: the ways in which these features operate will differ between individuals. In the Mailshot case, it may be that your partner will be genuinely upset if you become a scruff by not buying a new jacket, and a few more similar decisions on your part may lead to divorce, causing you much unhappiness. I, by contrast, may be a single person who also happens to be not greatly bothered with my appearance. Thus, the happinesslimited restrictions on moral activity operate differently for you and me.

Therefore, an effective moral system must entail differential behaviours on the parts of different individuals. From this, I suggest that moral deliberations need tailored to match the agent’s personality and relationships. However, such deliberations, if the outcomes are not to be amoral, immoral or generative of guilt and unhappiness, must be systematic and based on valid moral principles. To this end, I propose the following principles, as a moral system.

To the potential moral agent:

1. Determine the quantity of resources (money and time) you need in order to fulfil features (a-e) above;

2. Use any remaining resources for good causes;

3. At intervals (each year say) reappraise (1) above, with the aim of gradually increasing the resources you allocate to good causes;

4. When you have decided the extent of your moral commitment, do not agonize about particular requests for aid;

5. Look for ‘best options’ in personal expenditure (e.g. choose ‘fair traded’ goods, invest ethically);

6. Judge morally relevant behaviour on (a) its motivational basis, (b) its likely consequences (for wellbeing), and (c) the difficulty entailed;

7. Endeavour to develop virtuous personality attributes (courage, stoicism, kindness, etc.);

8. Behave so as to increase the likelihood that others may choose to adopt your (moral) behaviour.

Principle No.8 is crucially important. It comes from the self-perpetuation purpose of morality. I suggest that this principle operates at two levels, one deliberate, the other automatic. The deliberate level enjoins the individual (a) to explain to others the merits of a moral life, and (b) to act in such a way as to make a moral life appear socially desirable. Activity (a) requires great caution, in view of the counterproductive nature of proselytising. By contrast, (b) has to become an inherent part of the agent’s life. For example, although choosing one’s wardrobe from jumble sales would save money (for good causes), this should be avoided if it would cause the agent’s appearance to become a poor advert for a moral life.

As humans, we tend to recognise and be drawn to genuinely happy individuals. Crucially, we also tend, consciously and unconsciously, to adopt some of the behaviours and values of happy individuals. Thus, as moral agents we have good reason (beyond the need to maintain our personal motivation) to ensure that our moral decisions do not cause us to become unhappy.

I have proposed a system of realistic personal morality based on the individualistic enterprise of matching moral purposes with a realistic notion of human psychology, within a systematic framework of principles. My claim is that this approach represents an effective ‘middle ground’ solution to dilemmas such as the Mailshot. I shall conclude by considering the practical operation of this moral system.

Mailshot Revisited

Consider two individuals, Alex and Barbara. Alex only gives to needy causes when a collecting tin is rattled directly under his nose. He devotes none of his free time to good causes. When he receives the Mailshot, he ignores the letter and spends his money on a jacket.

When Barbara receives the same letter, she also spends her money on a jacket. However, Barbara lives her life in accordance with my suggested moral system. Thus, she has a direct debit paying a monthly sum to Oxfam. She also sponsors a poor child in Africa and regularly writes mercy letters on behalf of Amnesty International.

What moral judgements may be passed on Alex’s and Barbara’s behaviour in the Mailshot case? I suggest that Alex’s decision to buy the jacket is wrong: not monstrously wrong, simply one of many mildly reprehensible decisions in a typical affluent life. By contrast, Barbara has taken steps to live a morally decent life. Given this context, I suggest that Barbara’s decision to purchase the jacket is a morally acceptable act of self-interest.

I close this discussion with a question for the affluent reader. In real-life moral dilemmas such as the Mailshot, how well does your behaviour measure up to the demands of morality?

© Kevin R. Smith 2002

Kevin Smith teaches at Abertay University, Dundee. His interests include the ethics of genetic manipulation and medical ethics.

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