Morality and Distance, Part I

"Put a child's life and health on one side of the scale, and our yearning for flat-screen pleasures on the other--then decide, which matters more?"

Graphic design with two faces looking in opposite directions

To Give or Not to Give

Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.
John the Baptist, Luke 3:11

Loving thy neighbor isn’t as easy as it used to be. Not that it was ever easy, but until fairly recently it could at least be said that the scope of the commandment was more or less manageable. To illustrate its practical implications—what the commandment meant in terms of action—Jesus told his listeners a story. A Samaritan, walking to Jericho, came upon a man who had been beaten and robbed. The Samaritan treated his wounds, then took him to an inn and paid the costs while the man recovered. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus concluded.

But suppose the story didn’t end there. Suppose that as soon as the Samaritan got back on the road, he encountered someone else who needed help—another victim of robbers, perhaps, or someone who’d had an accident or was ill or malnourished, or was a refugee from a war zone. What would the Samaritan do then? Let’s assume he’d respond in a similar fashion, helping the victim, providing for his needs. But now suppose that upon leaving the inn a second time, he immediately saw someone else in urgent need of assistance—and not just one person but another and another and another, as far as the eye could see, a line of suffering souls that was, for all practical purposes, endless. What would our good Samaritan do now? What would Jesus tell his listeners to do if confronted not with a single victim, but with a tidal wave of human anguish? Is our responsibility to care for others as limitless as the number of people we could help?

That, I think, is the dilemma we face today. The world has always been teeming with desperate people, but what has changed is the power that each of us has to help. For most of human history, there was nothing an individual could do about starving people half a world away. Today there is. The story of the good Samaritan suggests that we should help those who fall within our sphere of influence; but today hundreds of millions of impoverished people are within our sphere of influence. Three factors in particular—our unprecedented awareness of worldwide distress, the proliferation of international charitable organizations, and the capacity of most persons in the developed world to make significant contributions to such organizations—have generated moral questions our ancestors never faced.

Over the last century the subject matter of ethical inquiry has undergone a fundamental augmentation. To the ancient question—how should we treat the people around us?—has been added a new, and peculiarly modern, one: how should we treat people we’ll never see, never meet, never come into contact with? Morality has always concerned itself with how we should behave as members of a community; the problem now is that our “community”—the people we know about and can help—is seven billion and growing, a fact that suggests a radically expanded notion of moral responsibility. It’s not clear whether the old moral guideposts can help us find our way in this new moral universe.

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Nothing stirs our Samaritan impulses like the sight of a suffering child. Every day, around the world, thousands of children under the age of five die from preventable causes. For thousands of infants and toddlers and preschoolers around the globe, today will be their date of death. Thousands of little kids who were alive when you woke up this morning will be dead by the time you go to bed. Thousands more died yesterday, thousands more will die tomorrow. Thousands a day, millions a year. And it could be different. If they had things we take for granted, it would be different. Immunizations. Antibiotics. Clean water. Sanitation systems. Basic health services for pregnant women and newborns. Food.

Many of these kids are severely malnourished. They’re hungry all the time. They suffer from acute deficiencies of vitamins and minerals. Their bodies are wasting away; their organs are shutting down. Their hearts contract, their brains falter. We know how they look; we’ve seen the images. Emaciated children who can no longer stand. Kids who weigh only half as much as they should. Skeletal ribs covered with translucent skin. Sunken eyes that have no sparkle. Bellies like inflated balloons.

Malnutrition leaves these kids with broken-down immune systems. Diseases creep in, pneumonia being the deadliest. Pneumococcal bacteria take over a child’s lungs. His lungs become inflamed; they fill with fluid. Antibiotics would be a godsend, but none are available. The boy is feverish, he’s burning up. His breathing becomes thick and labored. The terrible sound of a child’s cough fills every corner of his small home. It tears your heart out. He dies.

For another child, maybe it’s not pneumonia, maybe it’s diarrhea, the second-biggest killer. The local water source is contaminated. A child gets an intestinal infection and becomes dehydrated. A low-cost oral rehydration solution could save her, but it’s not available either. Her face becomes flushed, her tongue is dry, she’s breathing rapidly. She goes into convulsions. Her blood pressure plunges so low it’s not even detectable. Her heart stops. She dies.

The anguish of the world’s children weighs heavily upon those whose eyes and hearts are open. What should the comfortable do for the suffering? Consider the most widely accepted of all moral precepts: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In the context of everyday life, the applications of this precept are usually clear: don’t hurt other people; treat them with respect; help them when they need it—in short, treat them the way you’d like to be treated if you were in their position. But how does this apply to the global village? Knowing that hundreds of millions of people around the world are sick and hungry, how should I, a middle-class member of an affluent society, respond? I can, if I choose, make substantial contributions to organizations that provide food and medicine to those in need. If our situations were reversed—if I were in distress and other people were able to help—I hope that they would. But if, instead, I do nothing, am I not violating the most basic moral precept, one we all say we believe in?

But how far do the demands of this precept go? Right now I’m thinking about buying a new TV. The one that our family has is a bit dated. Today’s TVs have bigger screens, sharper images, and expanded functions. The one we’ve got—well, it works, we’re not suffering exactly, but it would be nice to rejoin the modern world. On the other hand, a new TV would cost hundreds of dollars, and I know that if, instead, I send this money to Doctors Without Borders, they’d use it to get vaccines and antibiotics to kids in the developing world. Which is more important, I ask myself, that my family has a new toy, or that a number of kids in India or Nigeria are spared the ravages of pneumonia and diarrhea and malaria? Put a child’s life and health on one side of the scale, and my yearning for flat-screen pleasures on the other—then decide, which matters more? Which side of the scale holds something of great value—and which, by comparison, seems utterly trivial? So I tell myself, put your money where it’s really needed. Not just wanted. Needed. Do what you’d want someone else to do for you if you were in a bad way. Forget the TV.

The problem, though, is that the number of people who need my help is never-ending, and the same line of reasoning could be applied to any purchase that isn’t essential in meeting my basic needs. If I am to treat the most vulnerable among us the way I’d like to be treated in their situation, then instead of taking a vacation or remodeling the kitchen, I should use that money to help those whose needs are greatest. If I adhere to the principle that is implicit here—that I should use my resources to meet the basic needs of others before buying things for myself that I don’t really need—I’ll end up leading a stripped-down, nearly ascetic life, but (and here’s the tradeoff) the lives of countless people I’ll never meet will be immeasurably improved.

If I really take the suffering of others to heart, if I want to help as many people as I can, I must lead a life of radical sacrifice. By contemporary American standards, my wife and our daughter and I are a middle-class family, with a household income in the forties; but compared to billions of people around the world, we have enormous wealth, much of which could be used to help others. We could begin by selling some of our assets, then use the money to provide food and medical care to those in need. For example, we could sell one of our vehicles, then I could start walking to work (this would not only provide immediate funds but also save a lot of money each year on insurance, gas, and maintenance); we could sell the twenty acres we own in the mountains, including the cabin my wife and I have spent years building by hand; and we could stop spending money on travel and entertainment and home improvements—and the money thus generated (maybe $70,000 initially), could save hundreds of lives. Indeed, our failure to do this, our determination to cling to our comforts and pleasures while millions of children a year die from preventable causes, shows how self-indulgent, how self-absorbed, we really are.

“The ocean is full of drowning kids, thrashing to keep their heads above water, and meanwhile you’re sitting in your lounge chair on the sun-baked beach, sipping your margarita, doing nothing.”

Today we all have the power to use our money and our possessions to save human lives. We can use our resources to provide comforts and pleasures for ourselves and our families, or we can use them to reduce needless suffering and premature death. Whether to spend our money on ourselves, for hobbies and diversions and home decorating, or on food and water and medicine for those in great need, is a choice we make every day. Anyone who aspires to lead a moral life must confront a hard truth: in an economically interconnected world, every expenditure of money represents a moral choice.

To frame the issue as John the Baptist did, each of us has the monetary equivalent of hundreds, if not thousands, of coats—while millions of our neighbors have none. It is a profound inequity that both violates and challenges our sense of fairness. The distribution of bounty among the people of the world is to a large degree based neither on need nor on merit but on luck—the happenstance of birth. Those of us who have received more than we need should share the excess with those who have received less.

As compelling as I find this argument, I am reluctant to yield to its demands. It provokes in me an internal debate, though I’m not sure whether the objections I raise constitute sound counter-arguments or self-serving rationalizations.

My self: Sure, I give money to charity—maybe twenty bucks here, thirty bucks there. But there are a million things that my wife and our daughter and I want that we can’t afford as it is, so we can’t be giving a lot of money away. Besides, the money we have, we’ve earned, and we have a right to spend it on ourselves.

My conscience: Of course the money is yours, and you have a legal right to spend it as you choose, but the question is whether certain ways of spending it are in keeping with your moral beliefs. You believe we should help our neighbors, don’t you?

Self: Yeah, of course.

Conscience: And especially, we should help those who are in desperate circumstances?

Self: Sure, when we can.

Conscience: But what does that mean, when we can? Let’s look at a specific example.  Last summer you took your daughter to a baseball game, and by the time you paid for tickets and parking and snacks and a program, you had spent a hundred dollars. But if, instead of going to the game, you had sent the money to UNICEF, they could have purchased enough vaccines to immunize three or four kids against the deadliest childhood diseases. That’s an example of where you could have helped others, could have protected some children from sickness and even death, but chose not to.

Self: But we didn’t want to send the money to UNICEF; we wanted to go to a game. My daughter loves baseball, but she hadn’t been to a major league game in over ten years, and she was really excited about going. I don’t see anything wrong with that. In fact, I think doing something fun with your daughter is a good thing.

Conscience: Let me ask you this. Suppose you had only enough money to do one of two things: either take your daughter to a game or have her immunized against a potentially lethal disease. Which would you do?

Self: Obviously, I’d have her immunized.

Conscience: Why?

Self: Because her health is more important than a ballgame.

Conscience: But if your daughter’s health is more important than a ballgame, isn’t the health of several children much more important than a ballgame?

Self: But they aren’t my children—that’s the difference. I’m responsible for my daughter; I’m not responsible for everyone else’s kids.

Conscience: Suppose you were relaxing at the beach one day, and you saw a child drowning and thought you might be able to save her. Would you say, “I’m sorry, but I’m not responsible for other people’s kids,” and go back to reading your book, or would you do everything you could to save her?

Self: Of course I’d try to save her.

Conscience: So why aren’t you doing that? Today the ocean is full of drowning kids, it’s thick with small bodies thrashing to keep their heads above water, and meanwhile you’re sitting in your lounge chair on the sun-baked beach, sipping your margarita, doing nothing. If there’s a child whose life is in danger, and you’re in a position to help, how can you not do that?

Self: But that’s the problem—it’s not just one kid. According to you, there are millions of children in that situation. So any time I buy anything for myself or my wife or our daughter, anything that isn’t essential to life or limb, you can whip out a conversion table and say, “If you’d sent the money to UNICEF instead, you could have saved x number of lives.” If I used all my money to try to save people’s lives, it would mean not just no more ballgames but no more movies, no more travel, no more entertainment, no more fun.

Conscience: You want fun? Go to a park, go to the library, go to a free concert. It’s not entertainment per se that I object to; it’s spending money on entertainment while your neighbors are dying by the truckload for want of that very money.

Self: You’re asking me to meet the basic needs of everyone else before I satisfy any nonessential desires of my own—which basically means I’d never spend anything on myself. I’d never reach a stopping point, never reach a point where I could say, “There! I’ve given enough!” It’s not that you want me to be generous; you want me to be selfless, literally: you want me to eradicate my self, give up everything I care about. You want to turn me into a contributing machine, a conduit for the needs of others; you want me to be the sacrificial lamb for your utilitarian imperative. But I matter too. I’m not just an instrument for the reduction of worldwide suffering. I want to keep our place in the country, the cabin my wife and I designed and built—that matters to me. I want our daughter to go to the college she dreams about, I want her to believe that she can get what she reaches for—that matters to me. Maybe those things seem unimportant to you, maybe they don’t count for much in the calculus of worldwide suffering, but they matter to me.

Conscience: But how much do they matter, how much are they worth? You always have to weigh what you’re doing or what you’re buying against what you could be doing or buying. Whenever you spend money, you’re choosing to use it for that thing rather than all the other things you could have used it for. Right now, thousands of children around the world are lying on their deathbeds, children who will never make it to the age of five. Thousands of them will die today, thousands more tomorrow. They’ll die because they’re malnourished or dehydrated, or they’ll die of pneumonia or they’ll die of malaria, but mostly they’ll die of neglect. They’ll die because the people in this world who have money won’t give them enough for food and water and antibiotics and vaccines. It’s not our problem, we say, it’s not our fault, so instead we hold on to our precious possessions and we pour our money into bigger homes and newer cars and the latest technological toys, because those are the things that matter to us. The suffering of our fellow human beings is way, way down on our list of priorities; our cable TV package matters more to us than the deaths of impoverished children.

Self: But there’s no limit to what you want me to give, no limit to the self-denial you ask me to endure. If I want to go out to dinner, you tell me to stay home and eat rice instead, then use the money I save to help premature babies in Zimbabwe. If I want to live in a nice home, you tell me to find something cheaper, then use the savings to help people living in the slums of Nairobi. If we want to send our daughter to college, you say, “Are you kidding? That’s tens of thousands of dollars.  For the same money you could provide the medical care needed to save hundreds of lives. What’s more important, that another affluent American kid goes to college, or that hundreds of kids be allowed to live?” There’s no end to it—you want us to give and give and give until you’ve bled us dry.

Conscience: That’s right, the demands never end because the suffering never ends. There’s an endless line of human beings, men and women and children, who are desperate for your help, they’re dying of malnutrition and disease, and what’s your response to them? “I’m sorry, but I’ve already done my charitable giving for the year, and now if you’ll excuse me I need to go buy the latest iPhone and a subscription to Netflix.” You’re letting people die, that’s what you’re doing, you’re wrapping yourself in luxuries and excesses and indulgences, and you’re letting people die.

Self: What I care about most is my life and the lives of my family. If I can also help some other people, then I will, but first I want to make our lives as full as I can. That’s why we won’t sell our cabin in the mountains, and we won’t tell our daughter to forget about college, and we won’t stop going to museums and bookstores and movies, because these things enrich our lives. In the seventy or so years that we have, I want us to live—not just to make money and give it all to charity, but to live—to take advantage of the opportunities we have, to enjoy our time on earth, to see and do as much as we can, but we can’t do that if we adopt your mantra of self-denying minimalism. You’d like to turn us all into ascetics, like Simon of the Desert, only instead of wearing hair shirts and standing on pillars, you want us to give everything we own and everything we earn to UNICEF, then flagellate ourselves for our acquisitive, self-interested impulses. You demand total self-sacrifice for the sake of distant, anonymous masses, and you want us to feel sharp pangs of guilt any time we yield to the temptations of consumerism. I buy, therefore I sin—that’s what you want me to believe.

Conscience: Your view of the world is really constricted. It’s like you and your family live in this bubble, and what happens outside the bubble doesn’t matter at all. So when I say that you should give to those whose needs are greater than yours—well, you never even talk about them. All you talk about is you—what you stand to lose, the sacrifices you’d have to make. The fact that your sacrifices would be insignificant compared to the gifts you’d bestow upon others—that doesn’t enter into your thinking. For example, if you sold your cabin, the money could be used to protect hundreds, maybe thousands, of people from disease. You’d lose a cabin but they’d gain their lives.

Self: Maybe I am fixated on myself and my family, but you have a fixation of your own. You’re obsessed with global suffering, and you regard the alleviation of that suffering as the only human endeavor that matters. The sighs of the forlorn and the groans of the dying are the only sounds you hear. Music, travel, almost any personal pastime or pursuit—all of these you view as inimical to our moral responsibilities, diverting our time and energy and, especially, our money from the one thing we should care about—namely, the impoverished masses living in the developing world. You see things not for what they are but for the moral omissions you think they represent. A ballgame isn’t a ballgame to you, it’s children being deprived of life-saving vaccines. And a TV isn’t a TV, it’s a village being denied the clean water it desperately needs. You see every pleasure we partake in as a death sentence issued to another innocent child.

Conscience: In all the money that’s squandered I see the lives that could have been saved.

Self: Even if I decided you were right, I still couldn’t do what you ask, not even close, leaving me so worn down by guilt, so dogged by thoughts of what I’m not doing and what I’m not giving, that all the joy would be sucked out of life.

Conscience: Happiness is hard to come by these days. Every day thousands of our neighbors are suffering painful, preventable deaths. Who can be so blind as to blind himself to that? Only the morally dead can be happy.

Self: I can’t save the whole goddamn world. I can’t do it.

Conscience: I’m not asking you to. I’m just asking you to save as many as you can.

Self: But how do I know I can save anyone? When I contribute to a charity, all I really know is that I’ve sent a check to an organization and they’ve deposited it. I have no way of tracking the money after that, no way of knowing whether it produced any benefit, and certainly no way of knowing whether, halfway across the world, someone is alive who, but for my donation, would not be. If I spend two hundred dollars on a microwave, I know the money has made a difference: my family can make meals and snacks a lot faster—I can see the benefit. But if, instead, I send the money to Doctors Without Borders, the only thing I can see, the only thing I can verify, is that there’s two hundred dollars less in our bank account. Where’s the proof that I’ve done any good at all? That’s another reason I’d never make the kind of sacrifices you call for: I’d be giving up goods I already have, or could get, for goods that may never materialize. I’d be exchanging known benefits for uncertain ones.

Conscience: There may be some uncertainty involved, but you’re overstating it. Any time you contribute to a group enterprise, it’s impossible to say where your dollars went. Suppose you pay a few thousand dollars in income tax one year. Where did that money go, what exactly did it accomplish? Did it buy some asphalt for a new highway? Did it pay a teacher’s salary for a month? Did it provide food stamps for a low-income family? Clearly, you can’t say what your dollars did in any specific way. All you know is that you paid a certain amount of money to help fund government services; and that this money, combined with that provided by a lot of other people, paid for all the expenses I just mentioned, and a great many more besides.
Think of it in terms of pools. When you contribute to a charity, you’re adding to the money the organization has; and it’s this pool of money that allows the organization to do its work. Without the pool—without lots of people like you making donations—it could do nothing. Although you can’t track the particular dollars you put in, you’ve played a role in whatever the organization accomplishes—and the bigger your contribution, the bigger your role.

Self: What you’re saying is that people’s contributions as a totality make a difference. But what matters to me when I’m deciding what to do with my money is whether my individual contribution makes a difference, and I have no assurance that it does. Maybe a $200 contribution from me would allow some additional children to be vaccinated, but given the modesty of my donation, it’s more likely that its only effect would be to increase the organization’s bank account from, say, $100,000,000 to $100,000,200. That means it would have no real-world impact—other than depriving my family of a microwave we really wanted and could have enjoyed.
You say it’s a lot more important that children live than that we have a microwave, and obviously that’s true. But so what? Just because Potential Benefit A is greater than Potential Benefit B doesn’t mean that I should direct my money to A rather than B. What you’re not taking into account is the probability, the likelihood, of these potential benefits actually resulting from my action. I know that if I buy a microwave, it will make our mealtimes simpler; but I’m not at all sure that if I send the money to a charity, it will save lives that otherwise would not be saved. The first action provides a benefit that’s less significant but more certain; the second may have a dramatic impact on someone’s life or health—or it may have no impact at all.

Conscience: We know that with well-managed charities like Doctors Without Borders, almost all the money they receive benefits the intended recipients; the rest goes for overhead. That means the money we give them actually improves people’s lives. But you want more than that; you won’t be satisfied unless the organization tracks the actual dollars you give them, then sends you photos of children receiving the actual vials of vaccine that your money paid for. But that’s an impossible demand, and you know it. You’re looking for excuses, trying to justify your own unwillingness to give.

Self: Look, your whole argument assumes that if I give this much money, it will do this much good; but that assumption becomes questionable when we reflect on the pragmatics of giving. In assessing the potential impact of a donation I might make, you overlook its sheer insignificance. Look at the budgets of international relief agencies like UNICEF or Doctors Without Borders. Each of them spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year providing services abroad—which is great, but then how does a few bucks from me really help? To use your metaphor, it’s like adding one lousy drop to the pool of money they’re already swimming in—it won’t do a thing.
Or suppose one day I go completely nuts, I’m reading about children dying of diarrhea in a Sudanese refugee camp, and how a dollar can provide the rehydration salts needed to keep a child alive, and a no-man-is-an-island feeling just washes over me, I’m rocking to the sounds of USA For Africa, “We are the world, we are the children, we are the ones who make a brighter day so let’s start giving,” and I want to save one of those Sudanese kids, I want to save lots of them, so I whip out my credit card and I get on the internet, and before I come to my senses, before this warm feeling of global connectedness gives way to the recollection that last night our bank balance was so low I couldn’t afford a goddamn jar of peanut butter, I send three hundred dollars to UNICEF. Now three hundred dollars is a budget buster to us, but to UNICEF it’s practically nothing. It is, literally, less than one millionth of what they take in every year. This money that we could really use—we could replace our seventeen-year-old TV, or we could buy a dishwasher for God’s sake, we’ve been wanting one ever since we moved into our house five years ago, but something always comes up—this money will have no impact, none, on the services UNICEF provides. Three hundred dollars is so much to us, so little to them—so why should it go from us to them? Hell, the CEO of UNICEF makes over $500,000 a year—that’s ten times what we make. I bet she has a dishwasher, I bet her TV isn’t seventeen years old. To her, three hundred dollars is pocket change, and it’s not even that to the multimillion-dollar organization she runs. So why, exactly, should I be sweating blood for UNICEF?

Conscience: Living without a dishwasher isn’t exactly sweating blood. You have a sink, don’t you? You have plenty of clean water and dish soap, don’t you? Think about the people who don’t have any of that. And that’s the point: when you send money, you’re not doing it for UNICEF, you’re doing it for the people that UNICEF helps. Just because charitable organizations have big budgets doesn’t alter this fact: the more money they get, the more lives they can save.

Self: A lot of money may save a lot of lives, but a little money may save no lives at all. And all I ever have is a little. But you’re asking for more than just a few spare bucks; you’re asking my family to give up everything we’ve got—all our possessions, all the things we want to do, and all the places we want to see. But I’d never do that, never even consider doing that, unless I was sure that our contributions would really help. Before we give up everything we care about, you’ll have to prove to me that our sacrifices would have a direct and profound impact on other people—and so far, you haven’t done that.

Conscience: If you want to measure impact, you have to understand that any dollar, once it goes into the revenue pool, has the same value as any other dollar. Whether a dollar comes from a big donor or a small one, its impact is the same. Every dollar contributed to the pool plays an equal role in whatever benefits the total pool of dollars provides.
Because of that, the only way to measure how much good you as an individual have done is in terms of proportional impact. Forget about tracking your particular dollars; that’s not the way a pool of money works. Instead, look at how many people a charitable organization helped, multiply that by your portion of the funding, and that’s your impact.
For example, think about one kind of benefit that relief organizations provide—vaccinations. Every year children around the world receive hundreds of millions of vaccinations. You talk about contributing one millionth of an organization’s revenues as though that’s nothing—money down the drain—but it’s not. Suppose that during the year a large charitable organization facilitates five million vaccinations, and you contributed one millionth of their funds. Proportionately, that means that your dollars protected five children from serious illness and perhaps even death. If you’re going to focus on impact, that’s how you measure it. In any case, here’s the bottom line: give as much as you can, give everything you can, and the impact of your donations will reverberate through the lives of innumerable people whose names you’ll never know.

One way to frame the debate between my self and my conscience is in terms of competing mandates. On the one hand, I am a sentient being, a feeling thing. I came into this world with certain desires, and although these have changed over time, becoming more numerous and more complex, the satisfaction of my desires has always been my principal pursuit. That is simply a biological reality, a consequence of my own sentience. My wants and needs are what I feel most strongly, and satisfying them is my first concern. That is the mandate of desire.

But I also have the capacity to step outside myself, to see myself and others from a distance, to say of myself, “I’m just one person among many.” In so doing, I move from partiality to impartiality. Suddenly my desires have no more weight than anyone else’s. What matters now is the seriousness of the need, not the identity of the individual it belongs to. The basic needs of any person take priority over the nonessential desires of any other person. Possessed of limited resources, I cannot squander them on the comforts and pleasures of some, including myself, so long as others are suffering and dying for want of the basic necessities. That is the mandate of impartiality.

The debate also delineates two ways of thinking about money. For my self, financial decision-making means choosing what to buy for himself or his family. What should they buy, a garage door opener or a new cooktop? Should he put a thousand dollars into his IRA or use the money to replace their outdated computer? My conscience poses a different question: instead of spending money on yourself or your family, should you give it to those who need it more? This is an option most of us rarely even consider. When it comes to the expenditure of money, we constantly ask ourselves, What do we want? We seldom ask ourselves, What do others need?

How much should the affluent sacrifice for the destitute? This is a genuine moral conundrum, and as with all such conundrums, the images that we dwell on can be decisive. My self, in this case, looks at contemporary American culture, where vacations and nice cars and satellite TV are the norm. Other people have those things—why shouldn’t he? Why should he deny himself what everyone else gets to enjoy? And he thinks about his daughter, how he wants her to go to a really good college and to be able to travel, see a bit of the world. He did it, when he was younger, and now millions of people her age are doing it, and why shouldn’t she? My conscience, on the other hand, looks farther away—not just farther geographically, but also culturally and economically. He focuses on people who, because of the luck of the draw, don’t have the food to feed their kids and the clothes to keep them warm and the medicines to keep them healthy. He has those things—why shouldn’t they? My conscience knows he’s not responsible for the inequities of the world, but still, he’s their beneficiary, and they bother him. How could he justify a life of indulgence when millions lack the basic necessities?

My self and my conscience are skilled rhetoricians, one conjuring up images of pleasure, the other images of pain, one playing on my desires, the other on my sympathies. One dwells on the disparity between what he wants and what he has; the other, on the disparity between what he has and others don’t. One compares himself to those who have much, the other to those who have little. And me, I vacillate between them.

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“If I’ve been snubbed by someone at work, or if my property tax is fifty dollars higher than I expected, I’ll be much more agitated than if I hear about genocide in Rwanda or a typhoon in Taipei.”

One reason my self is so resistant to the demands of my conscience is that it doesn’t feel as if I’m letting people die. It’s not as though some of Ethiopia’s ailing children have been laid outside my door, and the ones that I fail to help will die on my doorstep. If that were the case my level of concern would rise dramatically, and I’d do anything to save them. No longer would they be faraway children I’m only dimly aware of; now they’d be at the forefront of my consciousness, and I’d be determined to help them. In our moral calculations distance often acts as a restraining force, keeping a tight rein on our altruistic impulses. But if the distance between us and those who need our help were eliminated, our behavior would be transformed. Changing the distance changes everything.

In the world we live in, however, distance remains a powerful force in our moral decision-making because, for most of us, the suffering of distant others carries little psychological weight. Adam Smith, the eighteenth-century economist and philosopher, is best known for his book The Wealth of Nations, though Smith himself considered his most important work to be The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In this book he examines the nature of morality and the motives to moral action. Smith argues that although people are by nature sympathetic, the sympathy we feel for distant and unknown persons is very limited. Our concern over our own setbacks and frustrations, no matter how small, far outweighs our concern over the catastrophes of others. He asks us to imagine our reaction if China was struck by a devastating earthquake. After some expressions of sympathy, Smith says, we would quickly get back to whatever task or diversion we were previously engaged in, our peace of mind virtually unaffected by the news. Smith, I think, had it exactly right. If I’ve been snubbed by someone at work, or if my property tax is fifty dollars higher than I expected, I’ll be much more agitated than if I hear about genocide in Rwanda or a typhoon in Taipei.

At the time Smith was writing, his reflections on a distant disaster implied no particular moral dilemma; there was little his contemporaries could have done for Chinese earthquake victims anyway. Today, however, there’s a lot we can do. As a result, our knowledge that we could significantly reduce worldwide suffering, coupled with our belief that we should help those in distress, comes face-to-face with our limited sympathies. Our minimal concern for distant others now finds itself challenged by the knowledge that we could help and the belief that we should.

The suffering that takes place in distant lands is no less real, no less intense, than the suffering that takes place in our own lives, but it feels less real because we don’t see it with our own eyes, we don’t experience it firsthand. We may know about it intellectually, but it’s not in the room with us, it doesn’t assault our senses. A baby dying in a mountain village in Bolivia is as tragic as a baby dying in our own home, but the psychological impact of the former is much less. In some circumstances the child in Bolivia might become more real for us—for instance, if we heard or saw a particularly vivid account of her ordeal. But in general, our concern for her will be minimal because we are far removed, physically and emotionally, from her suffering.

If it’s hard to feel the suffering of distant others, it’s even harder to feel the impact of the money we contribute to alleviate that suffering. If I send a hundred dollars to Doctors Without Borders, I’ll receive a generic thank-you letter, but it won’t tell me what, if anything, my individual contribution accomplished. I can’t see the effects of my action; I don’t know anyone, or see anyone, who’s better off as a result of my contribution. Because the impact of my contribution is invisible to me, it feels as though it had no impact—and this makes me less likely to contribute at all.

In the moral world, as in the physical world, there is an inverse proportionality between force and distance. The farther we are from a planet, the weaker its gravitational pull; and the farther we are from a source of light, the dimmer it is. It’s the same with the moral sentiments. Other things being equal, the farther we are from a place of suffering, the less we feel that suffering and the less it matters to us. If, while hiking in the mountains, we come upon a badly injured child, he immediately becomes the only thing we care about; we are deeply disturbed by his pain and try desperately to save him. But if we hear on the radio that children in Haiti are dying of malnutrition, the news passes over us like a breeze, and is gone.

Image: geralt/Pixabay.com

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