The Price of Luxury

Most of us will be fairly wealthy. Many seniors are realizing this as recruiting season culminates in $50,000 to $100,000 annual salary offers. Before any of us gets accustomed to $20 martinis, we should ask ourselves if a lavish lifestyle is the best use of our disposable income. Let’s spend away—but only if each of us can honestly resolve the following moral dilemma, borrowed from the book The Ethics of Assistance.

Imagine that, while walking back to your hotel on an out-of-town business trip, you come across a child drowning in a muddy pond, screaming for help. You’re about 75 percent sure that you can save him, but you’ll ruin your new $500 suit if you try. Would you?

Of course you would. Wouldn’t it be immoral not to? But we face a similar decision every day and decide very differently. Thirty thousand children worldwide will die today of hunger or preventable disease. Amazingly, some aid programs have been able to save a life with every $500 donated. And with certification and monitoring, you can be confident that your money will reach the front line.

So if you would unhesitatingly spend $500, and probably much more, to try to save a random American child, why does almost every one of us refuse to donate that money to try to save, say, a Sudanese child?

When I pose this thought experiment to friends and family, I hear four justifications for the discrepancy. Three just don’t work. The fourth forces us to think.

First, people explain that they already give to charity, or promise that they will when they graduate and start earning income. That’s great, but it does not resolve the problem. Let’s say that, right before seeing the drowning child, you had just donated $10,000 to save dying children in South Asia. Would you then just let the child drown right in front of you? If not—that is, if saving the life of a random child were still worth more than $500 to you—why didn’t you donate $10,500?

Second, some say that what feels natural is also moral. Saving an unseen African child just doesn’t feel as necessary as rescuing a child dying in front of one’s own eyes. This is probably the main reason why Americans don’t give more to charity. But no one believes that an act is moral just because it is instinctive. If you think it is, would I be morally justified in punching you in the face just because I felt an urgent need to do so and was genetically predisposed to rage?

Third, some people deny responsibility, saying, “I was the only person who could have rescued the drowning child, but I can’t be held responsible for those foreign children since so many others could be saving them too.” But would you have refused to save the child if a crowd of people were standing around doing nothing? I cannot imagine how others’ apathy would have suddenly made it moral for you to turn your back on the drowning child and ignore his pleas for help.

The fourth rebuttal is defensible. Taken to its logical end, the moral dilemma seems to suggest that we should privilege no one and that our families and fellow citizens are no more deserving of our money than the incredibly poor. But there are good reasons for why investing in our children, reciprocating care to aging parents, and building a safe, trusting, and mutually supportive society is of special importance.

In light of this tradeoff, the question facing each of us is what is the right level of charity. History will judge our generation—one of the first with both the knowledge of and means to alleviate some of the worst global poverty—on how we answer this question.

How much to donate is a personal decision. No book or person has the answer, since it depends on how much we each choose to value ourselves and our own communities relative to people far away. Deciding is hard, but decide we must. Postponing the choice is a choice in itself and a cowardly one at that.

I believe that we should donate large shares of our future earnings to charity. But the reason here is not that altruism is some universally highest virtue that we absolutely must value more. Rather, we already value altruism immensely. We would save the drowning child, and we would do so even if the new suit had cost $1,000 or $5,000. It is incumbent upon each of us to learn what this charitableness means for future spending decisions. I suggest that when we acknowledge what our money can do, few of us will conclude that buying a second home in the Hamptons is a morally justifiable way to spend riches.

Danny Yagan ’06 is an economics concentrator in Currier House.