An Intentionally Uncomfortable Conversation About Charity

We live in an interesting society where we have so much and yet allow so many to have so little…

Be forewarned that this post might make you uncomfortable, but I make no apologies for that. Challenging ourselves is what leads to further self-discovery and the more sure we are of ourselves, the better we can allocate our resources to align with what we value.

The gist of this blog is to talk about planning for personal goals and to help everyone set a path so they can achieve financial success however it is they may define it. One goal that I have rarely mentioned, however, is the act of charity. It is something almost everyone I talk to has an interest in, but it’s either still abstract (they’re not exactly sure what cause they want to support or even how to support it) or just not a current priority (charity is perceived as something you do when you are old and rich already).

I recently revisited a famous Peter Singer thought experiment, “The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle”. It’s not long, so I’d encourage you to read it all, but the point I want to focus on is early on:

To challenge my students to think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need, I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.

I then ask the students: do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Unanimously, the students say they do. The importance of saving a child so far outweighs the cost of getting one’s clothes muddy and missing a class that they refuse to consider it any kind of excuse for not saving the child. Does it make a difference, I ask, that there are other people walking past the pond who would equally be able to rescue the child but are not doing so? No, the students reply, the fact that others are not doing what they ought to do is no reason why I should not do what I ought to do.

Once we are all clear about our obligations to rescue the drowning child in front of us, I ask: would it make any difference if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death, and equally within your means to save, at no great cost – and absolutely no danger – to yourself? Virtually all agree that distance and nationality make no moral difference to the situation. I then point out that we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world – and overseas aid agencies like Oxfam overcome the problem of acting at a distance

I’ve heard another variation on this that puts ten drowning children in the pond and ten adults on the banks. If everyone does their part, each would rescue one child. But what do you do if several other adults choose not to do their part? What if none of them choose to do their part? Does that relieve you of the ethical obligation to save as many as you can or would you save your one and move on?

This can be an uncomfortable thought experiment when taken to its extreme conclusion. Even if I’m currently donating to charity, I still enjoy the fruits of my relative wealth when I get the new iPhone or pay an exorbitant cable bill while I know children continue to starve in this world. My intent is not to rack you with horrible guilt every time you spend money on a “want” as opposed to a “need”—the best counterargument to Singer is that there is a point where the giver becomes exhausted financially or emotionally thus doing harm to themselves—but this is a thought experiment my wife and I challenge ourselves with and it fits in with the idea of mindfulness I wrote about weeks ago.

I think many of you out there want to give back, but you aren’t sure of a cause or how best to address that cause. There are many good resources starting with talking to friends and family. Community Foundations around the country specialize in matching people to their causes and being a watchdog for local charities so you can be sure your donated dollars are effective. Furthermore, there are multiple organizations like CharityWatch.org and Givewell.org that come with a more global focus, but are independent and trusted in their reviews of charities. (Givewell.org, in particular, takes a unique stance that tries to optimize lives directly saved per dollar given).

Much like saving for your own financial well-being, giving a little now can still make a big difference to the world. Furthermore, for those that haven’t thought about charity but are in a relatively comfortable position I want to challenge you.

As “homework”, consider the following statement: Improving the lives of others when you have the means to do so is an obligation.

You certainly don’t have to agree with that statement and you can come to your own conclusions about Singer’s thought experiment, but all I ask is that you challenge yourself and are mindful of the choices you make. You have the potential to make a tremendous impact on other lives throughout the process of planning your own.