Copyright (c) 2009 by Kenny Felder

"The room just erupted in spontaneous applause, very similar to what you hear at Democratic Party dinners when somebody mentions the Poor."
- Dave Barry

There is a tedious self-righteousness to people who bring up The Poor no matter what conversation you start. "Student test scores are improving!" (Yes, but the gap between rich and poor has widened.) "I helped shovel my neighbor's walk!" (That's nice in a petty bourgeois way, but it means nothing to widows and orphans.) "New technologies are going to make our lives longer, more productive, and more fun!" (Sure they are, for a bunch of rich white people.)

Why can't these Poverty Nazis, with their one-issue monotony and their brash italic fonts, give it a rest? We all admire Mother Teresa, but we can't all be Mother Teresa. Let's just try to follow the Golden Rule, write an annual check to the United Way, and let it go at that.

The above two paragraphs represent a point of view I hear all the time. But my purpose in this essay is to convince you of the exact opposite. Poverty deserves more of our time and attention—at both the national and the personal level—than it currently gets. Most of the other issues we worry about, ranging from gay marriage to our angst-ridden relationships, really are superficial and even irrelevant by comparison. Real poverty puts everything else in perspective.

The following scenario comes from my brother, Gary.

You are standing in line for a movie. It's a hot day, and you are nursing a cold bottle of juice. Suddenly, the young woman in front of you faints from the heat. She lies there, not moving.

A doctor (conveniently also on line) performs a quick examination. "This girl is going to die if we don't get her a drink, right now." If you give up your juice, it won't kill you—but you will be awfully uncomfortable for the next half-hour. On the other hand, if you keep your juice, the girl lying on the ground will die.

I have proposed this scenario to a lot of people, and none of them has said "I would probably just drink up, because I really hate that hot sweaty feeling." All of them would offer the juice to save the dying girl. (Don't quibble about whether juice will really save her, or your own dangers of dehydration, etc...this is a moral dilemma.)

Now, let's change the scenario a bit—the dying girl is not right in front of you. Instead, she is a block away. You are still the only available source of juice. (Why? Again, don't argue.) Does your ethical obligation change because she is a block away? OK, let's put her ten miles away and try again...

How hypothetical is that scenario? Are you really allowing someone to die every time you drink a Gatorade? And, does physical distance really have so much to do with it?

It turns out physical distance has everything to do with it. In the U.S., if a baby is born with low birth weight, our medical system spends—on average—an extra $550,000 to save that baby.1 The parents usually don't have that money, of course, so it comes from you and me (in the form of taxes and insurance).

In Africa, if a child gets malaria, it's a death sentence. A $10 mosquito net can prevent the infection. But for millions of infants, the $10 never shows up, and the baby dies.2

It doesn't make any sense, but it is a daily reality—and when I watch my own reactions, it's not hard to see why. A middle-class American woman, someone just like my wife, loses a baby: that's an unspeakable tragedy. Another African baby dies of malaria: that's a statistic. Watch your own emotional response as I throw a few numbers at you.

If I try to slow down my own reactions enough to see them, I detect a vague sympathy, a gnawing guilt, and a momentary flash of overwhelming enormity, all quickly dissolving into a detached or even defensive response. I can't conceive of a problem that big. I'm certainly not about to accept responsibility for a problem that big.

Because, if I do accept any responsibility at all, here's what those numbers tell me. They tell me that every time I stop at Starbuck's, I could have instead fed eight children. This is Gary's movie-juice scenario in real life: Venti Decaf Mocha, or starving child? Hmm, let me think...hold the whipped cream, please.

What just happened? I'm a nice guy, helpful to my friends, courteous to strangers, and I never push baby ducks over backward in the water. Why did I just choose a luxury coffee over a real need?

One reason I've already discussed: the starving children are so far away from me, and so different from the people I know, that I can't think of them as "real people." Their hopes, fears, and dreams might be similar to mine at the profoundest level, but their day-to-day concerns are completely different. If we were in a room together, even with a translator, we wouldn't find much to talk about. So it just doesn't feel the same as finding out that my neighbor's adorable little boy is terminally ill.

Another reason is scope. If I thought I could skip coffees for a year and solve the problem of hunger, I would go for it. But the reality is, all my time and money for the rest of my life wouldn't make a perceptible dent in the problem. It's a lot easier to vote for Obama and hope he fixes it all.

On a related note, there doesn't seem to be any "right amount" to give. Suppose I give up all my luxury coffees, never go to the movies, and donate all that money. Is that enough? I don't really need a microwave oven: another life saved. I can live without cablevision: that may save a life per month. Away go the cell phones: I'm saving lives by the dozens. (Not video game lives: real people, real children, real mothers, just like my neighbor!) Have I done enough yet? No, I can still do more...

No amount of sacrifice seems sufficient. The obvious solution is to avoid going down this road in the first place. I'll just vote for Obama and...did I say that already?

On this issue, like so many others, I do not practice what I preach and I do not live according to my own beliefs.

I live a lifestyle that is comfortable to the point of extravagant. I send my kids to a private school, as well as piano and other outside lessons, summer camps, and other pricey enrichment opportunities. I live in a pretty big house with heating and AC, TV and stereo, and three computers all hooked up to the wireless network that links us into the high-speed internet. We spend hundreds of dollars a month eating out. It's the middle-class American dream, spiced up by a liberal voting record and an annual check to my favorite charity.

So the point of this essay is not to tell you that you should live like me. As much as anything, the point is to explain the deep sense of hypocrisy that I feel about my entire life. Imagine a science fiction story where a small group of extremely wealthy people live in a domed building with high walls. Inside the wall are beautiful gardens, opulent baths, vines full of grapes, and well-dressed people who are unfailingly nice to each other. Right outside the walls are teeming masses of dirty, hungry people, clawing at the walls, dying in gutters.

Sound a bit like ancient Rome? It sounds to me like the modern world. Over a billion people today live in slum conditions, without water or sanitation, public infrastructure or security of tenure.5 They are cold when it's cold outside, hot when it's hot outside, wet when it rains, and hungry all the time. Try to imagine, for a moment, that among those people is your mother, or your brother, or your best friend, or your child—or all four. Imagine them with absolutely no hope of improving their lives: they are willing to work hard, willing to do absolutely anything, but their children are still going to starve and die. And meanwhile, just a block over, people like you and me sip their cappuccinos and worry about their love lives.

Those "one block over" people are not evil. They did not cheat or steal to get where they are, and in fact they work pretty hard to maintain their lifestyle. And many of them are nice to each other, and have all the best intentions regarding the people in the slum. But they're still wrong.

5http://www.countercurrents.org/hr-whelan190204.htm. While this particular source is socialist and therefore biased, the statistic comes from the UN, and I have seen a number of independent reports corroborating that number.

Also, see http://www.creditscore.net/microlending for a quick look at "microlending," one of the most powerful ways to help break the cycle of poverty in the third world.


From: Gary Felder
January 24, 2009

I don't remember presenting that particular example to you, but it is a mildly altered version of an example that I got from Peter Singer. I'm pretty sure in the original there was a child drowning in a fountain and your options were to let him die or to save him at the cost of ruining your nice suit.

Needless to say I agree with everything you say in here, including my own glaring failure to live up to that ideal. What you don't really talk about is the in-between option. Yes, I think a logical analysis leads me to conclude that a truly moral life would be one that I simply can't imagine living. It's easy to go from that conclusion to despair and inaction. Bear in mind, however, that each mother whose child you do save doesn't care whether you are living a life of moral purity in which you save every life that you possibly could. She cares that you made the one choice that saved her child. If you're not going to give everything up beyond the bare necessities, at least think about it next time you want a latte, and put that money aside instead. Each time you go shopping try to think of a few fancy items you could do without, and put that money aside. You may not be achieving the perfect moral life envisioned by Singer, but there will still be a few dozen mothers with healthy children because of you by year's end. Then next year you can try to do just a little bit more.

If reading your essay inspires some other people to move in that direction it may be the most important thing you've put on this site.


P.S. Singer wrote an article on this topic in the New York Times a few years ago. It's at:

From: Richard Felder
January 24, 2009

Are you suggesting that those things (especially our personal relationships) aren't important enough relative to global poverty for us to worry about?

From: Kenny Felder
January 25, 2009

Imagine that you're having a fight with your wife, and all of a sudden your neighbor calls and says that his child is lying in the street hit by a car. You rush the child to the hospital and spend all night helping out, consoling your neighbor, running errands and so on. Is the fight with your wife gone? Not necessarily, but it is put into perspective, no matter how important it seemed at the time.

From: Richard Felder
January 25, 2009

I still don't know your bottom line. Decide how much you should have to spend on yourself and your family (presumably much less than $170K) and give the rest to charity? If you're going to call the people one block over—who at least in their own minds are doing the right thing—wrong, I think you have a responsibility of stating what you think is right.

Similarly, I think most people would agree that global poverty is more important than someone's personal relationship or anything else that's personal to that individual (such as his terminal illness). But what point are you making? Should the individual stop being concerned about himself and focus his attention primarily on global poverty?

From: Michelle Williams
February 15, 2009

If everyone stopped going to Starbucks so that they could send that money to the poor, where would the folks at Starbucks work? Granted, you may want to confirm that coffee ground at Starbucks is Fair Trade Certified and that Starbucks is committed to a policy of equal opportunity employment and pays a fair wage before spending your money there. And you may want to buy your coffee from a locally owned merchant who fits those criteria instead. But I'm not sure you should stop buying your daily coffee.

From: Kenny Felder
February 15, 2009

Well, let's do the math. This is all thumbnail, and the first two facts come from the never-reliable Wikipedia, but I think it's a reasonable thumbnail calculation.

So, if everyone all of a sudden stopped going to Starbuck's and sent all the money to the poor, 172,000 people would be out of work, and $9.4 Billion/year would be sent to the poor.

Now, here's the interesting thing. One of my favorite ways to help the poor is "microloans"—I've probably talked to you about them— a one-time loan, repaid with interest, can change the life of a family forever. According to one Web site I found, the average microloan is around $110. So that $9.4 Billion could change the lives of roughly 90 Million families.

You see, this is the mistake I think we all make so naturally, because we have spent all our lives surrounded by incredible affluence. We lose sight of the incredible differences in scale. We miss the fact that almost all of those 172,000 people who were suddenly out of a job would still be in immensely better shape than the really poor people of the world. There just isn't any comparison.

Do you see what I mean? This is one of those (many) things that I see clearly sometimes, dimly at others, but never feel that I am communicating really well. I think if you and I spent a year living in an African slum, we would really get what I am trying to say: even the Americans we think of as "poor" are, for the most part, not even close.

From: Sally Humble
August 17, 2009

Gary's response is on target for me. The either/or argument leaves out many alternatives that help resolve the sense that "doing nothing" is the inevitable alternative if you can't solve the whole problem. And, yes, I do put my own family first and will because I think that is my first responsibility. But, when its a matter of survival or comfort in a situation where my single action makes all the difference, then that is a fairly clear-cut decision.

I suppose my real thought is that this is not a matter of logical argument and persuasion. People will do what they can do and what they feel led to do in actual situations. Just because I can't solve the problem of poverty in the whole world with my own single action, it doesn't mean that I can't write my congressional representatives and tell them to hang on to that public option in the health care reform bill so that, perhaps, someone in Raleigh, in NC, in the US, won't lose their health care when they get sick or lose a job. And, rather than leaving all this to the individual's inclination of the moment, I do think building into our system of government a legal means for assuring that people are not forced "to do without" essential, basic services is a cause worthy of our energy and efforts, not just our money.

To set up the alternatives as "I can't solve the problem worldwide" so, therefore, "I won't do anything" may just give an excuse to folks who don't want to do anything no matter what.

Your examples do help show the urgency of action. I think setting it up in your essay as an either/or choice undermines the power of the examples and the argument. Just my opinion.

From: Kenny Felder
August 17, 2009

Well, I certainly didn't mean to imply that "if you're not going to be Mother Teresa, you might as well not bother." I'm sorry if it came across that way!

From: David Cohen
November 6, 2009

On November 6, I received a response from David Cohen that was so long, I decided to give it its own Web page, instead of burying it here in the comments.

Click here to read David Cohen's response to this essay.

From: Kenny Felder
November 7, 2009

Thanks for your long and thoughtful response, David! You might be surprised by how much of it I agree with. I am not a socialist. I've spent much of my life engaged in the free enterprise system, from running a small business to working at Microsoft, and I'm proud of what I accomplished. I believe that those who advance society should be rewarded, and capitalism does a great job of that. I would never "acquiesce" to your hypothetical aliens (unless they had some really kick-butt weaponry).

Our core disagreement, perhaps, lies in your belief that "staying up all night to help a friend is more meaningful than helping a million people a thousand miles away: what you can do for a million people is a drop in the bucket; what you can do for your friend might be life-changing." That may be so if all you can do for those million people is give them a cookie. But if you can offer them micro-loans that will enable them to start their own businesses, pull themselves out of poverty, and send their children to school, that trumps the friend. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Does it sound like I'm contradicting myself? It doesn't feel that way to me. I do not want to live in a world in which all goods and services are distributed evenly. I do want to live in a world in which everyone who is willing to work hard can expect decent food, shelter, and education. From what little I know of Rawls (or Krugman for that matter), I don't think they would find that terribly out of the ballpark.

From: David Cookmeyer
April 1, 2012

Lately I've been finding myself in a similar moral predicament.

Taking [a high school class on] Modern Africa this year has forced me to learn about some horrifying conditions that people live in on the other side of the planet, and lately I have been continually asking myself "so what can I do about it?" First I thought I might give up my goal of going into veterinary medicine and instead doing something along the lines of Doctors Without Borders, or really anything to aid Africans. A lot of that want comes from what I have learned in Modern Africa so far this year, but ultimately I feel that, if I was going to go somewhere on a purely humanitarian mission, it should be Africa.

For the remainder of this response, I will be treating Africans as the general "subject that needs aid." of course, that doesn't mean I don't think there are other important issues that need solving.

And then I spiral downward. Is that enough? Maybe I could go into doctors without borders, give up my microwave, forget about television, sell my computer, hell, maybe I'll even just get rid of my house (In my ideal future I assume I have a house), money, and any other appliances that set me apart from Africans, and instead use all of those resources to aid Africans.

But wait, at that point I am in the same place as all the Africans around me. So what have I accomplished? I might have prevented a few children from getting Malaria, but ultimately I have actually just added myself to the numbers of starving Africans living in slums. At that point, I am actually incapable of aiding Africans further, as placing myself in their situation would require me to give up any sort of paid job, which ultimately would supply the funds needed to aid Africans. But wait, that job also sets me apart from Africans. In other words, am I unable to help Africans unless I am in a better situation than them to begin with? In that case it would appear that altruism requires being selfish to an extent, which in itself is contradictory.

So, then, what is the right thing to do? Is it the right thing to place myself into poverty in some sort of extreme sympathy-driven mission? Or should I just go back to wanting to be a veterinarian? Ultimately, both options do some good. Or maybe I'll go into doctors without borders? That seems like a reasonable middle ground.

And at that point I say "well, I'm still not doing everything I could do." In fact, I don't think I could even imagine what doing everything I could would look or feel like.

So then I feel the need to place a line. "X amount of good deeds is enough to save a reasonable amount of Africans." But then I just feel bad for wanting to draw a line.

You can see the endless loop. I have yet to come to some sort of rationalization that will leave me feeling better about wanting to be a veterinarian and not wanting to devote my entire life to doing nothing but saving Africans, and I'm not entirely sure that I would feel okay with trying to rationalize that in the first place. Nor do I think that there is ultimately a "right" answer to what I should do. At the end of the day I almost want to come to the conclusion that I am some sort of selfish American who cares more about his own wants than all the starving people in Africa. And then all I've done is succeeded in making myself feel bad. But then I realize there are people more selfish than me, so that makes me not completely selfish right? Wait a minute, why am I okay with being selfish at all! Hold on, my want to not be selfish is in itself selfish, so then what does real altruism look like? Does altruism even actually exist?

As I said earlier, I have yet to resolve this dilemma. I'm not really sure where I'm going with this, but all I can say is that I really identified with your essay.

From: Kenny Felder
April 1, 2012

Perhaps the ideal David would decide what life he can lead that would do the most good for the most people, and then lead it. Of course that life wouldn't involve starving to death; it would involve making as much money as possible, and giving away almost all of it. You would buy things for yourself that save time (such as a microwave), and not things that waste time (such as a television), because the more time you save, the more money you make, and the more time and money you can donate to helping where it's needed.

Mother Teresa may have been capable of that, and I think there are more of her than most people realize. Her "Missionaries of Charity" comprises over 4,500 nuns who live the same sort of altruistic life that she did, but unlike her, they are not individually lionized by the press. That being said, such people are still by far in the minority, and I have had to accept, over time, that I am not one of them.

And therein lies the seeds of a great rationalization. "I should give everything, but I just can't, so I won't bother. Back to Gilligan's Island."

As a practical matter, here is what I recommend—and perhaps I would terribly remiss in leaving this out of the essay, so here's my chance to sneak it in as a comment—figure out a way to give a bit more than you are currently giving. I do not mean a one-time gift, though; I mean a small but regular lifestyle change. Volunteer at your local animal shelter for two hours a week. Give up your daily Starbuck's and put that money in a jar, and when it reaches $100, write a check to the Invisible Children and then start the jar over. Choose something like that—something very specific, measurable, relevant, and small—and stick to it as if your life depended on it. In my experience, this is the most reliable way that people change.

From: David Cookmeyer
April 1, 2012

That sounds like a good idea. While I won't technically be doing everything I possibly can, taking small steps towards doing everything I can seems like the only reasonable way to go. Thank you for the advice! Although I do have trouble accepting that people just inherently are not like mother Teresa ( perhaps I am interpreting your comment incorrectly, but I don't think it is a matter of whether or not someone is like mother Teresa). In my mind, I guess I believe that everyone is certainly capable of living the altruistic life that she did, and it is just a matter of whether or not everyone is willing to give that much. That being said, I don't think that people who don't live completely altruistic lives are, by any means, evil or wrong in any way. At this point I am certainly not doing everything I can. But I think all of us are certainly capable of doing more than we are doing now.

From: John "JAS" Schmitt
July 21, 2015

I do wish I had read this long ago while I was still in high school. Having used Singer's arguments for over two years now to convince many people to donate to the most effective charities (effective defined in terms of maximizing suffering mitigation), I think that this would have helped me a lot.

A response to one of the main issues you have regarding "luxury coffee," etc:

I am a human being born in a first-world country. Like all humans, I have certain needs to survive that I must spend money on such as food, water, and some shelter. I also have things (usually expensive ones) that provide me with happiness. But what about a luxury coffee? What about my computer? Given that children cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to raise, how could I rationalize having one when there are millions of other children with value that will die this year alone that could be saved with those funds?

To make the story short (likely at the cost of some clarity) at this moment my philosophy is to minimize the suffering of sentient beings in the world ("sentient beings" is outside the scope of this discussion, but for our purposes "human beings" implies the same general action). I am not a rationality-machine. I am a human being. If my life-long dream is to have a child because of the great joy it will bring me, the rational response is not necessarily to use all of that money to give to those suffering most instead of having a child. So long as, on the other side, you can say that you would be so miserable without a child that you would be quite unproductive and lose your possible positive impact on the world, then it is indeed quite rational to have a child. I think that most individuals literally do have this disposition (many religions encourage this for fulfillment of one's adulthood, etc). Similarly on a smaller note if you like your coffee in the morning to the extent that it makes you happier and that much more productive, then it is also goal-optimizing to spend this money towards coffee and not a malaria net because counterfactually your marginal productivity would be higher than the cost of the coffee (if one were to have such a disposition). For me, it means replying to this post on poverty instead of doing an extra hour of work and donating the wage because this encourages me and inspires me to keep reasoning for what I see right now to be moral reasoning, and it will make me generally more passionate and productive regarding the work around me (it would hopefully have some meaningful impact upon others' dispositions as well).

It should be noted that all of these dispositions should be supported only to "sufficiency" in terms of terminal goal-tracking. For example, if coffee in the morning is maximizing for you, it might be not be maximizing (ie it would be irrational) to get a fancy coffee if a normal coffee would suffice. If replying to posts like these is maximizing for me, it might be irrational to do this for 1.5 hours instead of 1 hour today if one hour would suffice.

We are humans. Let us be humans. Let us optimize toward our goals given each of our individual human constraints based upon our own preferences. The goal of reducing suffering is not best reached by abrogating our identities as first-world citizens to the benefit of those that are doing the worst in the world. The goal is best reached by doing the best that we can for those individuals given that we do indeed come from a first world and have such a world's preferences. Let the machines of the future be the rationality-machines that presumably require only energy inputs along with some morality constraints to minimize global suffering reduction. For humans to do that is ultimately irrational.

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