ethical self-absorption

I was going to blog about my new love for consignment and nice clothes (i.e. I’m going to stop buying cheap things all of the time and buy expensive things less of the time) and interior design, because I’ve been reading books and blogs on small space living, and I am very, very excited to get to my apartment and starting moving in. Even though I’ll have no money. And I’m going into serious debt for the next three years. But debt schmebt, I’ll have two Master’s degrees when I’m done, and hopefully I’ll go on to have a meaningful career.

Anyway. Really, really excited about vapid interior decoration and the buying of things.

Then I started reading Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save, which is a book full of ethical arguments describing why not only is it our duty to help those less fortunate than us, but it is actually quite possible for the entire developed world to make the entire undeveloped world into a developed one, thus eliminating the world’s 1.4 billion-strong population of people living in extreme poverty (defined as earning the equivalent of $1.25 US each day–and that means the purchasing power of $1.25, not the financial equivalent adjusted for local currency). It’s totally depressing, but in an eye-opening sort of way, and by that I mean that I feel compelled to attempt to make my lifestyle a more giving one, but it puts a damper on my excitement.

I’ve only read a chapter or two, but it’s already reminding me of my Jewish education and of the Penguin edition of the Talmud that I bought a couple months ago and still have not opened. That may well be the next book I read after I finish Singer’s, although it’s incredibly thick, so it will be a big, long-lasting project.

I believe I probably give a lot more than most other Americans, and I probably even give a lot more than people who have more disposable income than I do. And since I can’t afford to just hand wads of money over to people, I try to donate items and time in order to alleviate some of the world’s poverty or gaps in access, at least in my neck of the woods. I’m very pleased that I am able to do that while causing no harm to myself, and I certainly plan to continue to do so. But already I’m realizing that, if I’m going to start keeping track of my finances and budget, I can certainly find places to cut back (such as on said cheap clothing, $6 glasses of sub-par wine on nights out with friends, books I don’t have time to read), and that means that I can both lower the amount of loans I take out for school and also donate more of my measly income to organizations that help to alleviate poverty.

This is a bit hard for me not because I don’t want to help dying children in foreign countries, but because my training and education and personal interests lie more in social justice and social services, which are noble causes but not as essential as those that people living in extreme poverty face. The first thing people need are basic human needs–food, water, shelter, and healthcare. It’s only after those needs are achieved in a sustainable way that more humane needs–education, livelihood, community organization–can be looked at. But those needs are the things that are personal passions of mine, hence my propensity to give my time, items, and maybe money to those things, which tend to be more local in nature.

I would say that giving to anyone who needs, whether it’s a human need or a humane need, is important, well-received, and ethical. I don’t feel bad for helping those nearby who suffer from social injustice, but when you look at it from a global standpoint, someone who is discriminated against and can’t get a better job than at McDonald’s is still in a slightly better situation than someone who can’t even find enough food to feed their child. But since we live in relation to those around us, it’s easier to see relative injustices and understand them that way, and to remain in our comfort zones, than it is to think about people we don’t see.

Still, now I feel like there is so much more I could be doing. And I still have so many pages to read.

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