You’ve done some good in your life. Well done! But, you could've done a bit more, right?
A longstanding, vexing question in ethics is, “Well, shouldn’t you have done that extra good that you could have done?” The reason that this question is challenging is that it seems like we can mount good philosophical and ethical reasons for why you should have done more good, but many of us have the strong sense that the “good life” is not absent of frivolity and luxury. The rub is that the resources it takes to generate these two things surely could have gone to causes that promote more overall human flourishing.
Consider the bed net. Around 400,000 people die annually from malaria and sleeping under an insecticide-treated bed net, greatly reduces the chance of being bitten by a malaria-carrying mosquito. The cost to provide one bed net is $5. If you are curious about these facts, take some time to poke around on GiveWell.org; the Against Malaria Foundation is one of their top-rated charities. They receive their ranking based on a research/evidence based approach to assessing the cost effectiveness of saving a human life. It gets a bit complicated with extenuating circumstances (e.g. people can still get malaria during the day!), so they estimate it costs about $3,000-5,000 to save a life, which is one of the most effective they’ve ever found.
Now, let’s pose the question a bit more concretely. Suppose you stop for lunch everyday on your lunch break with your buddy. You each get Chipotle with steak and guac on the side (and sometimes a Diet Coke, you know, to avoid the sugary calories). Depending on where you live that’s about $11 each. Let’s say you do that 5 days a week for each of the 52 work weeks. That comes to $5,720 for the year for you and your friend to enjoy Chipotle together.
Here’s an alternative. It’s certainly possible for you and your friend to peruse GiveWell.org today during lunch, decide that you want to help these charities, and shift to eating a PBJ sandwich and a piece of fruit for lunch. Depending on the cost of these fairly inexpensive items, particularly bought in bulk, between the two of you it may only cost around $500 for the year. This frees up the 5k necessary to save a life through the Against Malaria Foundation.
There’s two questions: Should you and will you? Let’s take the second. No, you probably won’t. If Chipotle isn’t your thing, pick whatever line item from your budget that represents niceties above what is needed to survive. Judging by how well these fast food places do, the alcohol, tobacco, and growing marijuana markets, entertainment (multiple streaming services), etc, most people aren’t doing the PBJ-esque asceticism to achieve maximal human good in the world. It’s really remarkable the ways we find to dispense with our disposable income.
There’s much more to say about the “Will You?”, but let’s hone in on the “Should You?” After all, if it is not morally required, it’s even less likely that you’ll do it.
So far, the language used to set up our test case would feel most at home in a consequentialist moral landscape. You have the choice to deploy your resources in various ways. Choice A leads to X amount of good. Choice B leads to Y amount of good. Determine whether X or Y is greater, and do the corresponding choice. The initial thrust of the Chipotle example is meant to get you thinking that the saving of a life through Against Malaria Foundation and their bed nets is clearly better and constitutes a greater good than the attending pleasures of the chipotle visits.
But, is that really true? And how would you know that? This will forever be a problem with consequentialist thinking - it is so difficult to know, let alone even be justified in believing, what the ongoing consequences or impact of an action will be. We could easily concoct a story whereby these continued chipotle visits and burgeoning friendship is the bulwark in your friend’s life from developing alcoholism. Were he to not have friendship and community through you and the Chipotle luncheon, his loneliness would manifest in turning to alcohol, abusing it, then abusing his family, and perhaps divorce and suicide. That’s certainly a logically possible scenario.
The question is, is it reasonable to think such consequences might happen if you didn’t have the standing Chipotle luncheon? I don’t know. Sure, some evidence could be quite apparent to where this would be a very rational line of thought. But, who knows what people struggle with in their personal lives that they may not even tell their closest friends.
Now, I have much greater evidence that my 5k will produce the desired life-saving effect through the distribution of bed nets. Does morality and living the good life really come down to that - placing your bets on the surest bet for the most potential good?
If you are looking for an obvious answer, get in line! We tease out more nuances to help get a better grip on this topic in this week’s episode “How Much Should You Give?” You can watch it on YouTube or on your favorite podcatcher.
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