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I used to think that I was a good person. Recently, I found out that I have been incredibly immoral, and I was so shocked. I actually think almost all the well-off people are immoral. I will explain why.

Would You Save the Life of a Young Child Drowning in a Shallow Pond?

Let’s start from this question. What would you do if you were in this situation below?

“Suppose that you’re out for a stroll in the park when you encounter a young child drowning in a shallow pond. You could easily wade in and save this child’s life but, if you do, you will ruin your new Italian suit, which cost more than $500.” [1]

Would you save the child? Sure, you would. It’s monstrous to think that the value of your suit outweighs a child’s life.

How We Ignore a Young Drowning Child

Now, I want you to think about the situation with one additional fact. Joshua Greene, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, says in his book Moral Tribes, if we want to save someone’s life for a year, we can do so for about $500.

Now, is it morally acceptable for you to spend $500 on a suit or any type of luxury if you could instead use that money to save the life of a child?

Wait, did I just say that it’s monstrous to think that the value of a suit outweighs a child’s life? Are we all monsters?

You might be hoping that this is not true because then you are off the hook, but I am sorry to say we are all on the hook based on solid research. You might say that you cannot trust charitable projects, but you cannot excuse yourself anymore because international aid organizations are more effective and more accountable than ever. Actually, you need only one organization to be on the hook. As far as I know, there seems to be no denying that we can use our money to help people who desperately need help[2].

How Much Can We Allow Ourselves to Enjoy Indulgences?

How can we justify our behavior when we buy something that we don’t really need? Can we take a vacation? Can we buy new clothes? Can we eat delicious foods? Can we take someone on a date? Can we buy a luxury for our partner to make her happy? Doesn’t it mean we kill someone every time we spend our money on something else?

Am I wrong to feel that we are all hypocrites who ignore people who really suffer?

I was shocked to find out that most of my behaviors were unjustifiable, considering the poverty we have. I hosted a birthday party for my best friend last month which cost us approximately $1,000 (there were roughly 15 people). I could have saved the lives of two people with this money for a year. She was happy, her friends seemed to be happy, and that made me happy as well. Was that more important than two human lives though?

How much can we allow ourselves to enjoy these kinds of indulgences? Maybe we need a minimum amount of happiness to maximize the ability to increase the happiness of others?

It is all about comparison. If I don’t buy a present for my mom on Mother’s day, I might not be a good son. If I stop socializing with friends, I am not a good friend. If I stop paying for my learning, I cannot feel happy because learning is one of biggest purposes of my life. It is so hard to judge what is right and what is not right when we are aware of poverty, especially because our decisions affect the lives of other people.

There seems to be no magic formula for this, but surely we should do the best we can. We can easily find something that we obviously don’t need. We don’t have to buy another shirt. We can stop drinking alcohol. We don’t have to buy furniture just because it is fashionable. And then we can give money we saved to charity.

You Are More Powerful Than You Think

The good news is, we are more powerful than we think we are. Money is power, and we can save other people’s lives with that power. Isn’t it amazing? You are literally a hero to save this many people. Many of us are capable of it. So let that power be used for a good cause.

This might be a small cause, but I started by donating $50 of bitcoins every month[3].

I am planning to donate more in the near future but if I keep donating $50 a month, I will donate approximately $44,000 by the age of 100. This means I can save 88 lives. We don’t have a chance to save this many people in our daily life unless we get into a burning building and let 88 people out or something.

I chose The Water Project for my first donation. This project aims to provide access to clean, safe water in sub-Saharan Africa.

Here are some projects that you can donate to:
The Water Project
Save the Children
MEDIC MOBILE

Peace. :)

Notes

[1] Quoted from Moral Tribes. Originally posted by a moral philosopher, Peter Singer.
[2] There are some other rationalizations, such as physical distance, nationality, identity of the victim and such, all of which were not enough to justify the behavior. Let me know if you think it’s justifiable. I will be saved.
[3] I chose bitcoin because it eliminates any unnecessary costs before it benefits someone.

References

Greene, Joshua. (2013). Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. New York: Penguin Press.