Saturday, June 2, 2012

Some Ethics of Spending

So minutes, hours, days, month, and years,
Passed over to the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave.
Ah, what a life were this! How sweet, how lovely!

-- Henry VI, Part 3, II.v. 38-41.

I was watching the ... documentary? filmed series of mostly one-way conversations? I'm not sure what to call it ... Examined Life on Netflix the other evening (because I am a pretentious jerkwad)*, and one of the speakers in the film, Peter Singer, said something obvious in a way I hadn't considered before. He posed the following hypothetical situation, and he then asked people how they would handle it.

Here's the scenario:

A screen that offers time to reflect.
Suppose you're walking in a park on a bright, sunny day, and you walk past a pool that's only a foot deep. You notice that a young child has waded into the pool, and the child is obviously having some difficulty. After watching for a moment, you realize that the child is about to drown, and you know that if you act right now, you can save the child's life. This action will involve walking into the pool (which poses no danger to you as an able-bodied adult) and retrieving the child. The only reason that gives you pause is the fact that the shoes you're wearing are expensive, and by walking into the water, you will necessarily ruin them. You know that there's no time to hesitate if you choose to rescue the child; another few seconds, and the kid will drown. What do you do?

I'm fairly certain that approaching 100% of the people reading this would decide to save the child's life because, on a very basic level, most people agree that the direct saving of a life is more important than shoes, expense be damned.

However, Singer, as philosophers are prone to do, doesn't let the question stop there; he goes on to ask, basically, if you would allow your money to be lost by ruining your shoes to save a child's life, why not, in the first place, instead of spending the money on the expensive shoes, spend that money by donating to one of the various, valid charitable organizations that use your money to feed starving children?

I know some of you reading this will immediately claim that Singer's question poses an absurd reduction. After all, why go the movies when you could help at a soup kitchen? Why read a blog post when you could be learning first aid? Why do ANYTHING immediately gratifying and enjoyable when you could be helping others?**

But to react in this way is to miss an opportunity for reflection. There is truth in what he says. After all, economics studies how people spend their finite resources, and it follows (by definition of finite) that spending money on one item necessarily means that that money is unavailable for other expenditures (credit cards work to make people feel like they're circumventing this, but as anybody who has read a personal finance blog knows, the reckless use of credit cards frequently ends in disastrous results).

It is important to realize that each dollar we spend is a dollar we can't spend another way, and I think it's worthwhile to remember this on a weekly, daily, or even a transaction by transaction basis.

What do you think? Do you consider where each dollar you spend could have gone, and/or what help it could have provided? Let me know in the comments.

*Though, to be fair, you could probably add that clause to the end of nearly any sentence I've written on this site, and it would remain accurate. "Should I Drop Chase Bank?" because I am a pretentious jerkwad? Here's my Lending Club update because I am a pretentious jerkwad. Here are 6 things you don't know about me because I am a pretentious jerkwad. You get the idea. Apt, no?
**I would argue that helping others can be both gratifying and enjoyable; I find that little in life is truly an either/or situation.

Photo by psd.

**This post was featured in the Carnival of Personal Finance #364.**


Kathleen @ Frugal Portland said...

It's like the story about a town spending millions rescuing one child from a well, when all that money could have been spent on covering up other wells -- things matter more when they have a face. And a name.

Christa said...

It could be argued that expensive shoes may be a necessity of life for the individual. Maybe his job requires a certain level of presentability where sneakers just wouldn't cut it. If he was out this job, he would not have the option of supporting starving children. That's my thought..but maybe I'm just a pretentious jerkwad ;-)

Bryan said...

Kathleen: I definitely agree.

Christa: Good point. I think a lot of talk about ethics tries to distill the situation down maybe too much and, in doing so, removes nuance or possibilities.

Also, I'm the only one who gets called a jerkwad around here. :)

Dannielle @ Odd Cents said...

Why are you called a jerkwad and what does it really mean? I've regretted buying stuff, but never to that extent before. It's more like " I should have bought the green instead of the blue" or " I should have waited until this was on sale."