The Most Good You Can Be: The Next Stage in Solving Poverty
By David Metcalfe
June 17, 2018
Everyone knows that one person who is the “ultimate altruist”, and a totally pretentious, arrogant, condescending, sanctimonious annoyance to everyone around them. You know the one I’m talking about? The person who is obsessed with saving humpback dolphins off the Moroccan coast or whatever, and thinks you are the worst person ever if you don’t care about it just as much as they do. Any good they do in their altruistic efforts is entirely reduced by the immense suffering they cause to anyone who has to listen to them.
The fact is, not everyone cares about serving others, and within the ones that do, they often express it differently. Each person is on a journey of self-becoming, and it is in that journey that a sincere sense of altruism may become a part. For those who have found altruism to be a valuable part of their journey, it is of no use to bash those who are not there. Rather, a true altruist is empathetic even to the selfish and greedy, and seeks to convict with compassion, and uplift with a sincerity of heart that inspires those who hear it.
I guess this is my attempt at doing that, and I hope it serves you well, wherever you might be at.
We’re All Samaritans, Right?
“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
‘What is written in the law?’ he replied. ‘How do you read it?’
He answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.’
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’
In reply Jesus said: ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’
The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’
Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” Luke 10:25-37 (NIV)
This story is very often quoted in Christian sermons. People love it, because it is not convicting, but rather uplifting. When a congregation hears this, each member identifies with the good Samaritan. After all, who of us wouldn’t help someone who was clearly in need of help?
Peter Singer loves to use the good Samaritan analogy with his students at Princeton. He uses the example of a drowning child. He asks, “if you saw a child drowning in a pond, and you had the ability to save them, do you have a moral obligation to rescue the child?”. All of the students say yes.
He then asks, “would it make any difference if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death?”. All of the students agree it would make no difference (Singer, 1997).
Let’s now take this out of the hypothetical. We live in a world where 800 million people are malnourished, and over 700 million people lack access to safe drinking water. About 22,000 children die every day due to poverty (8 million per year) (11 Facts About Global Poverty, 2015). In this very same world, if you can believe it, is hundreds of millions of people spending thousands of dollars on things not necessary to their survival. Every dollar that someone spends on a superfluous expenditure is a dollar that could have gone towards saving someone’s life.
The fact is, if you are spending more than you absolutely need, you are the priest walking by the injured man to at least some extent.
And it’s true that most of us are, at times, the good Samaritan, albeit fairly briefly and intermittently. Many of us have sponsor children or have given bits here and there to charities. But does your casual donation, at little to no cost to yourself, really warrant you the title of the good Samaritan?
You have to consider: the good Samaritan was going about his life as anyone would. He may have been on his way to work, purchasing food, meeting up with friends, etc. Upon seeing the injured man, he stopped and completely changed his day. He put in hard work: lifting the man up onto the donkey, walking him all the way to the inn. He gave his time, his money, and a great deal of care and attention towards this task.
What I want to begin by suggesting to you is that you should not be so quick to identify with the good Samaritan. Most of the American Christians who hear that story in church drive their $30,000 cars to a local restaurant, buy a $20 meal, and go home to their $400,000 house. They look at their sponsor child magnet on the fridge and proudly say, “wow, I’m a good Samaritan”. They focus only on the presence of their giving, rather than the much more significant absence of their giving. If you could give away 50% of your income, and yet only give 5% to charity, you are walking by the injured man 90% of the time! The average American actually only gives 2.6% of their income to charity, according to a 2017 report (NCCS, 2017).
America is a nation of self-proclaimed good Samaritans, who in actuality consist primarily of priests and Levites.
The 5 Types of Philanthropic Selves
In respect to philanthropy among affluent, Western societies, there are 5 kinds of people in the world. They are in no way related to race, religion, or gender. However, they are somewhat related to social class and education, as will be evident. They are as follows:
1) The Aspiring Poor
2) The Ignorant Wealthy
3) The Thoughtful Wealthy
4) The Effective Altruist
5) The Transcendent Self
It’s certainly not that people who are one type rather than another are necessarily better. People tend to progress from the lowest one to the highest one with increased understanding of themselves and the world they live in, and an increase in fulfilling what they feel is the right thing to do in a larger sense. As I go through these, it will make more sense.
1) The Aspiring Poor
These are the people who want to be wealthy, but are struggling at it. Whatever the social constructs are that give one the ability to be wealthy, these kinds of people are failing to fulfill that. They are unsatisfied with their current income, and believe they need more money to have a better life. There are three subtypes:
a) Incapability: these are people who, for whatever reason, are not capable of earning a sufficient income to meet their needs or have a sustainable life. They would love nothing more than to win the lottery; it would be the pinnacle of their existence. These people often work from time to time, but somehow get fired or waste their money on drugs, alcohol, etc. and end up being largely subsidized by welfare. They can’t even begin to think of giving their money to the poor, because they are the poor.
b) In Transition: these are people who have the ability to earn large amounts of money, but are not yet in a situation where that is a reality. This is most commonly exemplified by university students. A student in their third year of medical school, for example, might be in $200,000 of debt, meaning they are in no position to be giving money. However, it’s simply because they are on the way to financial success, rather than that they have failed at it. People who are starting up new businesses or getting out of consumer debt would also fall into this category.
c) Imagined Poor: these are people who are actually fairly wealthy, but think they are poor. Most Americans seem to fit into this category. Even though they earn an income that not only covers their needs but even provides extra, they think they are not wealthy enough. It’s the classic “keeping up with the Jones’” mentality. They see people around them, or celebrities on TV, and aspire to become as wealthy as them. These people have fully bought in to the “money buys happiness” mentality, and since they have not achieved their goal of financial success, they remain unhappy, yet hopeful.
These “aspiring poor” give and care very little about things like global poverty, simply out of real or imagined necessity.
2) The Ignorant Wealthy
These people are able to fulfill the necessary social constructs that cause one to become wealthy, and are aware of their wealth. It could include anyone with a full-time career that earns a consistent income. The key factor is that these people have handled their money effectively, and are not in consumer debt or excessively burdened by financial obligations. These people are free to go on vacations, purchase newer vehicles, pursue costly hobbies, and save up money in a bank account.
What marks these people in terms of philanthropy is their complete disregard for giving any of their money away. This could be due to a number of reasons, most notably: a sense of entitlement or “deserving” to be wealthy, a lack of awareness of poverty, an attitude of selfishness, or simply being small minded.
These “ignorant wealthy” give and care very little about things like global poverty because they love to be rich and don’t feel any moral obligation to help others with it.
3) The Thoughtful Wealthy
These people are much like the “ignorant wealthy” in terms of financial success based on income and responsibility. The main difference is their realization that they have at least some degree of moral obligation to help others. They don’t want to drastically sacrifice or change their way of life significantly, but they do want to feel like they are good people, and reduce the little bit of guilt they feel.
Basically, these people have been made aware of poverty in the world, and feel they need to respond. A typical example would be a middle class American family who earns a combined income of $110,000/year, and tries their best to donate around $10,000 of it to various charities. Another way of thinking about this group would be the “aspirational 10 percenters”. They’ve been taught in church or through culture that giving 10% of your income is what qualifies you as a good, selfless person.
These people struggle with going between being ignorant and thoughtful. Often times, if they are around friends and media that is all about attaining wealth, they will lean towards ignorance, but if they are around friends and media that are more about giving, they will lean towards thoughtful.
These “thoughtful wealthy” give and care a little bit about things like global poverty because they understand the reality of it, and have some sense of moral obligation.
4) The Effective Altruist
These people earn a normal amount of income, but spend significantly less on themselves, and undergo drastic life changes as a result of their philanthropy. They are terribly troubled by the devastating reality of poverty, and put their strong sense of moral obligation into action as much as possible.
Peter Singer’s wonderful book “The Most Good You Can Do” chronicles the stories of people who have become “effective altruists”. Matt Wage was a top student in philosophy at Princeton University. Instead of pursuing a career in philosophy, he decided to take a job on Wall Street so that he could earn the most amount of money possible. But unlike most Wall Street brokers, Matt’s sole goal of earning money was to give as much away as possible. Only one year after graduating university, he was donating over half of his earnings (a six-figure sum) to charity.
The book characterizes an “effective altruist” by these 5 concepts:
“- Living modestly and donating a large part of their income – often much more than the traditional tenth, or tithe – to their most effective charities.
– Researching and discussing with others which charities are the most effective or drawing on research done by other independent evaluators.
– Choosing the career in which they can earn most, not in order to be able to live affluently but so that they can do more good.
– Talking to others, in person or online, about giving, so that the idea of effective altruism will spread.
– Giving part of their body – blood, bone marrow, or even a kidney – to a stranger.” (Singer, 2015).
This is a radical way of approaching poverty. There was one guy, who millions of Americans claim to follow, who was this radical. His name is Jesus Christ, and he once had a chat with a rich, young ruler:
“As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. ‘Good teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good – except God alone. You know the commandments: You shall not murder, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’
‘Teacher,’ he declared, ‘all these I have kept since I was a boy.’
Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Jesus look around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’
The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’
The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, ‘Who then can be saved?’
Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.’” Mark 10:17-27 (NIV)
I am always amazed to see the ad hoc mental gymnastics that American pastors employ when preaching on this passage. Pastors who read the passage and say, “alright, people, let’s all follow the words of Jesus, and do everything we can to give to the poor” are not pastors for very long. Pastors who read the passage and say, “as long as you put God first, it is fine to have as much money as you want” are more likely to have long, successful careers. American Christians love the “give life abundantly” Jesus, but don’t much care for the actual one.
One young man, Aaron Moore, was one of the few modern day, wealthy Christians to actually put this into practice. He was not wealthy by Australian standards, but when he entered his income into globalrichlist.com, he realized that he was earning in the top 1 percent of the world. His conviction to help those in poverty grew so strong that he sold literally all of his possessions, and donated the money to the poor. He completely emptied his bank account as well.
Aaron’s act was, of course, more of a symbolic statement than a practical way to live one’s life. Today, he owns a few possessions and gives as much as he can. Jesus’ words cannot be literally applied to everyone in a society, because we would all die if we did that. But the sentiment remains the same: an effective altruist does everything they can to provide for those less fortunate. Effective altruists are the only group of people who can correctly self-identify as good Samaritans.
These “effective altruists” give and care very much about things like global poverty because they have a strong awareness of poverty issues, and feel an extremely strong sense of moral obligation to do everything they can to help the poor.
5) The Transcendent Self
Most people could not handle the life of an effective altruist, and even fewer could handle the life of the “transcendent self”. In discussing philanthropy with people, I recommend them to aspire to the “thoughtful wealthy” about 90% of the time, an “effective altruist” about 9% of the time, and the “transcendent self”, well, I haven’t actually found anyone to recommend this to yet, but in enough time spent at universities and religious institutions, I think I might be able to find 1% that are up to the task.
The “transcendent self” is reserved for a very specific kind of person. A kind of person who is far beyond social constructs, social approval, and the concerns of mundanity. A kind of person, I suppose, who is quite near self-actualization. There are very few of these people, but there are a few notable ones in history that come to mind. They would include the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Paul of Tarsus, Socrates, and two of my favorite, who I will be talking about further: Jesus Christ and Henry David Thoreau.
Here’s a question to consider: What category, of the four I’ve talked about thus far, would Jesus Christ fit into?
Many people are quick to assume that he’s the effective altruist, but that’s not the case. Jesus didn’t get the highest paying job possible and give as much as he could to charity. Although he healed some people, he actually healed very few for the amount of people that he could have potentially healed. There were people in poverty before Jesus came, and there were people in poverty after he left. He didn’t solve all of the world’s problems, and it doesn’t even seem like he tried to.
In Luke 21, Jesus sees the rich people giving their donations to the temple. Then he sees a widow put in two very small copper coins. He says to his disciples, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
That directly contradicts the idea of effective altruism! Under the idea of effective altruism, the rich people did a much greater good, because they gave more money. So how could Jesus possibly suggest that she is giving well? And whenever Jesus talks about money, he talks about getting rid of it, but he is not all that specific on the how or why. So, what is Jesus’ deal? Why isn’t he helping more people?
I’m going to tag in my friend Henry David Thoreau to help answer this one.
About a third of the way through Thoreau’s masterpiece, “Walden”, he discusses his rejection of material possessions, his lack of desire to have a conventional career, and why he prefers to live independently. But then he addresses his critics, who often accused him of being selfish. Because, after all, he is a genius with all kinds of extraordinary capabilities, and yet he spends most of his time reading books by himself in the forest. “What good is he doing the world?”, one may ask. This is his answer:
“But all this is very selfish, I have heard some of my townsmen say. I confess that I have hitherto indulged very little in philanthropic enterprises. I have made some sacrifices to a sense of duty, and among others have sacrificed this pleasure also. There are those who have used all their arts to persuade me to undertake the support of some poor family in the town; and if I had nothing to do – for the devil finds employment for the idle – I might try my hand at some such pastime as that. However, when I have thought to indulge myself in that respect, and lay their heaven under an obligation by maintaining a certain poor person such as myself, and have even ventured to make them the offer, they have one and all unhesitatingly preferred to remain poor. While my townsmen and women are devoted in so many ways to the good of their fellows, I trust that one at least may be spared to other and less humane pursuits. You must have a genius for charity as for anything else. As for Doing-good, that is one of the professions which are full. Moreover, I have tried it fairly, and, strange as it may seem, am satisfied that it does not agree with my constitution. Probably I should not consciously and deliberately forsake my particular calling to do the good which society demands of me, to save the universe from annihilation; and I believe that a like but infinitely greater steadfastness is all that now preserves it. But I would not stand between any man and his genius; and to him who does the work, which I decline, with his whole heart and soul and life I would say, Persevere, even if the whole world call it doing evil, as it is most likely they will…
What good I do, in the common sense of that word, must be aside from my main path, and for the most part wholly unintended. Men say, practically, Begin where you are and such as you are, without aiming mainly to become of more worth, and with kindness aforethought go about doing good. If I were to preach at all in this strain, I should say rather, Set about being good…
A man is not a good man to me because he will feed me if I should be starving, or warm me if I should be freezing, or pull me out of a ditch if I should ever fall into one. I can find you a Newfoundland dog that will do as much. Philanthropy is not love for one’s fellow-man in the broadest sense…
Be sure that you give the poor the aid they most need, though it be your example which leaves them far behind. If you give money, spend yourself with it, and do not merely abandon it to them. We make curious mistakes sometimes. Often the poor man is not so cold and hungry as he is ragged and dirty and gross. It is partly his taste, and not merely his misfortune. If you give him money, he will perhaps buy more rags with it…
There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve. It is the pious slave-breeder devoting the proceeds of every tenth slave to buy a Sunday’s liberty for the rest. Some show their kindness to the poor by employing them in their kitchens. Would they not be kinder if they employed themselves there? You boast of spending a tenth part of your income in charity; maybe you should spend the nine tenths so, and done with it…
Philanthropy is almost the only virtue which is sufficiently appreciated by mankind. Nay, it is greatly overrated; and it is our selfishness which overrates it…
I would not subtract anything from the praise that is due to philanthropy, but merely demand justice for all who by their lives are a blessing to mankind. I do not value chiefly a man’s uprightness and benevolence, which are, as it were, his stem and leaves… His goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious. This is a charity that hides a multitude of sins. The philanthropist too often surrounds mankind with the remembrance of his own cast-off griefs as an atmosphere, and calls it sympathy. We should impart our courage, and not our despair, our health and ease, and not our disease, and take care that this does not spread by contagion…
Thus, by a few years of philanthropic activity, he cures himself of his dyspepsia. I believe that what so saddens the reformer is not his sympathy with his fellows in distress, but, though he be the holiest son of God, is his private ail. Let this be righted, let this spring come to him, the morning rise over his couch, and he will forsake his generous companion without apology… Do not stay to be an overseer of the poor, but endeavour to become one of the worthies of the world.”
What Thoreau is saying in these passages is that philanthropy isn’t really much of a virtue in and of itself. Many philanthropists are actually no more noble than the greedy. The only reason they give is out of guilt or a sense of obligation. They are very troubled by something in their own life, and seek to quell that by helping poor people for their own sake. If their troubles went away, they would just as soon forget about philanthropy altogether. They do not truly love others.
Mother Teresa gets this. She once said, “It’s not about how much you do, but how much love you put into what you do that counts.”
Paul of Tarsus once told the Corinthians, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
The “effective altruist” is going against both of these ideas. They are all about measuring their good, like people are robots that you can put a certain number towards and have them operate functionally. They give compulsively, out of an obligation they feel.
Thoreau suggests that man should develop in himself an internalized virtue, completely independent of the world around him. He says that we ought to impart the goodness of ourselves into the world naturally and with ease. We all know that person who is really “nice”, and will “help you out anytime”. But then actually getting help from them is a terrible experience. They remind you how much effort they are putting in to help you, and expect something in return. You feel guilty ever having been helped by them, even if you never asked for their help.
That is not the true state of love for others.
If the root is strong and healthy, leaves can fall off and it is of no consequence to the tree. We need to exist as the root, not the leaves. Once we are in a state of authentically loving others and are at peace with our lives, giving becomes so easy it is of no cost to yourself. All these people who think they are sacrificing for some greater good are needlessly costing themselves a full life.
If someone is giving someone money because they think it will help them, they are promoting the idea that money makes people’s lives better. In certain situations, money may be a temporary answer to certain things, but it very rarely matters. The primary reason so many people are without food and clean water is not due to a lack of charity, but a lack of justice and virtue on the part of a great many people. If the governments of these countries cared about human rights, if war criminals were not burning enemy crops, if the poor people had children more responsibly, if there was a greater sense of intra-community altruism, the list goes on… (Barry and Overland, 2016).
And when we are giving people money as a way to make their lives better, it is only to reason that more money=more happiness. “Effective altruists” are no more enlightened on this concept than the ignorant wealthy. What the “transcendent self” mentality teaches is that you don’t need money to be happy. Although Thoreau doesn’t actually help anyone, he is exemplifying by his way of life how to live as a poor person and still be fulfilled. That would help the world more than anything. If all people lived like Americans, we would destroy the earth with pollution so quickly, humanity would be destroyed within a few generations. And not to mention, most Americans are not really all that fulfilled. We need to promote a sustainable, fulfilling existence.
If everyone lived like Jesus, Henry David Thoreau, Mother Teresa, Paul of Tarsus, Socrates, etc., there would be almost none of the evils in the world that we face today. We would not be polluting excessively with our insatiable demand for more material things. We would not be exploiting people in poor countries to make as much stuff for as cheap as possible. We would not be contaminating drinking water to save money on factory production. We would not be hoarding wealth and spending it on mansions and private jets to find fulfillment in life.
The “transcendent self” doesn’t care how much they give, but rather seeks to develop an internal virtue and peace within themselves that naturally exudes philanthropy.
In the setup of our current economy, we actually need all five types of people. We need the aspiring poor to work at producing goods in order to provide economic growth. We need the ignorant wealthy to create and sustain businesses in order to provide jobs to those people, and spend money on goods. We need the thoughtful wealthy to create economic growth while also meeting the needs of the poor. We need the effective altruists to make charities more effective and meet the financial needs of lots of poor people.
But the pinnacle of the “philanthropic self” is to become the “transcendent self”. It is these people who not only make a real difference in the world, but also teach us what it means to truly love others and be fulfilled in doing so.
I said that I only recommend the “transcendent self” to about 1% of people. That is true in the sense of fully embracing the mindset and lifestyle, but we can all do little things to incorporate the “transcendent self” into who we are. Every time we open a door for someone, volunteer our labor to a good cause, donate some money to a charity on our heart, prepare a meal for a friend, or visit an elderly relative, we are living out a mindset of authentic love, not for our own good, but for the good of others.
As Mother Teresa said, “The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.”
It is of little use to give money to something or someone we don’t care about. Instead, we need to develop a sense of peace and virtue in ourselves from which love naturally flows with such ease we don’t even notice it.
As Paul said to the Corinthians, “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
I’m not interested in hearing some pretentious, “do-gooder” narcissist tell me why I need to give more money. I’m interested in seeing someone live out authentic virtue, and learning how I might do the same. While Peter Singer may be a great philosopher, I believe he is promoting an inauthentic, insincere, exterior sense of virtue that pales in comparison to the all-encompassing, deeply rooted, and truly fulfilling type of virtue exemplified by the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
True philanthropy is not an external good “to be done”, but rather an internal good “to become”. It is the potential of all people to spend themselves in the service of others that gives me hope for poverty to become a thing of the past, and true fulfillment to arise in the hearts of the people helping and being helped.
11 Facts About Global Poverty. (2015). Do Something. Retrieved from https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-global-poverty
Barry, C., Overland, G. (2016). Responding to Global Poverty: Harm, Responsibility, and Agency. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.ca/books?id=FAZQDQAAQBAJ&pg=PA54&lpg=PA54&dq=cost+of+saving+someone+in+poverty&source=bl&ots=xI9SAzkMUp&sig=cZSViU-ouZEi4VBR0i0Cu_ZhiSQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiXvdSCxNfbAhVpqlQKHVq4DZgQ6AEIWzAE#v=onepage&q=cost%20of%20saving%20someone%20in%20poverty&f=false
Bible (NIV). Bible Gateway. Retrieved from https://www.biblegateway.com/
NCCS. (2017). Charitable Giving in America: Some Facts and Figures. Retrieved from http://nccs.urban.org/data-statistics/charitable-giving-america-some-facts-and-figures
Singer, P. (1997). The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle. New Internationalist. Retrieved from https://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/199704–.htm
Singer, P. (2015). The Most Good You Can Do. Yale University Press.
Thoreau, H. (1854). Walden.