Monday, January 31, 2011

Why Terry Ord will live like a grad student... forever

On Slate, a secular, godless, academic, liberal  named Toby Ord has a post announcing his plans to live frugally, and to give away all of his extra money. As he puts it, the decision seems obvious:
...I chose to do this after realising just how much more good my money could do for others than for me. I'm a research fellow in ethics, and my thoughts on the ethical issues around global poverty have had a dramatic impact on my personal behavior. Philosopher Peter Singer—a fellow Australian—said that the money we spend on luxuries could be used to save people's lives in developing countries if we so wished. How then can we justify choosing the luxuries? This is a strong argument, and quite confronting.
This is also quite a clever way to outmaneuver the local richies. Can't afford an extension on your house, or a landscape created by the local hot gardener? Try this instead: Give away all your extra money, and forgo all luxuries. You'll gain peace of mind, countless mitzvah points, and the moral high road!

See, what I am trying to get at it in my snarky way, is this: Everything we do, we do for a payoff. The local richie feels good when he spends money on himself, so that's what he does. He wants people to know he's wealthy and powerful ;adding on a new wing to his house, or parking a Lexus in the driveway gets the message across. (Perhaps he also sets aside large sums for charity, but he does this, too, because of how it makes him feel.) The fellow planning for a life of extreme poverty is no different, only his emotional payoff comes from a conspicuous shows of virtue, rather than from conspicuous shows of  wealth and consumption. This is not to say Toby Ord is wrong to behave so charitably, only that because of how his brain works, the sacrifice isn't as great as it seems. For someone who gets his payoff from living large, the choice Ord has made would be impossible. Ord wants to be seen as a good person so giving away all of his money, after taking care to alert us all to his decision on Slate, is merely a multi-million dollar home extension by another name. Sure, the world would be a better place if all of us shared Ord's priorities, but much of the credit for Ord's generosity should go to the parents and teachers and whoever else linked extreme generosity with his self-image, and raised him to feel good about being charitable

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