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Saturday, November 16, 2013


While away, my little post about my new phone triggered a tsunami of comments, initiated by Michael's sneering remark.  As usual, Jerry Fresia seems to be the person who understands me the best.  But I thought perhaps I would attempt to stand back a bit from the snarking and countersnarking and address an underlying question that is both legitimate and urgent.

If one is genuinely concerned about the plight of the vast numbers of desperately poor people, and about all the other evils and injustices in addition to poverty that afflict so many men and women, there are, it seems to me, two ways in which one can respond.  The first is to take to heart the counsel of Jesus in Matthew 19:

This is essentially an injunction to become a saint [or at least what Catholics would call a saint -- the early Protestants used that term in a somewhat different sense.]  Stripped of its religious significance [for Jesus is really counseling sainthood as a way of earning eternal life, not for its own sake], this is an honorable calling, one that deserves our admiration and praise on the rare occasions when we encounter it.  Let us be clear what is involved in following Jesus' advice.  Giving away what one hath means not getting married, not having children, not pursuing a career, not seeking higher education, not running for public office.  It means, as Jesus well understood, a form of what was once called dying to the world, for all of these things -- marriage, parenthood, education, career, secular public service -- involve commitments that conflict with the injunction to give away to the poor what one hath.

What then is the alternative, for those of us who have chosen to remain of the world, to marry, raise children, pursue education and a career, and in many other ways participate in the public and private life of the modern world?  Here is my answer.

Choose a way to build your commitment to the needs of the poor, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, and excluded into the fabric of your life.  There are endlessly many ways to do this, and since each of us is only one person, we must resign ourselves to having only the tiniest marginal effect in the world.  Perhaps Bill Gates can take it as his personal goal to eliminate smallpox from the face of the earth, but the rest of us must be content with rather more modest goals.

What can one of us do?  Well, choose a career that commits you to doing work that you believe helps others, whether it is medicine or law or teaching or working for a charitable organization or doing any of the other countless things whose effects are positive rather than negative.  Give a portion of your income to others, either by supporting political movements whose goals you embrace or by donating money to charities, or by directly offering some of what you have to those in need.  Will it be enough?  No, but if you succeed in integrating your charitable giving and your positive actions into your on-going life, I can report that when you reach the age of eighty, you will be able to look back over your life and see that you have at least tried to make a difference.

As for anguishing over buying a smartphone:  Guilt is in fact a very ineffective motivator.  Since it is painful to feel guilt [leaving aside the moral masochists among us], we quickly find ways to avoid the feeling, with the result that any burst of eleemosynary generosity prompted by the guilt quickly evaporates.

Since Michael posted a comment on my blog, he must have access to a computer or other device.  Presumably, it cost him something to use it [even if he is posting a comment from an internet cafe].  Can he justify the expense of that small amount of money simply to gratify his desire to √©pater les bourgeois?  Shouldn't he have donated that small sum instead to OxFam?   You see where this foolishness leads.



Michael Llenos said...

Dr. Wolff,

I actually thought up my very own ontological argument last month based on Jesus' words in Matthew 19:17. Small world it is.

--Anselm: nothing greater can be conceived.

--Descartes: perfection includes existence.

--Spinoza: self causation.

--Mine: I have it copyrighted, so please excuse me for not putting it here. It's at the end of Part III of my philosophy book.

Michael Llenos said...

Dr. Wolff,

Please excuse me for the advertising. I just thought it was neat that your first quote was Matthew 19:17.

Michael Llenos said...

Dr. Wolff,

I re-read your quotes and I guess your first quote was 19:16 and not 19:17. Sorry for the goof.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I started at Matthew 19:16, but the money quote, as they say in the blogs, is from verses 21-22. I especially like verse 22!

Michael Llenos said...

Dr. Wolff,

Verse 22 reminds me of Andrew Carnegie's "Gospel of Wealth". Carnegie's "Gospel of Wealth" seems to address the problem of the rich young man. I think Carnegie believed you had a different responsibility if you are mega rich than if you are just well off.

Magpie said...

As an answer to the challenge Michael posed, Chris' "Wall Street CEOs" counter-example (comments 10:04 and 10:08 AM, November 15) seems stronger than your reply here.

In Chris's example, even if individuals have large influence, they have no permanent effect on "the system" (which we evaluate negatively):

"All the CEOs would be replaced and the system would keep on trucking in nearly identical fashion."

That, in Chris' example, follows from the system's assumed own logic. Morality/ethics seem irrelevant.


In your reply, however, individuals apparently can have a lasting effect on the system, even if their individual influences are often "marginal".

Indeed, you point at Bill Gates as an example of someone able to individually influence the system in a permanent and appreciable manner.

Whether these individuals choose to exercise their influence (and to what extent they exercise it) seems a matter of ethical/moral judgment: the system apparently has no own internal logic and appeals to ethics, morality and solidarity could make all the difference.