Another December has come and gone. For Americans, that’s the biggest month for charitable contributions, to poverty relief and many other causes. The online giving platform Network for Good reports that about 30 percent of the annual donations it processes come in December, 10 percent in the last three days of the month.

The standard explanation: the tax deduction. If you’re in the 25 percent tax bracket and you give $100, the donation really only costs you $75. But this explanation insults the ordinary person. For one thing, it still costs people money to donate, just less than the face value of the contribution. And the year-end tax deadline serves as a useful reminder that we haven’t gotten around to doing our bit this year and provides a target for action, a kind of heuristic. It’s Christmastime, this must be giving time. There might be better approaches, but there’s no reason to be cynical about this one.

Still—with the days of 2014 ticking away, and January gone too—it’s time to think about how we can do more this year.

Is it, you might ask? Maybe we’re doing enough already. (And whaddya mean “we”?) My new book, Distant Strangers: Ethics, Psychology, and Global Poverty, argues that given the extent of dire poverty in the world, many of us should be doing more. But it also recognizes that most people aren’t saints and never will be, and that our self-sacrificing tendencies are limited. How to square this circle? I argue that we need to find a way of harnessing our potential for action to diminish poverty without making excessive demands on ordinary people’s virtue. An understanding of human psychology is essential.

Princeton philosopher Peter Singer’s 1972 article “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” argued strikingly for a moral obligation to give unto others until giving more would make the donor as badly off as the recipients. Two years later, in his award-winning Anarchy, State, and Utopia, the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick effectively denied any obligation to aid others. These positions launched an ongoing debate among philosophers over whether and how much comfortable individuals are morally obligated to act to alleviate poverty. Although I’ve learned a lot from this debate, at a certain point I concluded it had run its course.

One reason is that I don’t think the concepts of individual duty and obligation—so central in contemporary moral philosophy—are very helpful in describing or fixing our responsibilities in this realm. That’s in part because of their yes/no, on/off character, suggesting a bright line where none is available. And today’s leading theoretical approaches—utilitarianism, Kantian deontology, virtue ethics—are so open to interpretation as to be compatible with a very demanding morality, a pretty lax one, and everything in between.

I began to think that philosophers were asking the wrong question. We don’t need a fancy philosophical theory to understand that the desperate plight of the world’s poorest people and the current maldistribution of wealth are for a variety of reasons repellent. So instead of asking how demanding morality is we should ask how to make poverty alleviation less demanding. Rather than determining precise individual duties, we should figure out how to channel human tendencies in the direction of greater generosity. Some maintain that (as NYU philosopher Samuel Scheffler puts it) Morality Demands What It Demands—and if we don’t live up to its demands that’s our failure, not Morality’s. I disagree. I believe that when we have reason to think these “deficiencies” are nearly impossible to eradicate, we need to work around them. So it’s not only unrealistic but unreasonable to expect too much of ordinary mortals. Morality is for the world we live in—taking human beings as they are or can become.

One crucial part of the solution is to change the focus from individual duties to the behavior of groups. For a variety of reasons, acting together with others demands less of individuals psychically and materially than acting alone.

We do and feel what others around us do and feel, and we judge our own level of well-being and deprivation by looking around us. You need a car when most others in your community drive cars, thereby undermining the public transportation system. You want shiny new gadgets not only because they’re pretty (which they often are), but because your friends have them. Our own past expectations matter as well. You feel cramped in a two-bedroom apartment because you’ve always lived in a big house; if you had always lived in a one-bedroom apartment, your new one would feel roomy.

Another central reason concerns status. Many people wrongly think only of mindless status-seeking when considering why we do as others do—and they usually disapprove. But as Adam Smith famously explained in The Wealth of Nations, concerns about status do not always indicate vanity: It is self-respect, not vanity, that requires that we have certain things others around us have. In Smith’s day it was leather shoes and linen shirts for anyone who would appear in public. Today it’s the latest iThing.

Smith’s point was psychological: Self-respect is as much a human need as food and water. But the level of consumption we need for self-respect comes from outside, not within.

Deprivation, in other words, is often relative. From the significance of relative deprivation, captured in these examples, it follows that if we can induce collective change we can avoid making excessive demands on individual human will and character; doing more for others won’t feel like self-sacrifice. Economists such as Richard Easterlin have shown that ratcheting consumption up does not increase happiness (see, e.g., here and here). Robert Frank has made these ideas popular in works like Choosing the Right Pond and Luxury Fever. A corollary is that ratcheting collective consumption down in rich countries—important, for example, for slowing climate change—need not make a significant dent in people’s well-being.

Conceiving the locus of responsibility for alleviating poverty as residing in the group rather than the individual makes sense on many grounds. Global poverty cannot be disentangled from deep-seated structural features of institutions. Comfortable people participate in these institutions as tiny elements in a complex web. Acting alone, they can rarely make large differences—and this can fallaciously make individual action feel futile.

Paying attention to human psychology points to ways of lessening poverty without making onerous demands on ordinary mortals. In future posts I’ll explore examples of this approach.

About the Author

Judith Lichtenberg

Judith Lichtenberg is Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University.

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