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I think I might have a real self-control problem when it comes to books. The latest manifestation of this malady came when I just couldn’t keep myself from delving into Living High and Letting Die, by philosopher Peter Unger – even though I was already reading three other books at the time (and had an examination the next day). But then again, the central message of the book can hardly fail to attract attention. In a nutshell, it argues compellingly that if ordinary middle- and upper-class people like you and I thought clearly about the moral demands of living in a world in which literally hundreds of thousands of children starve to death every year, we would realize that just about every single one of us fails quite miserably at meeting those demands.

I’ll probably go into a few details on some of the book’s most important ideas in a later post, but right now I want to talk about a very interesting discussion I had with a friend after I told her about Living High and Letting Die. She responded with considerable skepticism to the idea that relatively well-off people should donate significant portions of their income to organizations that provide life-saving aid, such as UNICEF and OXFAM. Much of this skepticism stemmed from the fact that, in all probability, you will never know exactly what an organization such as UNICEF does with the money you donate to it.

This wouldn’t be much of a problem if you were confident that every single dollar you donated was spent on things such as oral rehydration therapy (ORT) packets, and hence directly responsible for saving the lives of children in many parts of Africa and Asia. But that’s clearly not true. There are administrative costs involved in keeping UNICEF standing, and some of the money donated to it must be used to cover those costs. This may still not seem like anything objectionable, but what if we focus on one particular administrative cost: the salaries of the top officials at UNICEF?

Here’s the thing: it’s quite possible that the top-ranking officers of a multinational organization like UNICEF draw relatively large salaries. And those salaries are paid, indirectly, by people who donate to the organization. But surely the people who donate to UNICEF do so out of concern for children at risk, rather than out of concern for whether or not top-ranking officials at UNICEF get to live in nice houses, buy expensive cars, and so on? Does this constitute a valid argument against donating to UNICEF?

My own instinctive reaction was that it did not. I tried arguing that running UNICEF is important and difficult work, and that no one should feel bad about paying the salaries of the people who do that work. I tried to focus on the fact that since nearly no one else does the work that UNICEF does, you have to make a choice between helping needy kids while paying large salaries; or doing nothing at all to help needy kids – which had to be worse.

But it still didn’t feel right.

The people who are supposed to be saving the world’s poor are themselves living very comfortable lives, with money that could have been directed to the poor instead of to them.

I could tell that this was definitely something worth thinking about. But I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory argument either way, so I’m glad I came across this, towards the end of Living High and Letting Die:

“If it’s all right for you to impose losses on some particular person with the result that there’s significant lessening in the serious losses suffered by others overall, then, if you’re to avoid doing what’s seriously wrong, you can’t fail to impose equal losses on yourself when the result’s an equal lessening of serious losses overall.”

[slightly paraphrased for clarity]

Unger calls this the Reasonable Principle of Ethical Integrity, and uses it to argue for his central idea that well-off people like you and I should donate significant amounts of our income and wealth towards the people who are most in need of it. But even without following through to that conclusion, I think this points towards a very satisfactory answer to our conundrum regarding rich UNICEF employees.

Let me try to explain. Basically, the Reasonable Principle of Ethical Integrity argues that you’re not special, and that if morality imposes certain demands on UNICEF employees, it imposes the same demands on you. Hence, it might be okay for you to demand that UNICEF employees should have caps imposed on their salaries “because there’s kids starving in Africa”. But this would only be fair if you accepted a cap on the salary you may earn, wherever you work, “because there’s kids starving in Africa”, and because your employer (rightly) is more interested in keeping them alive than keeping you living lavishly.

Do you see what I mean? The gut feeling that UNICEF employees should not be living lavishly does have a lot of moral weight, but only in the sense that you should also not be living lavishly, regardless of whether your job is to help poor kids or not.  In fact, it’s crazy to penalize the people who are actually doing something to save the starving kids, when you refuse to penalize yourself in the same way. They’re the ones who’ve already given their professional lives to lessening serious loss, which is something you haven’t done. Therefore, they’ve already met a moral standard that you haven’t.

If you’re really interested in lessening serious losses (such as the loss of children’s lives), you must first somehow meet that same moral standard, before asking that it be raised only for the people who’ve already met it.

So, no, we are certainly not in a position to demand that UNICEF employees must live ascetic lives.

If there’s anyone who feels that this is somehow vaguely demoralizing, I offer the following comforting truth: UNICEF employee or not, we are all in an equal position to make personal sacrifices to help the poor and needy; this means that anyone who draws a large salary from whatever organization he or she works at has the ability to give away most of that money towards helping the poor.

 

 

 

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