After reading Brian D. Buckley’s article on active and passive virtue this morning, I have pondered the question of whether devoting any of our resources to more than ensuring a reasonable level of comfort is immoral because those resources could instead be spent on moving someone else toward a reasonable level of comfort. Although I can see the argument I feel that the converse is true: it can be immoral not to spend some of your resources on your own comfort.
Briefly he starts with the same point as that used in many charity advertisements, the comparative cost of necessities versus luxuries: for example, clean water/a vaccine/other survival level resource for one person for a month only costs as much as a take-away coffee. He then states the corollary that charities only imply: because a human life is worth more than the transitory pleasure of a latte, choosing to buy the coffee is an immoral choice. This is only a paraphrasing of part of a good post; I suggest reading the whole thing either before or after this post.
The argument is immediately powerful and, as someone makes both regular and impromptu donations to charity, I support the idea that it is moral for those with resources to spend some of them on supporting others. However, I do not accept the argument that it is always immoral to direct resources to making your life more than acceptable in preference to helping someone else.
As well as producing the ability to purchase luxuries, your salary is a method of ascribing value to your actions. While there are many arguments against specific pairings of salary and job salary it is, in Western world, the method most commonly used by people to measure their worth; if you work by the rule that you are not entitled to benefit from more than a basic life as long as there is someone in need then you can strengthen the unconscious belief that you are not worth your extra salary. However flawed the salary system, the larger monetary value of a doctor to a barista is a clear sign of societal worth; is the doctor immoral for not valuing his work as only equal to the barista?
Remaining with the doctor, some of the salary is a recompense for past effort: is it not ethical to have some luxuries now to balance the extreme stress of his degree and vocational training? Will we get the most skilled people wanting to be doctors, airline pilots, or judges if it brings only the spiritual benefits of service?
Even if we accept the premise that people who have a skill should work to improve it and then turn it to society’s service for no recompense for their past efforts in training and no physical reward for continued work, relaxation is of value. Time away from doing stressful and intensive work gives the worker the ability to achieve more better work on their return. A surgeon who spends money on a great steak is getting more than sustenance; he is also undoing the damage that stress and fatigue do to his skills.
Beyond recharging, luxuries feed creativity. How often does the solution to a problem come when you are relaxing or in the shower? To say that one person deserves a month of clean water more than another person deserves a coffee is true in the abstract, but does one person benefit from a month of clean water more than they would benefit from the opportunity for creative thought that coffee brought? In many cases probably, but not always; unless we can decide in advance who will have worthwhile ideas how can we deny anyone the right to have luxuries?
I believe that it is ethical for the resource rich to support the resource poor, but not that it is ethical for the resource rich to make themselves resource equal without regard for how they got their resources; without regard for the potential benefits to society of investing in their own well-being. We should question whether to spend money on ourselves rather than others, but the question should be “Is spending £1000 on a stereo rather than £100 ethical?” not “Is listening to music ethical?”.
Now go read Brian’s article, then read more of his blog; or spend the time helping someone. Whichever better reflects how you earned this time and how much you value philosophy.
Do you believe luxury can be justified? That you have earned what you have so spending is never unethical?
Melting the Candle from Both Ends (Davetopia)