Giving Away One End of the Candle

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?

Icarus Falls
Is too high as bad as too low?
Slices of LightCC BY NC ND 2.0)

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?

Related Articles
Melting the Candle from Both Ends (Davetopia)

48 thoughts on “Giving Away One End of the Candle

  1. Zizek’s “First as tragedy, then as farce” raises some interesting thoughts in reference to cultural capitalism and issues with the concept of charity. RSA Animate have short clip on it.


  2. Hi Dave!

    I only got a chance to read this just now. You raise a lot of good points, and I want to address them carefully. I’m planning to address your post, as well as other responses I’ve gotten on this topic, sometime next week.

    Thanks for keeping me on my toes. 🙂


  3. Bah! Rationalizations. You mix market value and recompense, well, recklessly. The good doctor isn’t the only one who put in long hours in school; why should he get more recompense for it than an English major with a Ph. D.? The rest of your rationalization is pure trickle-down reaganomics – didn’t work then, didn’t work under G.W., and isn’t working now.


    1. I am not saying I believe money is a measure of worth; however, much of Western society currently does treat them as such so that is a large part of this post.

      Personally I support much greater funding of anything aspirational until we can transition to a post-scarcity society, so in a perfect world the English Major has an equal right to money for their effort as the doctor, but in a perfect world neither of them needs to draw income from such a low-granularity equation as time x effort = pay.


      1. It is interesting the points that stand out to people. this did not feel like your primary point at all to me. I watched for years as my parents gave away everything they earned and all of their time. Yes, they helped a lot of people, but the cost was terrible. Health suffered constantly, stress was at unbearable levels, relationships were injured often in permanent ways.
        To be of the most service to others, you must be at strength. When I am really stressed and have too much to do I sometimes stop at a particular shop for their amazing cappuccino. It isn’t about the coffee, and it doesn’t matter if I am really much to broke to be stopping. It is about the peace, healing, and few minutes of true pleasure spent quietly with my husband before we move to the next thing.
        I have worked high paying jobs and minimum wage jobs and stress requires an outlet and a salve. I have done service work in every city I have lived in and around the world and find still I must be whole in myself and stable in my life if I am to best benefit them and strengthen myself. How can I evaluate what is really need if my stress clouds my vision? Giving money is often not the need, take the time and true contemplation to evaluate the real need and how you or I can actually be of really help using our skills and resources not our guilt and need to prove something.


        1. Everyone has a different perspective and experiences, which is why I feel it is important to have a free and open discussion.

          Thank you for sharing your life experiences; a real world example helps ground matters.


          1. Absolutely. As the quote I posted on my Facebook yesterday says “I don’t want you to think just like me. I want you to think.” What we need is thought, consideration, and a willingness to openly discuss without need to convince others blind to another possibility. The very thought that prompted my original comment – it honestly interests me the aspects, points, and tones people pick up on in a discussion and what stands out to each individual or group.


    1. Value is different for each person whereas money is of fixed value whoever holds it, so money is an imperfect measure of value.

      Money is of course convenient, but with effort we can barter, gift, or otherwise use personal exchanges for as many transactions as possible to get more accurate valuations.


      1. Money really doesn’t have a fixed value. Currency valuation fluctuates. What your money can buy you in one location is often much greater or less than what it can provide in a different location–even if no currency exchange is involved. But what I really meant is what does it do to your argument if the presumption that we value ourselves in terms of money doesn’t hold up.


        1. I agree money fluctuates over time and space: I was aiming to say that money has the same price at any one point for everyone. For example two men go into a grocers to buy an apple; the price of the apple is the same irrespective of how much each of them likes apples.

          If you do not value yourself in terms of money then I think it would depend on what the basis of your self-worth was: someone who feels good because they are famous will almost certainly need money to maintain it whereas someone who draws strength from writing poetry will not need more than survival level income to undertake it. However, someone without a belief that money is a measure of worth would certainly not need conspicuous consumption to establish worth.


          1. It isn’t a reflection of need based on any physical or external foundation but an internal foundation. What is perceived as needed. What is a luxury to one is commonplace to another, pointless to another, and not a thought to another. It seems the intent is on is there a focus on luxury or on something else, internal or selfless either one. One that considers another person’s simplicity to be a luxury is still focusing on luxury if they would do that above anything for someone else. But the same person simply indulging from time-to-time is living from a different perspective and is not immersed in a need for luxury. When you help others from a need to feel better the intent is misplaced, the same is true for why you indulge.


              1. I always wonder if it is truly charity if you have to make yourself do it for the purpose of being charitable. Is an act of assistance done because there was opportunity or you simply felt need the same as deciding you have to do something to be more charitable and then acting? I am not sure I’m qualified to answer that, to many variables to be consistent.


      2. I agree with you that value is different for each person. But I think we need to take some steps back, peel back the onion so to speak and begin at a different place. I suggest a good starting point would be to take a look at how we define truth and value because the two are often confused as the same thing and they’re not. (we also have a tendency to lump happiness and pleasure as one and the same and they’re not) Truth is not a value. It is an expression of things as they are and cannot be created, but rather discovered. Value, on the other hand, can be created.

        Darn! Its after 10am EDT. I want to continue this conversation but time requires me to stop barely before I got going. So…. I will continue this later. In the interim, I draw your attention to The Value Creator

        Thanks for posting this — lots to discuss here.


        1. Finding a good starting point, eh? Reminds me of Pirsig’s Lila starting off as a book about Native American anthropology before flowing into an attempt to unify all of science and morality.

          I agree with your distinction between truth and value; although, with as we only have flawed senses there is another long discussion in whether objective truth can be discovered or even exists.

          Looks like an interesting website: I will need to go back to take a proper look when I have more time.


  4. great and valid points to the contrary of the other side of it. I do think they each have merit. It is awesome that people towards the higher end of the spectrum can help those less fortunate. Do I as someone towards the lower end think you should give up your comforts to help me out>??? no! absolutely not. While some whine and moan about the injustice, we could be better spending our energies trying to figure out how with tremendous freedom in America we too, can have freedom financially. Much more productive. Yes, doctors and lawyers provide more value on the contrary, they sometimes have other opportunities not available to regular people. Sometimes not. EIther way, we individually are responsible for our outcomes and our finances. Great post man!!!! congrats on being pressed. good thoughts for me to ponder over. Don’t give up your comforts!


    1. Thank you.

      I believe the answer lies somewhere between total charity and total self-indulgence; I keep my comfort but assist with skills/money/&c. as well.

      People’s positions differing is an excellent point: if we get too tied up in whether we give enough money we lose the perspective that certain people are in a better position to affect change; for example, a politician being 1% more focused on helping the disadvantaged probably achieves more than I could with all my money without any real change in comfort.


      1. how right!! and the sad counter point here is sometimes money is not what is going to drag someone from poverty to a life of more comfort. We could give a homeless man a sandwich but that doesn’t continue to feed him once he has eaten it. True, the economies of scale do coincide with prominence but there is always something even the lesser off can be doing to help out. Awesome thoughts Mr. Dave. enjoy the day and hope you have a wonderful week!!


      2. Great post! I also think the answer includes parts of both perspectives. You listed regenerating and reducing stress/fatigue as reasons for several of these purchases. That seems like a useful consideration for both spending and giving. A luxury that fuels future work/thought/creativity seems less indulgent to me than one that provides pleasure only in the moment. Can we also use it as a measure of the usefulness of charity? Teaching skills or building infrastructure seems like a more long-term way to transfer resources. Butcheringsaint is right – a sandwich only makes a difference until the next sandwich is needed.


    1. Many years ago I read an essay that took the premise of charity being an act free of gain and unmotivated by any other reason, and extended it to say that it is therefore not charity if you acknowledge you do it. I am not sure if I fully agree, but it is an interesting approach.


  5. Up to a point I think luxury can be justified. What is luxury anyway? To Bangladeshi factory workers, a poorish Aussie would be living in luxury. But ‘excess’ should be equalled out a bit, as Bill Gates is doing. It’s a tricky problem.


    1. An interesting point.

      It raises the question whether we should focus on where we give before we focus on what we give: is it more ethical to take the £2.75 we would have spent on coffee to a local beggar who can then buy a coffee/sandwich/small benefit or give it to a charity in Bangladesh where it can buy a bigger benefit?


  6. A well-articulated post. Another consideration would be Kant’s argument that we have at least some duty to pursue happiness since being unhappy makes it hard to do one’s duty.


    1. I had bundled happiness into relaxation; however, it possibly does deserve a distinct mention as you can be tired but happy and so forth, with varying effects on motivation and ability.


  7. I agree that people should not feel shamed into giving. Giving should come from the heart. I believe most of us could do to cut out a few luxuries to help others more, but it is unrealistic to believe that most people will give up ALL their luxuries to help others and that tactic does seem a bit manipulative (then again, isn’t all advertising?) Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!


    1. Thank you.

      Certainly applying pressure to others is unethical and it is unlikely every person would do it without pressure, so morally total giving is suspect.

      However, as Brian makes clear in his post (and his response to this one), he is pondering what the best choice for an individual would be, and ethics is inherently aspirational, so I am not certain realism is a barrier to what a hypothetical perfect individual would choose to do.


    1. I based the title on “Burning the candle at both ends”, which is an old English saying about doing too much, so I am not sure if doing it is a good thing.

      I am glad that my post improved your day though.


  8. I always shake my head at the implications of these sorts of discussions. The hidden endpoint — always present, never acknowledged — is that if something has been proven not to be unethical according to some hairsplitting definition that other people are thereby not allowed to conclude that the person who engages in said behavior is an asshole.

    Seriously. This treads too close to the sophomoric (literally; it’s a favorite dodge used by college sophomores), “If you can’t prove that what I do is philosophically wrong, you’re not allowed to think I’m a dick” sort of argument. Over time and as I’ve aged, I’ve come to realize that that’s pretty much what it boils down to every time: an attempt to logick other people into not to coming to conclusions about someone’s character based on how that person acts. And, well … nagahapin, really. “What is legal,” “what is unethical,” and “what makes you look like a dick” are defined more independently than many people would like, and that’s just how it is.

    It may or may not be unethical to buy a solid gold toothpick, but the people around you are still allowed to watch while you buy a solid gold toothpick, glance subtly at each other, roll their eyes, and think to themselves, “What a pig.” Beyond that, we’re into how-many-angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin territory.


    1. Examining unspoken assumptions is always worthwhile, so thank you for challenging the necessity of the debate.

      I disagree these debates are always about not appearing unpleasant. Based on many years arguing cases in court I have found the real ethical dilemmas to be in the hair-splitting: for example, almost everyone will immediately agree that random killing is wrong and that killing in self-defence is right, but will not agree on exactly how much negative interaction justifies pre-emptive killing. So debate can be about which nuances of behaviour justify legal sanction.

      I cannot speak for anyone else, but I got into this debate because I wanted to examine my own attitudes to charity; I find it easier to locate the hidden assumptions if I have to write my thoughts out then answer comments on them.

      Arguably internet debates are the least likely places to find mere puffery: if I wanted to avoid being a branded ethically flawed I could simply not start the debate; whereas by going against the common suggestion not to post about politics or spirituality I almost guarantee someone will think I am a fool. Even if forced into debate I could lie with no real chance of being caught.

      Certainly there is nothing to stop anyone disagreeing with the majority opinion on an issue: however, by having a discussion we could show people who were judging from flawed assumptions a clearer idea of the issues involved, so – time permitting – discussion is not a bad thing,


  9. Money in not everything. But people have to get money in order to live. Money is not the target but the tool. We don’t like people making money with any methods including illegal things. But we can’t ingore the importance of money.


  10. It’s a fine balance between wants and needs. I personally believe that when “luxuries” take up a huge chunk of time to maintain, it might be a good time to look into downsizing. There’s freedom in living simpler lives and it clears the mental cobwebs, too, and helps clear our vision of the needs around us.
    Thanks for this thought-provoking post.


  11. I think your views here come across as rather close to Aristotelean and Platonic views of virtue, seeking out the “mean” between the different excesses, and throwing in a bit if David Hume on benevolence for good measure. The problem that Hume gets you into, though, is relativism.

    I would have the conversation start in a slightly – but not entirely – different place, with Augustinian virtue, where there is a divine telos and a lens of love, both of which would moderate, I think, your emotivism. Then, however, I would have us modify the Augustinian approach to one where love is identified with self-giving rather than acquisitiveness incorporate a Christian ethic with a core of self-giving love rather than acquisitive love.

    Just a thought.


    1. While I do not necessarily agree with everything Aristotle said, I have found that better answers often come toward the middle rather than at the extremes.

      I have not read Hume since the early Nineties, so could not comment on how close we are. However, as I believe my senses to be flawed, I do not perceive any way of completely avoiding relativism.

      I do not regard my stance as emotivism: I certainly believe moral judgements can be true; I just hold that true moral judgements are often complex enough that the human mind is not currently capable of handling all the information needed to correctly apply them every time.

      I would certainly agree that charity partakes of prudence and justice; however, I am wary of adopting too much of the terminology of Christian theology as charity (and other virtues) existed prior to the arrival of the Abrahamic faiths in Europe.


      1. I guessed that you might not see what you’ve written as emotivist. However it is very close in many respects to Hume’s ‘Of Benevolence’. Of course this is also closely related to utilitarianism.

        You’re quite right that virtues were discussed before the arrival of Christianity and Islam – one of the odd things about Augustine is his reliance on Platonic rather than scriptural ‘virtues’. However these don’t negate the insight if the Christian ethic, namely the practical power of self-giving love as an alternative basis for truth and morality claims to the barrenness offered either by Humean relativism or an indecipherable and therefore unworkable Kantian categorical imperative.


        1. I might have to borrow some Hume from the library then to satisfy my curiosity.

          I said I was wary of adopting the terms of Christian theology, not I was rejecting it. My concern is that too great a reliance on the Christian schema when discussing ethics will place some assumptions outside of discussion.


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