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    Your Shoes Belong to Someone Else

    Will secular “effective altruists” shame Christians into loving their neighbors?

    By Troy Pancake

    October 31, 2022
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    • Conrad Goodwin

      Effective altruism doesn't shame Christians at all, because Christian altruism is true: we have a leader (noone has any greater love than he who lays down his life for his friends) and a fundamental reason to give (we have been given a great deal undeserved), unlike those who claim to "just be doing the right thing" following their own lights. I'm not saying we Christians shouldn't [re]consider the sincerity of our giving, just that there is no reason under the sun to think that it's better for economic justice than because Christ also gave to us. A lot of people believed that Sam Bankman of FTX (a professed effective altruist) was "out-Christianing" the Christians, but it seems fairly clear to me that his utilitarian approach was pharisaical in a great degree: even if he had given away ninety percent of his income last year, he still would have been left with a bigger chunk of money than most of the rest of us will ever see.

    • Jim Knutson

      The world is not a puppy dog dish where, if we eat less, others will have more.

    • Paul

      This is a problem that has bedeviled me for years, and I simply don't know where the lines are. Is my subscription to Plough and other such journals necessary? Can I justify going to a private Christian school when the public will suffice? Do I have to eat in such a way such as to survive rather than for enjoyment? Are music lessons for one's children frippery? In the end, I think the wrestling is what's important. It's also important to acknowledge that poverty is more than just material. There's a poverty of beauty. Poverty of friendship. Do we, in a sense, sin if we become utilitarian people putting dollar signs above everything rather than also enjoying this good world God created and into which He became Incarnate? Difficult issues. Thank you for writing about them. May I also suggestion the book Happy Are You Poor by Thomas Dubay as a serious look at the Gospel, poverty, and one thoughtful Christian's take on what Jesus expects from His followers.

    • Bryan

      Debbie, Charity Navigator is a good place to start if you want to evaluate how well an organization is using funds. Givewelll.org and givingwhatwecan.org are two websites that explain how to give more effectively.

    • Debbie

      I have long struggled with this issue. How does one insure that their donation is used as it is intended? Too often agencies and other nonprofit groups have been found to use monies for salaries and other infrastructure rather than truly helping those in need. Likewise many foreign agencies need to use funds to bribe officials, which may be the way of the world but is not what I want to support. I’m sure this is problematic for others as well. I tend to support those nonprofits closer to home; smaller groups with admittedly less reach but more oversight.

    Forty years before “effective altruism” became a buzzword, Peter Singer, one of the movement’s primary influences and proponents, told a short, simple parable: You are walking past a shallow pond where a child is drowning. You wade in to save the child, and in so doing, you ruin your outfit and are late to whatever appointment you were headed toward. On the surface, the moral of the story is obvious: it is immoral to pass up a drowning child for the sake of convenience. If this is wrong, Singer argues, then isn’t it similarly wrong to allow the global poor to die from preventable, poverty-related causes while we continue to purchase an excess of clothing, food, decor, entertainment, technology, and more?

    Jesus told a similar parable about a man who lay dying on the side of the road, attacked by robbers, and about those who passed him by because they didn’t want to risk dirtying their reputations. The one who showed neighborly love was the one who acted like a neighbor ought to act, the one who saw it as his responsibility to help the man in need. These stories speak to our role in the world, reminding us that we too have a responsibility to help those in need. We can’t ignore the plight of Singer’s dying child or Jesus’ dying man just because the shallow pond happens to be nutrition deficiency or the attackers happen to be mosquitoes carrying malaria.

    This sounds reasonable in theory, and like what many faithful Christians are already doing: giving to organizations that support poor children, drill wells for clean water, employ the homeless, or provide free healthcare. But very few Christians would meet the expectations of Singer’s proposal. In The Life You Can Save, he explains that it is wrong to ignore global suffering as long as we can prevent it without sacrificing our own necessities: “You must keep cutting back on unnecessary spending, and donating what you save, until you have reduced yourself to the point where if you give any more, you will be sacrificing something nearly as important as a child’s life.”

    The crabbed millionaire's puzzle cartoon

    J. S. Pughe, The Crabbed Millionaire’s Puzzle, 1901 Library of Congress

    Effective altruism is a loosely connected movement attempting to live these principles. Toby Ord, another of the movement’s main voices, has pledged to set an allowance for his living expenses and give away everything above that, which has worked out to roughly one-third of his income. An influential effective altruism blogger named Julia Wise and her husband have given away half their income for over ten years. The movement is imperfect, receiving criticism for failing to account for and address the causes of global poverty. Personally, I have questions about its utilitarian criteria for giving, the recent shift toward long-term goals and existential risk, and the fact that proximity is a factor – we can’t love a billion children like we can the wounded man or drowning child in front of us. However, when I first read Singer’s book and learned more about effective altruism, I was convicted and, frankly, ashamed.

    For I am a modern American Christian who desires to be generous like Jesus yet finds it hard to give any more than I already do. I support worthy causes, but my family owns a home and three cars; we pay for our kids to participate in sports and music; we eat out and go back-to-school shopping and subscribe to Disney Plus and spend money on all manner of things most of the world would consider luxuries. I have been formed by a culture that has replaced need with want. This culture’s assumptions shape what I think is reasonable and what is excessive.

    This difficulty is not new. In the fourth century, Basil the Great preached, “Some device has been concocted by the devil, suggesting innumerable spending opportunities to the wealthy, so that they pursue unnecessary and worthless things as if they were indispensable.” He proceeded to name things that are conventionally accepted: saving some money in reserve, decorations and comforts in the home, travel, extra clothes and food, and giving money to our children. According to Basil, when we spend on these “unnecessary” things, we are holding back from the people who are in extreme need. In another sermon he said: “The bread you are holding back is for the hungry, the clothes you keep put away are for the naked, the shoes that are rotting away with disuse are for those who have none, the silver you keep buried in the earth is for the needy. You are thus guilty of injustice toward as many as you might have aided and did not.”

    I am a modern American Christian who desires to be generous like Jesus yet finds it hard to give any more than I already do.

    That final line is the argument Singer makes in The Life You Can Save: If we have the ability to help another and choose not to, instead spending our money on inessential things, then we are, as Basil puts it, “guilty of injustice.”

    Toby Ord notes that while people object to Singer’s proposal as too demanding, Christianity rarely faces the same objection. He then posits, “Perhaps this is mostly due to ignorance among moral philosophers regarding how demanding the central views of Christian ethics really are.” Perhaps, too, there is ignorance among Christians regarding how demanding Christian ethics really are. We give here and there and maybe, if we’re really committed, we tithe our income and the church uses it to keep the lights on and we assume we’ve done our duty.

    Yet I believe we are meant to be more, to do more. We are a people formed by the stories of Christ, who commanded the young ruler to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, and who commended Zacchaeus for giving away half his wealth. What people have more reason to sacrifice materially for the good of others than those whose leader sacrificed everything for them, making them rich by his own poverty, who identified himself with the hungry and thirsty and naked, whose first followers sold their possessions so that there would be none in need?

     
     
     
     

    There are of course many questions remaining about what this means practically in each of our lives, starting with what is “unnecessary” and how much spending is too much. There isn’t room here to explore all the situations we might find ourselves in. But as long as extreme suffering and wealth inequality exist, there will be an ethical tension for followers of Jesus about our responsibility to alleviate that suffering. We can never entirely dissipate this tension, but we can resolve, as Basil exhorts us, “to treat the things in [our] possession as belonging to others.”

    Contributed By TroyPancake Troy Pancake

    Troy Pancake is a pastor based in Denton, Texas. He has written for the Windhover, Brevity, Heart and Flesh, and Christ and Pop Culture.

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