Monday, April 18, 2005

Peter Singer, Charity and Religious Millionaires

During a course in moral philosophy in college I was introduced to the maverick outlandish philosophy of Peter Singer. He holds incredibly fascinating viewpoints and really takes moral relativism and utilitarianism to its extreme, though some would argue its logical conclusion.

The article we discussed was one he wrote in 1972 called "Famine, Affluence and Morality" (summary here and news article here). Briefly put, he argues that we should donate as much as necessary to reduce famine and poverty, evils which we agree should be reduced, "at least up to the point at which by giving more one would begin to cause serious suffering for oneself and one's dependents". That isn't an easy point to define, but the argument goes as follows; faced with buying the latest CD or clothing, or giving that same $15 to a child that was dying outside the music store and needs only $15 to live, most of us would give the money to the child and forego the CD (and then we would go home and burn it off bit-torrent, but that's for a different post). Now the geographical distance between the child dying outside the record store and the child dying of starvation in Tsunami-hit Asia or Aids and poverty ravaged Africa shouldn't make any difference from a moral point of view. Singer calls this the "Pond Case".

I definitely understand his approach and agree with it theoretically. There are various arguments against it but I'm not convinced by them. I'm also not going to delve into the practical issues per se of solving poverty, disease and famine. Relevant points but not for here. I am also going to stay away from the issue as to whether the government should enforce this morality, though I touched on it here.

As a religious Jew, I am looking for some philosophical answers in the Jewish tradition. Firstly, we believe "Aniyey Ircha Kodmim" - the poor of your town take precedence. I understand this idea intuitively and emotionally, but cannot argue for it philosophically without resorting to the safety net theory.

Secondly, we hold that one should give 10% to charity, and no more than 20%. The argument is made that giving away more could cause us to become impoverished ourselves. ("An unusually wealthy person is permitted to give more than a fifth of his money to Tzedakah, since doing so will most likely not cause him to become impoverished (based on TOSFOS in Bava Kama 9b, DH Ileima"). The last link has a number of sources that imply one could (should?) give away more than a fifth.

Nowadays, thank G-d, there are many wealthy, G-d fearing Jews. Hashem provides well for some people. Successful in business, they give generously to charity. I cannot criticise them. I am not in their shoes (leather Guccis?). But I think about Singer's argument, and I ask - do these people need the latest car, the fanciest clothes, the biggest house? Do we really think that if they donated half their earnings and had to live off half a million they would become poor? Surely (don't call me shirley - film ref anyone?) they can survive like normal people on a normal salary, and they can do even more good by donating more of their income to worthy causes? How can one justify the latest $100,000 Lexus when a $20,000 car gets you wherever you need to go just as well, but in less style, and that $80,000 you save can support families in Kollel, buy food for Pesach, help towards curing cancer, save thousands of lives in Africa, etc etc? How does a religious person justify to G-d that Lexus?

I'm not sure if I totally follow this theory myself and whether I would do so if I was a millionaire (any volunteers willing to help me test that theory?), but I don't do anything extravagant or own anything ostentatious as far as I know. I holiday at a decent but basic level, when I eat out I go to good but cheap places most of the time, yet I am sure that people could level the same criticism of me, do I need to holiday? eat out? purchase CDs?

I don't have the answer. Do you?



At 4/18/2005 7:40 AM, Blogger Malka said...


Thank you for the food for thought..

M :-)

At 4/18/2005 7:40 AM, Blogger Malka said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 4/18/2005 7:46 AM, Blogger The Rabbi's Kid said...

pleasure malka. If any multi-millionaires want to come on here and answer my questions, as a reward I will allow them to set me up with their daughters. (Just kidding - I'd hopefully end up giving all their money away and running the family business into the ground!)


At 4/18/2005 8:42 AM, Blogger Malka said...


your generosity has no bounds! I'm impressed by your willingness to give it all up for a millionnairess... LOL

At 4/18/2005 9:07 AM, Blogger The Rabbi's Kid said...

I'm a cheap date!

At 4/18/2005 9:50 AM, Blogger Eli7 said...

Well, I'm no millionaire (and I don't have any daughters for the taking anyway) but here are my thoughts on the issue:

For a paper topic in class, we were asked if you had the choice between using your $20,000 to fix your faulty knee or to save one life, what is the ethical way to spend your money? It's a hard question, but we could really, as you suggest, frame all our expenditures in that light - shoes, clothing, bags, fancy foods, private school (esp. college) tuition - are all these things luxuries that we could and should do without to help others with less?

I think (and certainly don't take this as absolute emet) that the Torah would argue vehemently against Peter Singer's philosophy. Much of Judaism, one could argue, is about raising the physical to the spirtual realm: kedushat hachomer. That is the pursuit we are engaged in as beings striving toward spirituality in a very physical world.

That means that physicality is not only necessary but actually a good thing, so long as you raise it to the spirtual. Women are supposed to get new clothing for holidays, we are supposed to eat good food, we are supposed to beautify the mitzvot in the spiritual realm.

Now clearly that does not mean that we should not help the poor or that we should go to ridiculous levels of glorification in the name of spirtuality, but there is something to say for it. As Jews we are supposed to give tzedakah, but we are also supposed to use the money God blessed us with as a means to our own better service of Him.

At 4/18/2005 10:01 AM, Blogger The Rabbi's Kid said...


Ok. So is it ok to be a religious millionaire? Is it justified? How is the new Lexus serving G-d. I totally agree that money spent on a mitzvah is not considered excessive expenditure. But you can get new clothes, good food, a nice Etrog, etc etc after donating a large proportion of your income if you are a millionaire.


At 4/18/2005 10:16 AM, Blogger Shoshana said...


At 4/18/2005 10:23 AM, Blogger Malka said...


Cheap is better than easy! LOL

Is it stated anywhere that we should not strive to amass riches?

At 4/18/2005 2:10 PM, Blogger The Rabbi's Kid said...

Shoshana, spot on. I gave you an easy one though.


Not specifically no. But I was talking from a Jewish moral standpoint - how can one justify to himself this kind of expenditure and extravagance?


At 4/18/2005 3:05 PM, Anonymous ClooJew said...

Peter Sinter is, lulei demistafina, what happens when you apply pure reason to morality. And that's a good thing, because whenever people argue that they don't need to be religious Jews in order to be moral, I always bring up the ever-lovable Dr. S. Armed with his logic, you could run circles around anyone.

For Torah Jews the bottom line--on abortion, charity, killing, animal rights--is pure and simple: Morality is whatever G-d says it is.

To the point, it is very difficult for people without wealth (let's define as, say, a house, income to cover all your bills, and over a million bucks in a bank account doing nothing but collecting 1% interest) to understand the behavior of people with wealth.

People are always critical. But here's the thing you need to consider: If the right thing to do was give away all your wealth, where would the incentive to make wealth in the first place come from? It's similar to why the communists were never able to make any technological advances (after the inital burst of idealism dissipated). It's why the pharmaceutical industry needs fat profits (sorry, Hillary!) in order to continue developing the miracle drugs that sustain us all.

This is why, serious Lulei Demistafina, the Torah says that you can't give away more than 20% of your wealth. Why not? Will 25% really erode your capital? The answer is that, having to give so much in order to be a Torah Jew (atu beresha'ai askinun?) will erode your desire to make money IN THE FIRST PLACE. If I have to give all, or even most, of it away, I may as well learn in kollel. Why work so hard to be a balabus, if I have to hand it all over to the next meshulach at the end of the day?

A similar argument is used in hilchos Shabbos. A doctor who is called to the hospital for an emergency on Shabbos is allowed to violate the Shabbos to return home. Why? Because if he knows he will be stranded at the hospital over Shabbos, he won't want to leave for the next emergency. And even if he pauses for a second, it is a violation. So we let him come home too.

Only the ingenious Halachic Stategy would have thought of that one.

At 4/18/2005 5:27 PM, Anonymous Chanandler Bong said...

1. Was this for moi?
2. It seems that the preference for one's townspeople wouldn't be philosophically justifiable, but interestingly enough, many philosophers do justify it. The article has nothing to do with anything- but the one example I can think of off the top of my head is Frances M. Kamm's article entitled "The Failures of Just War Theory: Terror, Harm, and Justice." Although her general theories are seen as kinda outlandish (she justifies terrorism,) she does give credence to the idea that one has a special positive duty (I'm assuming she means of the Kantian variety) to show preference to oneself, one's dependents family, ones town, ones country, and so on. She doesn't prove it, but it is used as a given.
Both philosophers and poskim understand that human nature needs to be provided for. People need their safety nets, and no one is going to feel comfortable giving away such large percentages of their money. Maybe it's just because I'm thrifty, but if I had 100,000 dollars sitting in the bank I'd be superparanoid about touching it and use it only for emergencies.

You must also take reality into consideration. We can't conceivably help every person on earth, and therefore the people who are in need who we can SEE, the starving people we're responsible for and can conceivably help, are the one's we have a moral responsibility to.
3. I haven't read Singer's article, but is his pond example about saving a drowning baby and ruining your new expensive suit? It's a common device used by modern philosophers. (Post modern, I guess.)
4. Miss me?

At 4/18/2005 7:06 PM, Blogger gabe said...

Great post TRK,
I make a comfortable living, have money in the bank, etc. I give more than 25% of my income to charity, although very often I fear tht I'm being scammed. One thing should be made very clear, MI K'amcha Yisroel, you will not find any other ethnic group who's ratio of charity distributed-to income, comes anywhere close to that of the jews, especially the frum ones. That having been said, there is a great hashkafic misconception amongst the wealthy, that they have a right to do whatever they want with thier money. If everyone realized that the money they have is for serving hashem, and that they can only spend it, not as they see fit, but as the torah sees fit, we'd be living in a whole different world. Btw, I drive a five year old coupe (cost 16k) and my wife drives a five year old generic mini van. We don't take vacations, I haven't been in Israel (my biggest Tayvah) for over a year, although the nice restaurants is an indulgence that I do allow myself.

At 4/18/2005 10:53 PM, Blogger The Rabbi's Kid said...


I actually (in some bizarre way) respect PS for taking his views to their logical conclusion (maybe like Mordechai Kaplan - do i detect another post idea coming on?) I appreciate your arguments concerning incentive to wealth in a liberal capitalist society, and agree thoroughly. But for Torah Jews I dsagree. It is an important question - what is their motive to make money? Is it to be an Eved Hashem, a servant of G-d or merely to amass wealth and enjoy wordly pleasures? A bit of both? Maybe the Halachah wouldn't demand they give more (though I'm still not convinced it would be so bad) but from a Lifnim Mishurat Hadin, Tihiyu Kedoshim, trying to do the right thing point of view - how can a Torah Jew justify to him/herself the extravagance? I do not advicate Kollel study for most, not by any means, but I also can't see how people can justify the extravagant lifestyle. That's why I don't see the parallel with the doctor on Shabbos.


Welcome back. I did miss you. Believe it nor not it's something I've been chewing over since I heard the lecture a while back, but I was hoping it would draw you out of your shell. A Kantian deontological viewpoint could justify caring for your townspeople - universalisation (is that a word) but utilitarianists couldn't. I appreciate the safety net theory and agree with it but it needs further refinement. What is the amount you would need to feel secure? $100,000? $1m? what if you had DOUBLE that? Could you give half away? Would you? As for the point we should only help the ones we see, how do you justify that? Surely that has even less credibility in the global village we live in nowadays. Read Singer's article to see how he builds the argument. It is still the same pond case.


Good for you. Re: scamming, you should probably only give to organizations you trust, IMO. Maybe I'll post on this. I agree, frum Jews give a lot to Tsedakah, and we should be proud of it. But how do they justify extravagance to themselves? I actually believe vacations are justifiable - for mental health, to see G-d's world (another post topic) and other reasons. I also think that going to Israel is not an extravagance at all - it's a Mitzvah and they would love to have you.


At 4/19/2005 2:43 AM, Blogger yingele said...

Re Scamming;

Daddy used to tell us that Reb Levi Yitshak of Barditchev once heard a Baal Bos complain, one in ten are crooks, I wont give so much tsedoko. The Sanigoryen answered; Even if only one in ten are honest I'll give all ten, to make sure I got to help the single honest poorman.

TRK, great posts, one after the other. Thank you ever so much for all your kind comments. You realy make my day!

At 4/19/2005 3:18 AM, Blogger The Rabbi's Kid said...


R' Levi Yitzchak sets a high standard for us all.

Thanks for the chizzuk. You've now got the Pink song going through my head - I'll have to dig out the CD. Anyone who doesn't know what I am on about should go over to yingele's site and read his heart-wrenching yet all too common tale about his family.


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At 2/27/2010 4:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You said, “That isn't an easy point to define, but the argument goes as follows; faced with buying the latest CD or clothing, or giving that same $15 to a child that was dying outside the music store and needs only $15 to live, most of us would give the money to the child and forego the CD (and then we would go home and burn it off bit-torrent, but that's for a different post).”

As all the case of Singer’s most, if not ALL, “story” is absurd and utter hypocrisy and idiocy. It’s hard to type all this, but I hope you get the points. If not, I will talk with you so you get the FACTS and HYPERVENTILATING HYPOCRISY straight. If a child is dying, $15 won’t do a thing, first of all. This is how IDIOTIC the LIE-BERALS have become, and nobody is “pouring ice water to wake Singer and his Comrades so they can see some light”. But then Singer, et al REFUSE to see the TRUTH. Silence gives them more “POWER” to perpetuate their EVIL MARCH TO FIGHT THE TRUTH. I will get to the TRUTH later, if I have time. Secondly, the dying child needs MEDICAL ATTENTION, not the phony “good will GESTURE” of $15. Would you be happy to know that a guy throws $15 to you saying, “Brother, you need help, so here’s $15. I don’t know what you’re going to do with it. I hope you don’t buy beer with it, but I mean it well. I am busy so I got to go….” You get the picture by now? Or, do you refuse to see the light yet? Thirdly, taking care of the dying “child” would probably takes resources to revive the child. How much? Who does REALLY THINK ABOUT HOW MUCH IT WOULD COST TO HELP HIM? If somebody even thinks about it for a moment would be a CRZAY person. Singer is the ring leader of this THOUGHTFUL GESTAPO. Fourth, What business do you have buying CD nowadays? We have more sophisticated technology so we don’t WASTE OUR PRECIOUS RESOURCES SUCH AS CD that will take up more land. I could go on, but this should be enough for one day.

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