Sermon: Practical Ethics

2016 May 15
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons


Every night and every morn, some to misery are born; every morn and every night, some are born to sweet delight.” These are the words by William Blake that we just sang. They describe so crisply one of the problems in ethics that people have wrestled with throughout the ages: what is the right ethical response to the fact that we humans start out in such radically different places? Some in misery and some, if not always in sweet delight, at least in possession of great advantages. What’s the ethical response to this especially in terms of charitable giving? What responsibilities do those with greater resources have to those with much, much less? We’re faced with this question every time we pass a homeless person on the street and every time we hear a story of famine and devastation far away.


This is the question that Lake Wise, our sermon auction winner (and, by the way, our congregation’s treasurer), asked me to address in my sermon today. He asked me to look at the issue of charity especially through the lens of the Princeton ethicist Peter Singer who takes provocative positions on virtually everything. His work is quite controversial, mainly because he comes to conclusions that are both very harsh and very hard to argue with. So people end up despising him and despising anyone who stands up and promotes his views. (Thanks a lot, Lake.)


Here’s a famous Peter Singer scenario: Imagine you’re on your way to work one morning, and you pass by a shallow fountain, the same one you pass by every day. But this day, you notice a small child in the water who seems to be drowning. You see the terror in the child’s eyes. You look around for a parent or caregiver to alert them but there’s no one around. You realize that you could easily wade into the fountain and pull the child out. Your nice work clothes would get all muddy and wet and you’d have to go home and change and be very late for work. But you would save the child’s life.


Pretty much everyone would agree that you would have a moral obligation to save the child. Right? Can we agree on that? And not only that, but most of us in this room would not even experience that situation as a moral decision to be made. We’d just instinctively, unthinkingly, immediately wade into the water and save the child. It would come from our heart, not our head. And we’d probably think that anyone who didn’t have that impulse – anyone who felt that their nice clothes were more important than the life of that child – would be a monster. To put it in the language of ethics, if we can prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing something of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it. In this case, our clothing is not of comparable moral significance to a person’s life, so we’re obliged to save the child.


In his book, Practical Ethics, Singer points out that this is in fact the real life scenario we are faced with every single day. Across the world there are millions of children right now who are essentially drowning and we, for the sake of things like our clothes, walk right by. We could save them, at least some of them, but we let them drown. He’s talking, of course, about the 1.4 billion people in this world who live in extreme poverty. As the World Bank defines it, extreme poverty is where you eat one meal a day at best, sometimes having to choose between feeding your children and feeding yourselves. You live in an unstable house made of mud or thatch that you constantly have to rebuild when there’s severe weather, which is more and more often these days. You’re unable to save any money and have no backup if someone in your family needs to see a doctor or needs medicine. You have no safe drinking water nearby – you have to walk a long way for water and even then, it will make you sick unless you boil it.


Extreme poverty like this is equivalent to being in the process of drowning. Millions of children die every year because of it. And according to the World Bank, it takes an income of $1.25 a day to avoid such extreme poverty – not what a U.S. $1.25 would buy you in a third world country, but what it would buy you here. That’s the purchasing power it takes to rise out of extreme poverty. And 1.4 billion people don’t have it. I know how depressing this is to hear. Blame Lake! No, don’t blame Lake. Blame me. Blame Peter Singer. Blame God. Blame the government. Blame all of us who have allowed it to get to this point. But regardless of who or what we blame, the basic scenario that we started out with is still valid. It still stares us in the face. We are walking by a fountain with a drowning child and we can save that child without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance. And for the most part we don’t. Just last night I went out to dinner with my family when we could have probably scrounged something at home and donated the extra money to someone who had no food at all.


How much should we give? How many children should we save? How much money is it ethical for us to keep from ourselves? Strictly speaking, if you believe we should save the drowning child, we should give and keep giving up to the point where giving more would require sacrificing something of comparable moral significance. We should give everything we have, down to bare subsistence. At that point, ethics would not require us to go further. We’re not required to sacrifice our own lives or health for that of a stranger. But give up going out do dinner? Sure. Out to movies for $15 a pop? Yes. Netflix for $10 a month? Absolutely. New clothes ever? A new haircut? A Cuisinart so we don’t have to chop our food by hand? A 4-room apartment for a family of 4? Most families are lucky to have one room. All these things would have to go.


Peter Singer clarifies, saying, “Strictly, we would need to cut down to the minimum level compatible with earning the income which, after providing for our needs, left us the most to give away.” So basically you have to calculate your bare subsistence living expenses relative to the income you can make in each place, take the job and live in the place that leaves you the most to give away, and give it away. It’s just a simple calculation. Just do that and we can all live with a clean conscience. Of course, if it were simple – we’re all good people – we would do it. And yet virtually none of us do. Why not? Here are a few of the reasons we tell ourselves:


1. We pay taxes and that those taxes go, in part, to funding foreign aid and services to people in this country. And that would be sufficient if that foreign aid solved the problem. But even with that aid, there are still 1.4 billion people in extreme poverty, so the moral question is still in front of us. Regardless of what money we’ve given in the past, at this moment, we are still walking by that fountain and we’re in a position to help a child.


2. It’s not our fault that they’re in poverty so it’s not our responsibility to ruin our lives to get them out of it. This is a tricky one because many would argue that there is a direct connection between first world wealth and third world poverty. But even putting that aside, even if you accept the premise that it’s not our fault, then you get into the question of whether we are our brother’s keeper. Spiritually, we tend to say yes. It’s not our fault that the child is drowning in the fountain, but it’s not the child’s fault either. “Every night and every morn, some to misery are born; every morn and every night, some are born to sweet delight.” The very fact that we start out from such radically different places imposes a moral obligation on us.


3. It’s a question of scale: If there’s one child drowning, we can save that one child completely. But if there are 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty, we can devote our entire lives to helping them, we can give away everything we have, and there will still basically be 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty. Our individual greatest efforts will be not even a drop in the bucket. This is true. But from an ethical and spiritual standpoint, it doesn’t matter. Some number of individual people with existences just as important as ours would be helped or even saved by our efforts. For those people, we could make all the difference in the world. Just because you can’t do everything, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do as much as you can. As they say, “A doctor who cannot have a perfectly sterile operating field does not need to conduct surgery in a sewer.


Of the three objections, I think this third one is the most relevant one for us. And it offers us a possible way out of the corner we’ve been backed into by Peter Singer. Because it’s true that the problem is virtually infinite and our responsibility to help is virtually infinite. Not one of us is likely to go to the lengths that we ought to go to transfer our excess wealth to those who really need it. And yet this should not paralyze us as religious people. Let’s take off the harsh, clinical lens of ethics and put on the compassionate lens of spirituality. Through this lens we have compassion both for ourselves and for the people around the world who are suffering. We can say to ourselves, we are only human and we have a natural impulse to tend to ourselves and our own first and foremost. At the same time, we are called to constantly expand the circle of whom we consider “our own.” We are called to, each day, open our hearts a little wider to the suffering of the world. We are our siblings’ keeper.


All major world religions include charitable giving as a spiritual practice. In Hinduism and Buddhism, it’s called “dana” and the key thing is that it be done in a joyful spirit with a pure intention to help, not for show. “Zakat,” or charity, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. It’s not a suggestion; it’s a religious obligation for all Muslims who are financially stable to give to charity. If God has blessed a person with wealth, it is their responsibility to share that wealth. In Judaism and Christianity, the forebears of Unitarian Universalism, there’s an age-old expectation of tithing – giving 10% of our income. Traditionally it was given to the temple or church. But today, in progressive circles, there’s an expanded sense of tithing collectively to all your charitable groups and non-profits. Most of us probably don’t come close even to this. Some of us could literally not afford it; most would have to make pretty radical changes in our lifestyles. But it’s not ridiculous and unheard of. People do it. There’s a member of this congregation who gives 35% of his adjusted gross income to charities and non-profits, including First U. He is in a financial position to do it, but he also lives very frugally in order to give at this level.


Peter Singer titled his book “Practical Ethics.” In my book, what’s practical is what’s doable, and what’s doable is different for each person and for each year. From a spiritual perspective, the important thing is not what percentage we currently give, but what direction we are moving. If we’re doing our job as a community of faith here, we will all find ourselves more and more often wanting to pull a child out of the fountain. Our circle of compassion and our sense of our family will grow bigger and bigger. We’ll be more and more willing to give up some comforts to help others. Our own luxuries will feel less important and the suffering of others will feel more important. We will give with greater integrity and, yes, more generosity every year. We’ll be more and more guided by love. And as long as we’re sincerely on that road, I think we’re doing all right.

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