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I do think it’s interesting, the extent to which things I think are plain and obvious are really not–or at least are interpreted entirely differently by different people.

By “voluntary poverty” I didn’t mean people who never hold a job or don’t get an education.

I meant people like monks and nuns in monasteries, people who consciously give up material things on the assumption that such material things are in and of themselves bad or wrong to have.

This could be simply a matter of forgoing material wealth in pursuit of a higher ideal, but what interests me is the fact that we as a culture tend to accord respect to the very fact of the voluntary poverty itself.  We don’t ask if the ideal is a good thing.   We are impressed with the sheer self denial.

And I do know the Christian rationale for that sort of voluntary poverty, and for the idea that we should all be stripping ourselves down to the bare necessities in order to give everything we have to the poor.

Peter Singer makes much the same demand in his articles and essays on Western affluence and third world poverty.  We should all forgo everything but the absolutely bare necessities and then send everything we make over that to the poor.

My problem with that–in either the Christian or the secular version–is that it wouldn’t actually alleviate poverty, or at least it wouldn’t for long. 

The wealth the West has has by and large not been produced by taking from the third world in a zero-sum game.  Everybody in all Western countries–and in all countries that trade with Western countries–is richer today than they were a hundred years ago.  We’re significantly richer now than we were in my childhood.

This has happened because we have erected a huge and complicated and interconnected economy in which every part is at least somewhat dependenton every other part. 

If everybody forwent going out to dinner–evento McDonald’s–or buying electronic toys or fancy cars, the result would not be lots of money left free to donate to charity, but mass unemployment across the industrialized world.

And mass unemployment would lead to the collapse of the economy and the restriction of any money at all to feed anybody else’s poor.

It is, I think, the classic example of the usefulness of Kant’s directive that if you want to know if any action you wish to perform is truly moral, you should investigate what would happen if that action became a moral law that everybody was expected to follow.

I put that badly.  With any luck, I was clear.

The idea is so thoroughly dysfunctional, though, that it makes me wonder why anybody ever thought of it at all. 

I suppose we could excuse the early Christian Church because it would have been less obvious what would happen if the ideal had been reached–and possibly less would actually have happened.  Agricultural societies depend less on getting and spending for their economic health than industrial societies do.

Peter Singer has less excuse.  He’s supposed to be a philosopher.  Theoretically, that should mean he’s good at thinking.   It shouldn’t take that much thinking to realize what a mess you’d make if you could get people to actually follow your  moral rules.

Of course, Singer would probably say that his rule makes sense because the vast majority of people will never follow it, and therefore we do not have to worry about the world’s economy falling apart.

But I don’t think that answers the question.   A moral law is a precept all human beings must follow in order to be good human beings.  A moral law that is viable only if people don’t follow it is a contradiction in terms.

Which brings me to the question of why the rule exists at all.  The very earliest Christians seem to have thought that the Second Coming was close, at most a generation or two away.   Given that short a time frame, the idea that you should walk away from all your possessions made more common sense than it seems to now.

But Singer doesn’t believe in the Second Coming on any level. 

The underlying assumption in Singer’s case seems to be that there is no such thing as wealth honestly earned, that every one of us has what we have by accident, and that such accidents, being mere matters of luck, are not “fair,” and not being fair, are not justifiable.

Ayn Rand would have said that the point of such a system of thought is to make us all feel guilty, all the time, every day. 

And that the point of that would be that, well, guilt has its uses.

But if I look around me at the people I know now who take this particular attitude, they don’t seem to feel particularly guilty. 

In fact, if anything, they seem quite the opposite.  The modern equivalent, after all, is the self-conscious display of using only the “right” products, the ones that don’t harm the earth or exploit the indigenous peoples of South America. 

And if you’ve ever run into one of those–well, one of the “out” ones of those;  I do know some people who do this kind of thing without making it the foundation for endless self display–

But you know what I mean, and you know who you mean. 

I still find this all very odd, both in its Christian versions and in its modern ones. 

But right now, I want tea.

Written by janeh

January 21st, 2011 at 7:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Overboard'

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  1. I’m not sure that the self-promoting eco person is an example of voluntary poverty – after all, as you point out, it costs a lot of money to buy eco-friendly clothes and to build and live in eco-friendly houses and so on. The people who quietly try not to waste things and try to recycle and reuse are probably closer to the idea of voluntary poverty, but they don’t get (or look for!) public praise for their choices. There’s a voluntary simplicity movement, but I don’t know much about it. I’m not sure they’d get the public recognition and approval your talking about either.

    Maybe the respect for living on less than you could is simply a respect for people doing something seen as very difficult in this materialistic culture. I have also seen something of the ‘guilt for success’ thing, where people who have worked hard feel guilty buying ‘luxuries’ that others can’t afford. That’s not a guilt I share or really quite understand. I don’t like excess much – hundreds of glittery designer gowns or a fleet of luxury automobiles are just wasteful – but if someone who’s worked hard, got money and is basically generous with it to the poor wants to spend some of it on a fancy dress or expensive car, I’d say, more power to them. Those luxuries wouldn’t be my choices (I’d go for housing, CDs, DVDs, books and travel), but they should be enjoyed without guilt, and I don’t know why some people have trouble with this idea.

    On a slight tangent, I don’t think a lot of middle-class North Americans know what near-poverty is, much less the real poverty of the old man trying to get by on CPP or the street person. I’ve noticed that students seem a lot richer than I was as a student, but everyone says, well, times have changed; they NEED computers and cars etc now. But they don’t all have cars, and we are enduring a prolonged bus strike, which is hitting some people really hard. One young woman complained that she couldn’t get to class on time because she had to walk 30-45 minutes or pay $10 for a taxi. I know the area intimately. I don’t have a car, and am undoubtedly at least twice her age & size and half her level of fitness. I walk that distance twice a day at least, and two or three times that on Saturdays! And in MY day (cue the ‘curmudgeon’ voice) it never occurred to us to take a taxi for such short distances. We sometimes thought it was a waste of a bus fare (although I did like the bus when heading in the uphill direction)! When did paying $10 or so for a taxi in order to avoid walking 45 minutes become economic hardship?? What about the people with minimum wage jobs or classes halfway across town? Some of them have been unable to make arrangements with friends or relatives with cars and have left their jobs or their programs because there is no way on earth they can get there.

    Some modern ‘poverty’ is merely the absences of the desired level of luxury.


    21 Jan 11 at 8:03 am

  2. cheryl is right that
    >Some modern ‘poverty’ is merely the absences of the >desired level of luxury.

    We have reached the point where having a large color TV of the old fashioned CRT rather than flat screen is a mark of poverty!

    As for Singer, I’m not quite sure what he means. He does seem to confuse wealth with money. If I have the money, I can go down to the supermarket and buy a steak. But that supermarket depends on a complex infra structure of roads, railroads, electricity, and various high technology.If you take the money from me and give it to someone in AFrica, they can’t use it because the country lacks the infra-structure.

    Does he think we should drop everything and build modern infrastructure in 3rd world countries as a gift?


    21 Jan 11 at 3:25 pm

  3. Sorry. On respect awarded poverty, we don’t really disagree by much. I was just trying to point out that it’s not choosing to become poor but WHY one chooses to be poor that makes the difference. You can define some of my categories out of “voluntary poverty” but that doesn’t really change anything. Only certain motives for poverty are respectable.

    But, much as it burns me to be on Singer’s side, we could affect a massive transfer of wealth to the Third World without collapsing our economy. Not spending has one set of effects–the first of which is to lower interest rates, unless the Federal Reserve is playing games again–but consumer spending, to a degree, is fungible. If the money we all spent eating out was spent shipping canned goods to Africa, the economy wouldn’t collapse. Obviously restaurant owners would be in a bad way and canned goods makers a better one, but that sort of economic shift goes on every day. It’s why I can’t find a Penguin Point, but there’s a Starbucks on every corner.

    The problem is on the other end. If someone’s hurting because his house burned down, or his farm flooded, he’s easy to help, and we mostly do a pretty good job of it. But the fundamental lesson of the past 70 or so years–of Hong Kong, Singapore, China and both Koreas–is that poverty on a national level is different. I don’t want to start on “voluntary” poverty again, but it’s the result of political decisions–corruption, lack of freedom and overwheening bureaucracy, mostly. Those can be fixed, but we–meaning the West–can’t fix it for others. Anyone who doubts this should do a quick review of the past 10 years–or a long review of European and American colonialism.

    We could all become poorer. As a Christian I believe we can and should do more to help the poor. But we can’t lift the Third World out of poverty. I think the reason Singer & Co don’t face this is that the specific political decisions places like Taiwan, HOng Kong and South Korea have made to end poverty are political decisions Singer & friends don’t much care for.

    Wanting the rules of the universe to be different is a very stressful thing.


    21 Jan 11 at 4:52 pm

  4. “I meant people like monks and nuns in monasteries, people who consciously give up material things on the assumption that such material things are in and of themselves bad or wrong to have.”

    I think that is a misunderstanding of that kind of voluntary poverty. In fact, I wonder if maybe I should put scare quotes around poverty in that sentence.

    Things are more than nice, the right things can indeed make life easier in may respects — but it takes time and work to acquire those things. And those are just for relatively simple things. A spoon. A basic knife. Some sturdy clothes.

    But once you posses them, own THEM and with some simple care they can last sometimes for decades.

    In contrast in buying a separate house for yourself you make yourself an indentured servant to the loan company that provides the actual cash to purchase the house and land. Unless you’re a trust baby, you are no longer free.

    It’s an old saw, but one with more than a little truth to it that if you have too many things, the things own you.

    The poverty of the monk is therefore somewhat deceptive. True, the individual monk owns little personal property, but the order itself owns the grounds and monastery the monk lives in, without charge. The order feeds the monk, again the monk needs no cash. The monks cell is sparse – but being sparse, it needs little attention to its upkeep, removing one more little “time suck” from their lives.

    You have a large home you live in by yourself, you need to maintain it and clean it as well as pay for it. The stuff you cram into it, the more time you have to spend just taking care of all that stuff.

    Thus the monk while in poverty in terms of case, is very rich indeed in TIME. That what he puts that time to use for may not interest US is of no matter.

    I.e., while the monk is voluntarily materially poor, he is materially poor so that he can pursue other interests without distraction – but neither does he want for basic necessities, however spartan they may be.

    This is a world apart from someone in involuntary poverty who from day to day does not know if he will eat and whose time is spent, not in prayer or study, but in scrounging up a meal or money for rent to avoid being thrown into the street.

    To the extent that the monk is admired for his material poverty it is because and to the extent that he is respected for his time dedicated to his other pursuits which that poverty makes possible.


    23 Jan 11 at 3:53 pm

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