January 29, 2011

Babies vs. Shoes

I was watching a documentary on philosophy the other night and one of the professors being interviewed was the controversial Peter Singer. He is apparently quite interested in the study of applied ethics and in his talk he put forward a rather interesting thought experiment which I'd like to paraphrase and share with all of you.

You are walking on a path around a shallow pond. There is no one else around but you hear crying and see a baby that is going to drown if you don't intervene. Although there is no possible way for you to get harmed by saving the baby you are wearing very expensive clothes and shoes and there is no time to remove them or else the baby will drown. Obviously, damn the clothes you save the baby, right? Pretty sure 99.9999% of the people on earth would.

So why do people spend so much money on luxury goods when there are children in the world whose lives would be saved for the price of that Coach purse you've been eying all month? From a personal, ethical perspective isn't it morally reprehensible to buy those shoes when the money could go to saving the life of an impoverished child? 

I'm not trying to single out women here, that's the way Singer framed the thought experiment. Read it again but substitute phallic-shaped sports car for expensive clothes if gender equality (in stereotyping) is your thing.

Very curious to hear everyone's thoughts. It makes me think I should give more, but I also couldn't live in a world where women didn't walk around in expensive little black dresses.

Images taken from here and here.


  1. I do think it is ludicrous the way some women (and men) waste their money. But I think we live in a world where people only see what's right in front of them, rather than the larger picture. After all, saving a baby from drowning right in front of you is a lot different than giving lots of money to a charity for kids you've never seen before...sad but true.

    I also think we really can't live in a world without luxuries. Humans are programmed to want MORE, at least in this society.

    If I were a millionaire, I would love to give thousands of dollars to poor people, while wearing my Jimmy Choos. ;)

  2. i disagree with jennifer's statement that humans are 'programmed to want more'. parents have responsibility to raise their kids simply and they are the ones who have the choice to bring them up as greedy or not. i had a boyfriend who'd always say 'you have hardly any stuff' because i don't have a ton of crap in my house and on shelves. i live simply, and have many friends from many backgrounds who do as well.

    now on the little black dress, christopher. how do you know it's expensive? the lovely thing about a large number of men is that if a woman looks good, they probably don't know if it's a $5,000 Chanel Couture or came from the resale shop (oops I mean 'vintage').

    i do think a large amount of this is pushed onto women, as the lack of equality in this society many years ago kept women out of the workforce and as technology was pushed upon households and women were still not welcome to get jobs, they had less to do and retailers loved this - more ways to spend the husband's paycheck. then over the years the idea of shopping became portrayed as more of 'what women do' and that condescending little laugh out there about 'oh you know how women love to shop!', putting them in their place and encouraging materialism in a kind of creepy way in my opinion. if not shoppers, what are we as women? if not mothers, what are we as women? i don't have a budget for clothing. like anything else, if i need it, i'll see if i have money for it.

    the whole concept of $500 stilettos made by slave/child labor makes me ill. and mind you, i appreciate a sexy shoe, and can work it well. but a) i would rather spend that money to buy mulch for my garden and contribute to my local non profit, and b) i can find a great resale or cruelty-free shoe that still makes me feel like a kitten without spending half my mortgage.

    greed stems from insecurity. simplicity breeds contentment. focus on what's real, boys and girls.

    soapbox temporarily stepped down from now. i'll be baaaack.

  3. what if you can buy those really expensive shoes...AND give to the needy? Well than you would be the whole package now wouldn't you?

    The above comment is right, a guy couldn't tell if the little black dress cost more than $20 or if the shoes really came from Charlotte Russe.

    But in my reality, I do what I can and don't worry about other people. If I can't give to the poor one month, I don't expect someone else to do it based on what they are wearing. That is judgmental and let's face it, this world could use a little less judgement.

  4. I do think that it's important to give. Sure, I'd save the baby too. But trust me, there are women who would dive in if a pair of Jimmy Choos or a beautiful Vera Wang dress was thrown in the garbage, too. On the other hand, there are so many men who invest in really expensive gadgets, some of which even have no real use, like I do not understand the whole purpose behind paper shredders, etc. It's all in the moment. We could also ask ourselves, if I were to take a plunge to save one drowning thing/person, what/who would I do it for?

    I also believe in saving a certain amount from every paycheck and spending it towards making a difference. Also, since I am currently unemployed I still do my little bits without spending a penny. I have a large collection of hardly used (oops, vintage!) apparel and accessories, and I do every bit so that it does not go waste.

    I say, looking fine/luxury is something that cannot be controlled by what brand you wear. I do not know if I would want to have such people in my life, who judge others by their brand value. Also, just because I don't own a LV (yet) does not make me poor. I don't need an LV to make me look beautiful :)

    So, in short - What we need is balance. If we like to take, we must also give back. Every little bit counts! :) Loved this post!

  5. I think it has to be put into context. My brother in law is a millionaire that has 3 Lamborghinis and a $8 million mansion in Vegas. He earned every penny he has, and he likes the finer things. In fact, screw the $500 stilettos, he buys his girlfriend $1000 stilettos.

    So is he a selfish asshole? Wait, before you answer, there's more. When he got sick, was low on money temporarily, and we had to go through his bank statements to sort out his bills, we found out that he donates $50,000 to starving children in third world countries on a monthly basis. Even when he had almost no money.

    So let's say he makes $6 million a year (rough estimate, I don't know for sure, but it's close). He donates $600,000 of this a year, based on the $50k a month. That's 10% of his income. So how many people making a middle class $50,000 a year do you know that donate $5000 a year to charity? I don't know about you, but I don't know a single person that does this.

    So as I said, it's context. I see absolutely nothing wrong with loving the finer things, and I do not think it's morally reprehensible to enjoy what you earned. My brother in law busted his balls for 10 years to make those millions, so why should he drive to work in a 1979 Toyota Tercel when he can have the Lamborghini of his dreams? I know I'd do the exact same thing in his shoes. But you'd better believe I'd also be donating that $50,000 a month to people who really need it.

  6. It's all about the immediacy and seeing the actual impact of your actions.

    Humans want instant gratification (not a condemnation) - most would rather spend $100 on a sure thing right now, than $20 for the same thing guaranteed in a year. Ruin your clothes now to save a life, yes. Withhold from yourself to possibly, perhaps, perchance, a little itty bitty, kinda help a starving kid?

  7. well, my first thought, christopher allen, upon seeing those pictures was, "christ, i wouldn't want to give birth to either of those things. those heels would harpoon my innards on their way out, and babies are total attention whoors."

    as for the clothes and shoes and cars and shit, i'm one of those fakers. as in, clothes and shoes go out of fashion and cars depreciate so fast, why bother with the expensive stuff? i'm just as adorable whatever i'm wearing, and getting in and out of whatever metal box gets me from a to b.

    plus i don't have any money. so that helps.

  8. I'd leave the baby and walk away. So there's that. (Just kidding)

    It is an interesting point he brings up. I will admit, I'm guilty for probably spending more than I need on crap...But how much is too much to spend? Is there a certain quota we're supposed to fill?

    My husband and I donate to specific charities, we have a certain percentage of our income that goes to our church every month. And while that doesn't justify our spending, I feel like we give enough. We give what we can, while still maintaining the lifestyle we want.

  9. You blogged about shoes! but with a socialist overtone....I am so torn.

  10. Jennifer: I think part of the reason I found this little experiment so fascinating is because it deals with the way individuals act in society at large. People are a lot more likely to intervene when it is something they see in their daily lives but the old out of sight out of mind cliche really hits home with this one.

    Eco: I can't really disagree with Jennifer on the point that we are programmed to want more. Yes, it is the responsibility of parents to raise there children to have common sense but there are many more influences on a child besides the parent. There are ideas bombarding us constantly that tell us having more is good and no child can be completely shielded from that anymore than they can be shielded from getting caught out in the rain from time to time.

    I would agree that women do get an unfair share of the blame for wasting money because men waste just as much money just on different things. Aside from the Buddha, we all have things we want in our lives. Some women want shoes, some men spent fortunes and lives building pyramids for tombstones.

    Victoria: I don't give a set portion of my earnings to charities. It goes to my student loans. I give when I can as well, sometimes I don't even do that. I liked this question because it made me think about what I can do. It's not expecting someone else to do it. By world standards I'm wealthy, sure as hell doesn't feel like that though. I like that it makes me question if I need a new phone or if I can manage with the one I have and instead give the money to UNICEF were it will go towards saving the lives of children.

  11. Apfel: Since I'm only just starting to get to the point in my life where I have a little disposable income I've always just been able to plead the poor college student bit on this question. Now that I actually have a career that is doing OK I'm starting to wonder if volunteering or having a job in a non-profit sector is enough?

    A Beer for the Shower: Kudos to him for giving that much. I can honestly say I don't give 10% of what I make so I'm not at all trying to put anyone down here. I do think this is a question that we all need to ask ourselves though. It has a lot of value and it looks like your brother in law had already asked it.

    Sarah: I agree. It's part of why I found this question so compelling. We often think of ourselves as higher beings with nobler intentions, but really a lot of life is wanting something and then trying to get it which isn't that different from the proverbial squirrel trying to get a nut. Altruism (if it even exists) is a hard thing to come by when we're so focused on meeting our own needs and goals.

  12. Kage: So perhaps we should genetically engineer everyone to be adorable? That way people wouldn't need all this expensive stuff to overcompensate. I have to be honest, I've never really spent too much time worrying about this kind of question either because I've only recently gotten a job that even lets me pay all my bills.

    MrsCaptKerk: I guess the classic sort of tithe from the old testament would be 10%. This guy said he gives 25%. I think most people help out other people when they can, it makes people feel good about themselves. How much we should give though is an extremely personal question that no one can really answer but ourselves.

    Shannon: I almost went over to your blog to poach pictures of shoes but it seemed like too much work.

  13. Well if you read my blog, which you do, you know that I am philosophy buff. Singer is a pretty interesting guy. He 100% believes that we should act in a way that we view ethics. Like with the baby case. He believes utilitarianism, in a practical sense.

    Everyone should do what is best to maximize other people's pleasure and reduce pain. If I have a lot, well that is nice but I should give it to people who need it. He bases his work off the original concept ( like Kant ) although he doesn't want anyone to differentiate between beings. Philosophers spend a lot of time talking about rational beings and who warrants what and who is categorized where. He believes that people are people, and people and animals need things and are entitled.

    He makes the simple claim that it is wrong for people to live in such luxury while others are suffering ("Famine, Affluence, and Morality"). It sounds so simple. It sounds like that, but most people don't think in that way, or do we? I mean I understand it, and I give charity but it doesn't mean that I don't spend my money on dumb things. Does that make me a bad person?

    Read this, http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/19990905.htm

    Great post !

  14. Interesting discussion, Christopher! So, since I know you're reading your way through the bible, I thought I'd add this. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)

    so, yes, I think we do need to help those in need however we can, but it's okay to have a nice suit or nice shoes, as long as we do that. I think the main thing is to be aware of the other inhabitants on this earth and not to just be consumed with ourselves.

  15. But, I like my expensive shoes...

    I do understand the point though.
    We're too greedy, too self centered and too caught up in our own lives to care about anyone else.

  16. Firstly, I love the picture, I mean of the cute baby, not the shoes! ;p

    Certainly, a human life is worth more, I don't disagree with you on that. And I agree with you also, that in our overly materialistic society our values are somewhat skewed, and we often forget what really matters. It's a complicated predicament, however, because I do occasionally like to treat myself to those sexy black dresses you mentioned.

    So look at this way: If his wife never bought that sexy dress, the husband might not have engaged in the act that lead to said baby's conception, and so there would be no baby to save. Sexy black dresses, and the like, help with the mate attraction, just read those psychology textbooks; they're helping with procreation. ;)

    All silliness aside, I have no insightful explanations for you, I feel for humanity, yet I like me some certain material possessions; perhaps, we're slowly losing sight of a fine balance...where empathy is quickly turning to apathy and selflessness to selfishness? :(

  17. I honestly don't see how driving a phallic-shaped sports car into the pond could possibly help the baby. I mean, wouldn't that just make things worse?

    But, seriously, aren't there any lassoes available? That might help. Will the water be cold?

    Regardless, there's ALWAYS more that any one of us could be doing. In my case, probably, A LOT more.

  18. Oooooh, I love these knotty little ethics questions!

    It could be a case of the combined:
    -Over-exposure to CCF ads on TV with starving, fly-covered kids
    -'out of sight; out of mind'
    that causes us to value our own immediate comfort over trying to help others?


    Giant orange blankets FTW!

  19. It costs $0.00 to walk around without the expensive little black dress. :) 'Cos at the end of the day it's not 'the dress' you are attracted too?

    This arguement applies to the western world of course ... Lose capitalism and life gets a lot richer, intimate, naked, rewarding ... America should try it sometime. (I know USA is not the only capitalist country but 'they' invented Carrie Bradshaw and her shallow shoe collection???) Thankfully I have a life with shoes AND a brain.

    You really got me on this post. Ha! Have I told you lately that I love your blog? I like that you are the voice of socialism :)

  20. I'd say people don't make this connection because we are wired into the norms of our own societies. In saying that I have family members with dozens of handbags or designer watches. And you only have one wrist and can only carry round one bag. But I'm skeptical about charity because it seems to be the way the rich nations cope with their guilt instead of addressing the real problems like unfair trade agreements,

  21. Penny: I hope not. Most of my money goes to dumb things. You're definitely making me want to read more on this guy. The link is bookmarked and I'll definitely let you know what I think. I'd read it now but my brain doesn't work so good on the weekends.

    Elle: One of my favorite things about the Bible is the focus on charity and giving a helping hand. I think that it established the 10% tithing rule has had a great effect on history. Sadly, I think those parts of the Bible seem to be less popular than they once were and I hope that changes.

    margg: Ha! And I still like my silly toys and overpriced beer. I don't know if we're all that bad, but it's easy to just be indifferent I think. I'm indifferent to all sorts of things all the time, just need to give myself a poke from time to time so I wake up.

  22. Philosophia: Well that's an interesting take on it. Perhaps we should instead use that money to subsidize the sale of alcohol in this country to encourage people to procreate. OK, probably not a good idea in practice but I like the sound of it.

    Kev: I was wondering how long it would take before someone called me out on that car example. I've just never been that attached to a pair of shoes so I had a bit of trouble coming up with a decent example. Way to keep me honest.

    Peridot: I'm quite a fan of them myself. Those commercials are done all wrong I think. For one, they show them at 2 AM. Most people watching TV then are probably more interested in figuring out how to get another 6 pack than donating to charity.

    Sharon: I like the way you think! I'm all for making that change although convincing the rest of us is kind of hard. I'm not sure about the naked part though considering we are the fattest country in the world. And thank you! I'm glad you enjoy it, I'll keep fighting the good fight.

    David: I think these questions are more interesting from a personal level than when you apply it to a societal level. If society at large really wanted to make a conscious effort to give back it would make an effort to adjust things like unfair trade, as you mentioned, from a policy level. Plus, you don't get that self-satisfaction from helping whatever your favorite cause is if it's your tax money instead of your charity helping out the poor.

  23. yes, i believe we all have a responsibility to charity if it is within our means - and it's within the means of more people than we probably think, and people don't realize how easy it is to give - and that you have more ways to give than with a monetary donation.

    i made a comment once on facebook about those (what i find to be) asinine "repost if you support cancer research for babies with autism! - 99% of you won't repost". i argued that if you really care about the issue, you're doing jack shit by making it your status on some social networking site - you're not linking to anywhere to donate or contribute to the cause. you're mildly raising "awareness", i suppose, but not in a really meaningful way. a friend said that some people don't have the means to give and do it in another way - i retorted that it was far easier than one might think. you could sacrifice takeout food, a drink from starbucks, getting an eyebrow wax - all signs of "luxury" that even the poorer among us engage in because we all like to feel like we can treat ourselves - myself included (although i'm 100% aware that in the full, worldwide spectrum of economic status, i'm considered extremely wealthy).

    that, however, is somewhat of a digression. my point, really, is that we do have a responsibility to some form of charity if we have the means - however, i must selfishly say that when i am working hard, i expect to reap the rewards of that hard work as well - and that to be honest, the first rewardee of that work will probably be me. if i have an extra $5, my first thought will probably be a eyebrow wax, not a charitable donation. i'm actually fairly ok with that idea - i believe in giving back in many ways. volunteering time can sometimes be far more beneficial to the function of an organization than donating cash (working at a nonprofit, i can vouch that this is 100% true). also, if one sets themself up with an automatic recurring donation, even if it's a small amount ($5 a month, let's say - and this is an easy thing to do through many employers and third party "donation takers", for lack of a better term) - then i don't feel badly if my "extra" $5 goes towards me. being active in the blogosphere and having friends that raise money for charitable events - i also donate in support of them or when a cause just touches me.

    i'm not trying to take this at all as some sort of personal affront - i realize it's just food for thought - it's just easier for me to work out/exemplify what's ok, and what's just too selfish, with examples from my real life :)

    i do, also, tend to find $500 shoes/bags/accessories extravagant and ridiculous in general - and just unnecessary.

  24. and my god, i apologize for writing a novel! did not realize how long the comment had gotten...

  25. Dominique: The facebook things make me sort of chuckle. I saw one that said "blank likes juvenile debates". Horrible wording, and yea I relate to that, I guess it makes people feel better about themselves for liking it, I dont know.

    I'll admit that I really don't give regularly. I really should start putting it into my budget, I think that would make me happier. I'd probably support some local cause though because you know, want to see that immediate results.

    And write away! I like long comments.

  26. Gotta love these type of Gordian knots. Even if there is no 'answer' as such Singer does at least bring ethical questions to the fore and makes people think about their own stance on morality.
    Even better is the amount of responses you have elicited, which shows that people do think on these things. Well done.


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