Philanthropy in the Real World

I have just finished listening to an episode of the Waking Up podcast by Sam Harris, entitled “Being Good and Doing Good: A Conversation with William MacAskill“. In the podcast, Sam and William discuss altruism, and the ethical and moral responsibility we all have in the Western world to be philanthropic. Sam and William brought up many valid points regarding our affluence, the state of misery many in the third world experience in their lives, and the ethical and moral responsibility we westerners have to alleviate this misery.

I was introduced to Sam Harris and his Waking Up podcast via Dan Carlin several months ago, through episode 293 of Dan’s Common Sense podcast, where the pair sat down for a discussion on immigration, foreign policy, and other topics. I was hooked by Sam’s viewpoints and have since been an avid listener (and Patron) of his podcast. I have been a fan (and supporter) of Dan Carlin for over 5 years as well. Both of them are examples of what motivated, intelligent, and talented people can do in our digital era to advance our understanding of the world and our places in it, while providing enlightened entertainment with meaning and purpose. If you aren’t already, you should investigate Sam and Dan’s work.

In this episode of Waking Up, Being Good and Doing Good, Sam and William describe a powerful and thought-provoking analogy, which I will attempt to accurately summarize here for the purpose of context:

You are walking beside a shallow pond and see a child drowning. Do you jump in (and risk ruining your expensive clothes) to save the child, or do you continue walking?

Sam and William do a better job with this analogy than I do, but their answer, and most peoples’, is that yes, we’d jump in with hardly a thought. Yet the quandary from this analogy, which is based on philosopher Peter Singer’s views, is that everyday there are children “drowning in that pool” and we daily “walk by and do nothing”. The reason us moral, ethical and vastly fortunate people don’t do all we can is because that drowning child is not right in front of us. The crisis of those dying children is not a pressing concern in our lives.

Now that we are aware of the drowning children, Sam and William contend, the logical next step is that we practice this philosophy in our daily lives. Because, if we were actually thinking about what was occurring around the world, we would be so moved to act to save all those drowning children. We can do this by giving money to worthwhile causes, ones which have been thoroughly vetted and actually do the work as advertised. William gave a figure of $3,500 to save the life of one child. I believe this was in the context of purchasing a net that would be used to prevent the spread of malaria.

I found this discussion fascinating, sad, and a bit inspiring, even to the point of calculating how much my family could give regularly.

I agree with their assessment. In an abstract world, where philosophy, morals, and ethics are enough to guide a reasonable person’s behavior, then yes, we should all be giving all we could, in an effort to save innocent lives. Of course, this abstract thought does have a very important assumption, and that is I can really impact this outcome in a meaningful way.

Giving money to any organization means other people are taking it and spending it on your behalf. Whenever these efforts involve multiple countries, languages, cultures, distances, and laws, those all represent layers of complexity (and cost) which will all eat away the money donated. These factors also make it more difficult to execute the tasks needed to complete the items you intended to pay for. In the podcast, Sam and William use the example of the children’s play structure, which was supposed to pump water to villages. This project received worldwide fanfare and monetary support, but unfortunately, was quickly proven completely ineffective.

But, let’s assume that Sam and William are correct, that there is at least one organization that guarantees that your money actually does end up doing all the good they say it will; that your dollars are put to good use (I want to note that I do think people who work for these organizations deserve to be paid, so I agree with reasonable administration costs). Even with the assumption that a western based non-profit can do what is says it can do, there are still other factors in play that are part of this complex situation.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that there’s plenty of food to feed everyone. If that’s not the case, then we should take a serious look at stores like Costco and people’s shopping habits. I was once a capitalist but these beliefs are hard pressed to describe a valid need for obese people wheeling away pallets of cheesy poofs, “diet” soda, and the like. The same can be said of fast food. This is a main reason I oppose publicly funded healthcare. But I digress. That is an entirely different blog post.

However, my point is that in terms of saving the millions who are dying of sickness, starvation, exposure, is that there are political forces contributing. There’s likely enough food to go around – but there is a group who prevents that food getting where it is needed. There’s likely medicine – but it is intercepted by groups who want to deny it from getting where it’s needed.

Dealing with the political forces is where the complexity (and extra layer of foreign policy) comes in. Many Westerners have spent the past decade violently opposing any interventions with military force. Therefore, if military force is what is needed to get that stuff where it’s needed, and democracies are unwilling to pay that price, then the logical shortfall in my mind is: why bother sending money? Won’t that go into a black hole of administration/local thugs in underdeveloped countries?

Finally, if it really does come down to enough money, then why aren’t the Hollywood types – the ones adopting children and going on talk shows – just outright buying a third world nation? Seriously, Ben Affleck, Angelina Jolie, Matt Damon – they have more than enough money to buy a country and then do whatever they wanted with it. Have they even tried to? Seems to me like buying a country would be the most expedient way of fixing it.

In the realm of philosophy, it is simple and easy to establish a set of ethical principles. On that basis, it is easy to think “why don’t we all just give money and fix everything?” That is a very enticing and positive way to think. However, I think that life just isn’t as simple as that. My analytical, cynical mind won’t let me take that philosophical leap 100%.

But, hey, what if it really is that simple?

My thinking is this: I will do what I can, when I can, and continue to be grateful for what I have each day.


Three Economic & Social Factors of the English Civil War Which Impacted the Rise of Modernity

This period in English history is fascinating for all the changes and transitions that occurred. While the English Civil War (circa 1640-1650) is the flashpoint where the action took place, the changes that came to the forefront during this period and after in truth had been brewing (often bubbling over) for generations.

For starters, this era is considered the “early modern” by historians. This is where the beginnings of our modern ideas for social structure; religion, economics, imperialism, and all the rest, begin and actually become enacted in systems. Studying this period has revealed many complexities that are not necessarily clear on the surface. As you’ll see, these forces lead directly to changes that have created the environment we are currently in (and beginning to transition out of).

There are many social, political, and economic causes of the English Civil War, but there are a few which stood out for me as I began to study this period.

  1. Absolute monarchy to limited monarchy: One thread of English history which continues from 1066 through this period is the tension and presence of absolute rule by a monarch. From William the Conqueror, King John, Elizabeth, and then to King James I and the beheaded King Charles I (the first English King to have been put on trial and executed for treason), the-execution-of-charles-i-1132x509English history is marked with the push and pull of absolute rule by an individual. The Magna Carta was put in place in an effort to curtail King John by nobles who’d had enough of his shenanigans. However, like many attempts to curb greed and power, it hadn’t been forceful and consistent enough to make a lasting impression. This balance between absolutism and some lesser form was often one which determined good rulers from poor ones. (Queen Elizabeth comes to mind.)
  2. Rise of merchants and “middle class”: I don’t know if “middle class” is the appropriate term, but it’s one that seems to describe some demographic changes taking place. Some might say that this shift goes all the way back to the Black Plague (14th century), with the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 being a dramatic bookend to that period. The English Civil War represents the culmination of the middle class’ self-awareness, or perhaps if not their self-awareness, but their “we aren’t going to take this anymore” moment. The rise of the “middle class” is its own topic, but the short version starts with King Henry VIII and seizing the Catholic Church’s lands and possessions. All that wealth was taken (transferred, if you will) from the Church to Henry. He, of course, spent lavishly; wars in France, parties, marriages, and all the rest. When you spend money, well, it pike8winds up in the hands of those who provided those goods and services. Those people grew that wealth and sometimes spent it again, sometimes using it to buy those estates that once had been owned by the Church. Over a couple generations, enterprising families (many who had been “low-born”, which also bristled other factions in society) rose to prominence. Many of these folks were now in Parliament, and made up the men who did more than thumb their nose at Kings James and Charles. This played out between Parliament and both King James and Charles, who voiced clearly their philosophy of what (very limited) role Parliament was to play in ruling England.
  3. Banking and monarchy don’t mix: Another modern system we take for granted (capitalism) was just beginning to dip its toes into England, as the medieval craft/guild economic system had proven too inflexible to handle where humanity was going. A surprising revelation of my study of this period was that (absolute) monarchy and banking are incompatible. So what? you might think. Well, in order for any flavor of capitalism to work, capital (money, lending, investment) must be able to go where it needs to. Individuals need to be able to raise capital, invest their capital, and strive to earn profits, and repeat the process. Merchants then used capital to build and develop their trade networks, which produced more wealth, which found its way back to England. As an aside, some of this money was used to patronize the sciences, and played a major role in the scientific revolution. Since monarchs were uninterested in funding scientific research (Elizabeth, for example) merchant investment and spending for research into astronomy, navigation, and math were critical for advancements that took place in these fields (and more).

As I mentioned, there is much more than this; Puritans, advances in scientific thought, education, trade, the New World, and all that. But limiting monarchy, an emergent middle class, and freeing the flow of capital were three points which greatly impacted the English Civil War, and laid foundations for our world today.


Slowing things down and savoring the journey

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I blinked and now I’m in my 40s.

Recently I’ve gone back to school and am pursuing something that I enjoy. While I’ve made an effort to be mindful of the present, I still find myself worrying about the future, or thinking about what I will do after graduation. This part of my nature attempts to push me to “go faster” and finish my degree “sooner”. Certainly, thinking long and mid-term like this are valuable. However, spending too much time in this space creates a lot of unnecessary anxiety and stress. In addition, it also removes much of the ability to derive pleasure and joy from daily experiences. I’m sure many of you are similar.

I’m reminding myself to let go of worry and anxiety for things I can’t control right now, so that they don’t poison things now. This is especially difficult during stressful situations, but being vigilant is key.

Twenty years ago, a much younger me worked extremely hard and earned a Bachelor’s Degree in about four years. However, because of a five year break between high school and college, those college years were burdened with 18 credit hours (sometimes 20) each quarter and two full summer sessions (mostly of math, because I had tested into 5th grade math, so I paid full college tuition and spent time going from Math 20 up to Math 341-343 Statistics). At the end I was satisfied, proud, exhausted, and wondering if I had gotten as much out of it as I could have. But we do what we have to do.

This time around, I am appreciating the journey and attempting to focus on living through these experiences of once again being a student. Sure there’s been stress – those are the instances when I remind myself that I can only do my best, and that my best is good enough. And that I am blessed with a loving family who I love spending time with.

Because I value my family and my marriage so highly, I’ve made spending time with them a priority. Hopefully my time management skills will continue to allow me to do this while maximizing my study time. So far it’s been going great.

We can get caught up in all the running around and anxiety-provoking worrying about the state of the world and careers and politics and whatnot. And you can also set aside needs to control and judge and just “be”. It often doesn’t seem like it, but these are all choices we make. Our drive to achieve is a feature of western culture, and while drive has advantages, it, like most things, must be balanced. Our culture often sucks at balance. But that doesn’t mean you have to let it suck you down and cause your life to flash before your eyes.

Once again, I’m reminded of “The Top 5 Regrets of The Dying”. I hope you all read it and internalize these messages.

The Pursuit of Stuff

I saw a book in my counselor’s office last winter that was fairly eye-opening. It was a book published by UCLA researchers who studied 32 homes and families in the L.A. area. The book is titled Life at Home in the 21st Century, and here’s an article about the study.

Flipping through the book actually caused me some anxiety. Seeing photo after photo of rooms jammed full of stuff left me stressed. Good thing I was in my counselor’s waiting room. That’s not the type of thing that usually bothers me. In this case it did.

Part of it was thinking about how it would feel to live a life in pursuit of stuff. Chasing that next object for fulfillment, seeking approval with a gift, needing to finance a house full of items only to run out of room and restart the cycle in a bigger house.

I definitely enjoy buying gifts for my family. I definitely have some things that I treasure. The bass guitar I bought my senior year in high school, that I took to Hollywood with me, is one of my few possessions that I would hate to lose. But even then, it wouldn’t be ruinous to lose it. I will always have those memories.

I also think it is important to have a bookcase full of books. Having something tangible to read is different and I think it matters on some level. My kindle is cool but I regularly read a real book.

One of the factors in the study was dual-income households. Those seem to be fading these days, either by choice or the failing economy. The upside of that may be less of a focus on stuff and more of a focus on things that matter. We’ll see.

On a side note, seeing this book was one of the sources of inspiration that sent me back to school. After seeing the book that showed the study and findings, I felt intrigued and excited. I told my counselor I read it in the waiting room and that I would love to a study like that. He said he could see me doing a project like that as well.

The article mentioned a lack of research on this area, which is a shame in my opinion. With the pace of life, consumerism, and technology in the modern age, studying how these conditions impact our lives is paramount. Even more so with children in the home. Everything we do in front of them we are setting the standards for them; how they will live, think, behave, and view their worlds and the people around them. They will carry those lessons – good and bad – to the next generation.

Hopefully you will read the article and ponder the study. It may even have as much of an impact on you as it did me. Maybe if we’re lucky, there will be more studies on this important subject in the future.