Every time I enter a discussion about the moral obligations of charitable giving, it’s a matter of time before they devolve into a scrutinization of my own lifestyle and level of self-denial. This is because I advocate very strongly that it is immoral to be rich and to fail to use your resources to try to alleviate human suffering. Since most people in this country, including myself, have unnecessary frivolous indulgences and do not do everything we ought to do to help people, almost everyone who enters a discussion like this is uncomfortable and defensive. The stakes are very high, after all, in terms of potential implications for one’s self-conception. There are conclusions we could reach, in our discussion of right and wrong, that imply that I am the moral equivalent of a murderer. And since I wouldn’t like to think of myself that way, I am probably going to be a bit prickly and desperate to prove otherwise.
One of the ways people comfort themselves, in discussions like these, is in staying on the offense. When I advocate a strong position (that people are duty-bound to give all their wealth away), instead of discussing whether this is true, I am consistently asked whether I have given all of my wealth away. Rationally, this makes no sense, since whether Nathan J. Robinson has given his wealth away has zero implication for the moral question of how much wealth a person ought to give away. But argumentatively, this is useful for people, since they believe that if they can prove I don’t live up to my standard, then obviously I don’t really believe it and it can safely be disposed of. They can also just help themselves feel good; while they might not be moral, at least they’re not hypocrites like Nathan J. Robinson who goes around telling other people what to do without doing it himself.
One of the only reasons the tu quoque is practically effective, though, is that because everyone is usually defensive, the person who advocates a strict moral code will become uncomfortable when they are ruthlessly scrutinized. They will play right into the hands of the person who accuses them of hypocrisy, by trying to offer excuses for their own behavior. Or they’ll just insist, as I often do (correctly) that it’s irrelevant, and thereby perversely make themselves look even more defensive and be assumed to be hiding something.
I hate how much this personal stuff ends up clouding these debates, which are extremely important. Lives are at stake, after all! In order, then, that we might move on from making it about my own personal success in living up to my aspirations of voluntary socialism, let me just make my confession now, so that in the future we might accept it and move on to discuss the question instead of poring over my expenditures.
Q: If you’re an egalitarian, why are you so rich?
A: Because I’m weak and selfish and a failure. Because I am unable to resist buying idiotic things like tassely lampshades and framed koala-paintings, even though in doing so I have almost certainly let someone die. Because try as I may, I am not just imperfect, but am a moral swiss cheese dotted with deep flaws. I don’t do the things I mean to do, I let people down, and I keep doing it repeatedly. And I’m sorry about that and I will try not to but I will probably not succeed. Like literally everyone else I have a hard time doing the right thing, because the right thing is hard. But to imply that the fact that it’s hard bears on the question of whether it’s the right thing is just a cheap way of getting out of admitting you ought to do it.
There. Hopefully now I can have a conversation about charity without having to prove I reach my goals. Oh, and by the way, I think everyone should donate a kidney, but I haven’t yet had the guts to do it myself. Because I’m scared and selfish. For which I’m sorry.