Sunday, 8 August 2010

Justifying a Life of Luxury

It is Saturday night in Tamale and it is pelting down with rain. Our tin roof is amplfying the sound so much it seems as though there is an African drum contest being played out upon each of my ear drums.
What better thing to do then than to sit and ponder over Peter Singer's "The Singer Solution to World Poverty"?... Yes our Saturday nights in Ghana are rocking!

Essentially, what Singer states is that rather than allow ourselves to sit back and bathe in the luxurious lives we may well have worked laborously to accumulate, we should instead use this money for more philanthropic ventures.
Can we justify flaunting our new ipods, convertables and plasma TVs, when that same amount of money could have been used to save one or even many lives?

Perhaps we are able to flaunt these material goods so easily, without feeling the need to justify our behaviour, because human beings lack the ability to conceive suffering apart from when it presents right in front of our very eyes. Without visualising someone elses distress, we can quite easily put such far off thoughts to the back of our minds. Perhaps this is an in built mechanism to prevent potentially devastating psychological torment. A survival mechanism to priotise our own wellbeing over anyone elses... Survival of the fittest.

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" Pirke Avot 1.14.

"But if I am only for myself then who am I?". Just because we can't see devastating suffering through our rose tinted glasses, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. It just means we are fortunate enough not to experience it. So how best to we appreciate and endeavor to rectify this mismatched worldly equilibrium of suffering?
Singer suggests that we take our justly earnt savings and use them to help those most in need. He says that we should do away with our material goods in favour of readjustng the imbalance. He also says that we should categorise what we spend as that which is neccessay for our survival and that which is spent on luxury items. That which is not neccessary we should give to charity.

Some of us disagreed with this comment. Why should we have to sacrifice all that we have worked hard to build for ourselves and our families? If we give, as the Torah states, 10-20% of our earnings away then surely that is enough? The Torah even states that you should not give so much as to impoverish yourself. Self preservation is key, "If I am ot for myself than who am I?" If I am not for myself, how can I be there for anyone else?

I don't agree whole-heartedly with Singer. Yet neither do I think we can justify our lives, flaunting our luxury items and remainig blissfully ignorant about the world and the people around us. I think that we should spend what is necessary for our own and our families' survival. However I think that the term "neccessary" is intrinsically subjective.

Considering cultural relativity, "suffering" differs according to the society one finds themselves in. Whilst one may conceive the inability to buy one's child an ipod touch for their next birthday completely incongruent to the inability to access clean drinking water, if one considers that family or individual in their specific context, it becomes easieR to see that the same or similar amounts of distress can be felt by persons in very different situations.

If our ipods and cars and plasma TVs make us comfortable and satisfied and genuinely happy, then I see no reason that we can't justify owning these items. However, when we find ourselves reaching into our pockets for the latest craze, knowing full well that it will make little difference to our own, our family's or our friends lives; maybe we should pause for a moment and think about what is more of a neccessity; our luxury item of short-lived pleasure, or the potential to save a life.


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  2. You bring up some interesting perspectives and raise the, "it's not that black and white" issue of civic responsibility and personal contentment.