You Only Give What You Give

It’s hard to think about our impact on the world. It’s really complicated and usually pretty debatable. But think about it we must, if we’re going to try to live the best lives we can. So here’s a little outline of a framework I’ve been thinking about for thinking about the ripples we send out as little one-seven-billionths of humanity. Maybe it can also be a step toward thinking of words like “production” and “contribution” beyond their narrow material or market-based senses. You know, someday we’ll figure out that making someone smile is probably more valuable than producing seven widgets or engineering another clever financial instrument.

So…four parts:

1) Your job*. “So, what do you do?” they say. And you know what they mean. It’s one of the more familiar ways of thinking about our contribution to society. So we’ll start here. We can probably agree that the net impact of different jobs is varied and can be understood as a kind of scale, even if we disagree regarding the impact of specific jobs. For me, there are jobs that pretty clearly do a lot more good than harm. Teaching, nursing, and plumbing come to mind quickly. And there is definitely compensated labor that has a negative impact. Drug dealing, Taliban militanting, and tobacco company executiving, perhaps. There are other cases that might be more debatable. I’d call musicianing, college IT guying, and babysitting mostly positive and put banking, coal mining, and advertising on the other side. But the point is that not all jobs are created impact-equal (and thus are not morally equal). Right? And how interesting it is that the positive or negative impact of a job does not correspond with its market value (that is, its pay).

If we’re going to devote a third or more of our waking life to something, we should probably consider its effect on others.

2) Your spending. One of the major ways we impact the world is by “voting with our wallet”. With every dollar we control a certain fraction of the world’s productive forces, and the way we direct those has a real impact. This is again pretty clearly scalar. When you give your money to a charity that distributes anti-malarial bed nets in Africa (like the Against Malaria Foundation) or educates girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan (like the Central Asia Institute), it has a significant positive impact. That’s probably better than buying organic produce, but conscious kale consumption is also driving things in a positive direction. It’s probably better than renting a movie.  And that’s probably a lot better than buying clothes from a company that exploits poor people in Atlanta or San Diego to sell them, and much poorer people in Honduras or Bangladesh to make them.

To spend money to acquire goods rendered irresistibly inexpensive by the low wages and terrible conditions nearly ubiquitous on the production end of globalized capitalism is to utilize the injustice of that system for your own benefit and violate the most basic principles of human solidarity. Meanwhile, to donate is to make a revolutionary commitment to the well-being of others, to the redress of the callousness of circumstance, even when our own self-interest is not at stake. Every day we get to choose between these options.

3) Your ideas. Societies are the product of the actions and the belief systems of their members. As Buddha is said to have said, “All that we are is a result of what we have thought.” Ideas spread through example and through conversation. Every time we stand up to racism, tell a friend why we support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, or humbly explain the motivations of our vegetarianism, we make a choice. We choose to use our voice and our behaviors as agents of change. Silence in the face of the status quo is also a choice, but it has different consequences.

Some of the greatest progress we’ve made as a society has nothing to do with the direction of our material productive forces. We’re fundamentally better than we were a century ago because we are more equal and more compassionate, more open and more loving. Jobs and dollars have played a very minor role in these changes. They are fundamentally changes of minds and hearts that spread from sister to sister, from father to daughter, and girlfriend to boyfriend. They have come about because people have bothered to talk to others about what they think is right, have been humble enough to listen, and brave enough to hold to opinions that many found unpopular. Every one of us is part of a social network influenced by our thoughts, cares, and decisions. And the world changes a little bit every time one of us speaks.

4) Your love. There’s probably nothing more important to our happiness than the relationships we have with those who are closest to us. That means that how we conduct those relationships is a huge part of the impact we have on the world. If I ignore my grandmother’s offer to talk about my day because I’m too immersed in my reading on the organization of an anarchist society, I’m probably missing the point. Every time I say something honest and positive to a friend, I change their life. I guess it’s clear that social science confirms this, but really I know it because I know whence my own happiness is derived. It’s shared experiences, shared encouragement, shared love, and shared lives with the people I wouldn’t want to live without. And as much as negative jobs, thoughtless consumerism, and complicit silence weaken the solidarity and undermine the well-being of the human race, conscientious attention to these things means little if we ignore our personal humanity and the enormous influence each of us wields on the well-being and life-affirmation of those closest to us.

The responsibility of taking the time to think through our impact on the world is a small price to pay for getting to be alive, for getting to live in a beautiful and complex world, and for getting to love. Hopefully, this little essay will make the process of working through those thoughts a little easier for someone. I think it already has for me, and that’s good.

– Adam

* = Jobs probably shouldn’t be regarded as a separate class from other actions. Everything we choose to do matters, and the special status we give to actions rewarded with money in our society over things like volunteering and hobbies is part of what traps us in making decisions that are bad for everyone.