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avaeve's avatar

If Tim didn't spend money on nonessential items, Joe's life could have been saved. Is Tim selfish?

Asked by avaeve (402points) February 5th, 2013

Everyday, around the world, 25,000 people die from starvation. Doesn’t this mean that whoever buys something other than food, water, and shelter is selfish since the money that was spent on nonessential items could have saved the lives of those who were dying from hunger?

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40 Answers

XOIIO's avatar

Um, no.

Take into accound cultural and economic differences in different regions, and different things become the norm.

If we went by your logic, you posed this question, so you used a computer and internet, therefor you were selfish as spend money on those thing, as well as time that could have been spent volunteering.

You are a murderer, and a horrible person.

avaeve's avatar

@XOIIO Take into account cultural and economic differences in different regions, and different things become the norm.

I have no idea what you mean here.

“If we went by your logic, you posed this question, so you used a computer and internet, therefor you were selfish as spend money on those thing, as well as time that could have been spent volunteering.”

That’s right. I never wrote I was the exception to the rule. I wrote whoever.

rooeytoo's avatar

If I avoid any of the things you mentioned, the money would stay in my pocket, how would that cure world hunger?

avaeve's avatar

What things? I only mentioned food, water and shelter. You cannot avoid those. If you have extra money after purchasing the basic essentials and you decide to keep the extra money in your pocket or spend it on nonessential items instead of helping the starving people, then the question is are you selfish for doing that?

zensky's avatar

Only 25,000?

What about the purchase of a gun leading to more crime?

Self_Consuming_Cannibal's avatar

No it doesn’t. Just because other people in the world are hungry or homeless doesn’t mean that they’re my responsibility. I believe in helping people, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of me and my loved ones needs and wants. Trust me enough of my tax dollars already goes to people’s needs without my permission as it is.

Self_Consuming_Cannibal's avatar

P.S. First of all welcome to fluther. If you ask a question without stating your opinion a lot of members will assume what your opinion is, it sucks but I’ve been a victim of this and had assumptions made of me because I’ve asked questions that weren’t exactly stated in a manner that was tailored to the popular opinion.

Just something to be aware of. Happy fluthering!

tom_g's avatar

Welcome to Fluther. Great question. It’s an appropriate question that will likely lead to a lot of hurt feelings, however (I think it already has). It involves the great exercise of looking at our actions and inaction in the world, where we allocate our resources, and what type of influence we can have to alleviate suffering.

I don’t have a specific answer for you, other than I am completely sympathetic with the reasoning in your question. And I take no offense. I’m well aware that I won the lottery – I was born into relative privilege, and I continue to define my “needs” in terms that would be humiliating if I was in the presence of a lottery loser. So, my lifestyle choices mean that I am holding in my hand the cure for the alleviation of suffering for many people, yet I withhold it for “needs” that are not “needs” at all.

elbanditoroso's avatar

Absolutely not. Tim is not responsible for Joe. Joe is responsible for himself. Tim has no obligation to care for Joe.

So it is in the big world. Someone else’s suffering does not place an automatic lien on me and my resources. If I choose to help, I will, but it is not in any way required.

bkcunningham's avatar

Good question. It is one of the reasons some people give tithes and offerings and why there are people who volunteer to go on missions and help others less fortunate around the world. It is also why the UN developed the Millennium Development Goals. Here is a recent report if you are really interested.

thorninmud's avatar

Another way of framing the question: Does having a culture like ours, voraciously consuming the world’s resources, degrade living conditions elsewhere? If the answer is yes, then to the extent that an individual fuels the culture of consumption, he makes someone else’s life harder. Just because it’s impossible to trace the direct chain of cause and effect between a particular purchase in the US and a particular death in Bopal doesn’t negate the individual’s responsibility.

Is the answer “yes”, though? That’s a very complicated question. Market forces dictate that for globally traded commodities, the huge demand for some resources in rich countries will push the prices out of reach for those in the poorest countries. Also, the richest countries have become quite adroit at not actually shouldering the true costs of their consumption, but finding ways to make poorer countries deal with the downsides.

That said, the consumption machine has prompted some short-term boons for some developing countries: jobs, cheap consumer goods, etc. It’s something of a Ponzi scheme, though: by buying into the system feeding our wants, they may get to feed on the crumbs that fall from our table, and perhaps become consuming cultures in their own right, like China. But that pattern is unsustainable in the long term, and when it collapses, as it must, the countries at the bottom of the pyramid scheme will suffer very badly.

TheobromosHumper's avatar

One would hope Tim is selfish. Without selfishness, people don’t watch out for themselves and they are at risk of dying. The people who starve to death are not selfish. They aren’t motivated enough to survive. They don’t move to places where they can get food. They aren’t motivated to get smart enough to find food. They probably inherit these defects from their parents, to some degree.

Selfish altruism is about helping those you know, and sometimes about helping those you don’t know. It’s hard to help those you don’t know because you don’t know they need help and you don’t know where they are and you don’t know what they need. Giving away money is asking to be ripped off. Charity is best performed in person.

A society where there is a lot of starvation is a dysfunctional society. It needs to be restructured so that it can help its own people. Sending money overseas is like pissing money away. You have no idea if it will get where you want it to go. Only the local people can make sure it helps folks, and they can’t do that if the local society is against them. Once you fix a local society, starvation will disappear almost instantly.

If you are truly selfish in helping others, you will do the work that needs to be done to create conditions where selfishness can grow and prosper. Otherwise, you aren’t being selfish and you are throwing your money away to help the rich of that society.

Selfishness leads to effective altruism. Lack of selfishness leads to wasted effort.

Shippy's avatar

I do wish people who had a lot, would give more to charity. But then some do of course.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

I am a “survival of the fittest” kind of person. Joe’s problems aren’t my problem. My ancestors fought in every American war that ever was, so that I could have the life that I have. Joe’s ancestors failed to construct a functional society for their descendants, obviously. Too bad, so sad. History has shown us that those animal species who have an advantage are the ones who survive, the others go extinct. I am not planning on seeing the human race go extinct because I failed to take advantage of my advantages.

CWOTUS's avatar

Welcome to Fluther.

It’s at least a better first question than “How can I tell if she likes me?” or even “How can I tell if I like her?”

You’re assuming that Tim would bother to earn more than whatever bare minimum would provide for his minimal “needs” – as you put them. (Tim might have a very different idea of his “needs” than you do.) Your question then continues to assume that Tim would graciously donate 100% of his marginal “after-needs” income to Joe and Joe’s family and all of Joe’s friends who will have found that they can mooch off of Tim because he’s too stupid to stop earning a single cent that he doesn’t need.

A system such as the one you propose could not sustain itself. In fact, it did not sustain itself. The USSR has closed shop, and North Korea is starving itself under the auspices of your nightmare scenario.

XOIIO's avatar

@avaeve someone on a wealthier city in America won’t have any need, or may not even be aware that there are people without enough food in other regions of the world. If the person lives in such a situation how can they be considered selfish? Also, what of families wih disabled children? Are they selfish because they do not Send that money to other countries instead of keeping their family members alive?

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

Didn’t someone say that if the world’s wealth was evenly distributed to every single human being, that we would each get a foot of land and a half cup of rice?

I really like @CWOTUS ‘s answer. What you are describing is the system that Russia tried.

I guess the real question is; does Tim really care if he is considered selfish? And what difference does it make whether I consider him selfish or not.

tom_g's avatar

I knew there would be some hurt feelings here. Haven’t we all investigated any of these ethical dilemmas, like the trolley problem? Slow down people, @avaeve asked an ethical question. S/he didn’t propose a system (*) or imply anything beyond what was asked. Nobody wants to take away your flat screen tv. Exercises like this are useful. This thread is filled with paranoid defensiveness.

avaeve's avatar

Thank you, @tom_g

@Self_Consuming_Cannibal did warn me that people will make a lot of assumptions if you don’t clarify. Thanks.


What Tom said.

@XOIIO “someone on a wealthier city in America won’t have any need”

That’s impossible. This someone can’t live without the basic needs. Are you saying this someone doesn’t have needs other than basic needs? If so, how does that not make him/her selfish?

@XOIIO “or may not even be aware that there are people without enough food in other regions of the world.”

That’s fair. Is ignorance an good excuse though? Sayings like “I wasn’t aware of such a law” doesn’t hold up in courts, for example.

@XOIIO “Also, what of families wih disabled children? Are they selfish because they do not Send that money to other countries instead of keeping their family members alive?”

No, because it’s life for life. It’s a fair comparison.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

@tom_g I don’t see hurt feelings and paraniod defensiveness. I am just seeing a lively discussion going on – and that is why we are all here, right?

With the definition of selfishness as the core topic here, I have to say that under the definition, if you don’t allow your single neighbor to boink your wife, you are by definition, being selfish.

Second topic, is it okay to be selfish? Everyone is to some extent. Otherwise you wouldn’t even feed your kids supper because someone else in the world might not have food. Only the individual can say where their “selfish meter” is set, for them to be comfortable with it.

avaeve's avatar


You didn’t purchase a wife. It’s not your property.

“otherwise you wouldn’t even feed your kids supper”

Like I told @XOIIO, that isn’t selfish because it’s a fair comparison, life for life. If you fed someone else, then your kid wouldn’t be fed.

In general, there is no right answer. It’s subjective.

tom_g's avatar

@Skaggfacemutt – “Lively”, but not quite insightful or on point. Sure, the original question doesn’t provide much in the way of details, so we’ll have to fill them in. But just taking the original question, I’m not sure people here did the proper work to bring us from there to Russia’s “communism” or North Korea. And certainly @avaeve didn’t propose any system of government at all, despite the accusations.

If people really want to investigate this question, start with what @avaeve asked. We might have to revisit the term “selfish”. But many of us who are non-theists/atheists/etc. are taking quite seriously the fact that we can’t look to a holy book for answers to these types of questions. It takes difficult questions and a close look at what we consider to be moral or immoral – including our own actions and inactions.

We’re not discussing logistics and the condition of existing charities at this point. Rather, if it’s strictly theoretical, we can easily entertain the original question by breaking it down into a purer form and working out into those areas that get grey and fuzzy. For example, if there a 5-year-old child standing next to you, starving to death and asking you for food, I’ll assume that most of us will determine that to withhold food would be wrong. The circumstances are pretty clear. We can paint this scenario as you are standing in front of a grocery store, have no plans, and have $5 that you were planning on spending on a beer that evening with a friend burning a hole in your pocket.

From there, it takes some work to get us to a place where we draw a line. This line will likely be at a different place for some of us. But the reason why we draw a line and the reasons we provide to explain the line are of great interest. We’re learning much about our moral intuitions from such exercises – especially when it comes to action vs inaction that results in the same outcome.

CWOTUS's avatar

I realize that it was a hypothetical question about ethics, @avaeve. I used to ask these questions myself about a half-century ago. It’s part of a maturing process; I get it. Been there and done that, literally.

The answer I gave is not a personal attack on you, but an attack on the presumption that theft from Tim is okay because Joe “needs” what Tim has – no matter how much Tim has, and no matter how much Joe “needs” it. That is basic immorality, a rationalization for theft, and it’s a question that deserves to be beat down hard. (I also realize that it’s the foundation of much of our current forms government, and on that basis it explains in a single paragraph the greatest evils of most current forms of government.)

tom_g's avatar

@CWOTUS: “That is basic immorality, a rationalization for theft, and it’s a question that deserves to be beat down hard.”

Wow. That’s the strongest I have ever heard this stated. I disagree completely, and I have yet to read or see any explanation of why this could possibly be the case. Are you stating that you can imagine no hypothetical in which you not providing something for someone would be wrong? Even the touchiest-of-feeliest scenarios cooked up with a cute little kid who will die unless you give him a sandwich?

avaeve's avatar

Ah, I’m aware of this and I actually wanted to avoid exactly what you brought up. It’s the old back and fourth. Stealing from peter to pay Paul is immoral says one side, and the other side says it’s moral since letting someone die from starvation is immoral.

CWOTUS's avatar

If the needy kid asks me for a sandwich and I refuse it to him, that’s my own morality or immorality to choose, @tom_g. But no kid and no collection of kids has a demand on me that I am compelled to satisfy. That’s theft.

If you believe that the world’s demand is valid, then you may as well empty your bank account, sell your house, live in a tent in the woods somewhere and live on what you can find while foraging, because we’d all be at that level in no time. (The tent may as well be made of the skin of other animals – including humans – because you will obviously “need” that.)

XOIIO's avatar

@avaeve I put a comma after need. The person has no need to be aware of such things, so how would they find out.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

I reserve the right to refuse anything that I have to anyone who might need it. Other people’s idea of “moral” or “immoral” pretty much flows off of me like water off a duck’s back. That is the part (moral/immoral) that is completely subjective.

avaeve's avatar

You can look at it from a logical point of view. Two wrongs making a right is logical fallacy. Although it depends on both parties accepting the premise that letting someone die and stealing are both immoral acts. If letting someone die is immoral, then stealing would be doing another immoral act, hence the phrase.


Yeah, I replied to that as well.

tom_g's avatar

@CWOTUS – Interesting. So, you are a moral relativist who believes that there are moral truths about the nature of private property and theft? I think I may have missed this during one of our past threads on morality.

@Skaggfacemutt: “I reserve the right to refuse anything that I have to anyone who might need it. Other people’s idea of “moral” or “immoral” pretty much flows off of me like water off a duck’s back.”

Yikes. :)

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

@tom_g Well, it’s my stuff. I don’t owe it to anyone. Also, I have long ago realized that not all people have the same values, ideals and goals in life. My goal is to survive and to make sure my offspring survives. Everyone else is on their own.

CWOTUS's avatar

@tom_g I believe that my life and the products of my life and labor are mine, with no prior claim by anyone else. I won’t call you names if you won’t call me any.

WestRiverrat's avatar

If Joe wanted a sandwich and offered no compensation, I would not give him one.

I worked hard to provide myself and my family with the loaf of bread and the peanut butter and jelly that goes into that sandwich.
My purchase of those nonessential items provides another person with the means to provide the food and shelter for his or her family. Why should I deny food and shelter to the person that works to make my nonessentials so that I can give it to the guy down the street that doesn’t produce anything?

augustlan's avatar

Wow, this thread is really surprising to me. While I don’t know exactly where my “line” is, I’m much closer to saying “Yes, it is selfish.” than not. That doesn’t mean I’m not guilty of it myself, of course. While I’m broke, I’m far less broke than someone in a third world country. My “extras” could very well mean the difference between life and death for one human being.

I read this article last night, and it seems appropriate here. Quoting from the article, “The world’s top 100 billionaires now hold so much wealth, says a new Oxfam report, that just the increase in their net worth last year would be enough to make extreme poverty history four times over.”

If I were among the wealthiest people in the world, I’d be trying damn hard to talk my peers into doing something worthwhile about it.

CWOTUS's avatar


It is selfish! Why apologize for that? It’s selfishness that made this country the richest in the world—and will eventually make China the richest.

rooeytoo's avatar

I’m tired of supporting Joe when he could be out working himself. Maybe not as a brain surgeon or CEO making huge sums of money, but then, I am not in that bracket myself. I have worked some pretty menial jobs in my life just to keep myself off the streets and off welfare. I acknowledge there are some situations where someone may need a TEMPORARY hand to get out of a low spot, but it should not be endless. At some point you have to stop relying on the government and the tax payers and take a job you don’t like but allows you to look at yourself in the mirror.

As to the starving people all over the world, I help where I can. I donate to several organizations who help 3rd world countries to dig wells and have access to clean water. If you have water you can grow food then you don’t need handouts and again you have self respect. I can’t do much more than that so I see no need to suffer mentally. I must take care of my own first, that is my foremost obligation and the obligation of every individual.

Self_Consuming_Cannibal's avatar

@avaeve No problem for the warning. Also if you dare ask any wrestling questions, do so in the general section, or the flutherites will eat you alive. Consider yourself warned.

HolographicUniverse's avatar

To your headline, yes. To the description no
Many people die from starvation but this is not in direct link to our non essential consumption. There is no system that asserts that the currency spent on non necessities would have a measurable impact on the problem anyway. In addition we work hard for such rewards, we are selfish individuals with our own interest in mind, it’s only natural.
Personally I think it’s selfish that they’re govt, or those with access to excessive wealth, have made no conscious effort to alleviate the issue.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

@HolographicUniverse No kidding! My son-in-law was stationed on Kwajelein in the Marshal Islands, and did you know that they have a king and queen that control all the wealth there? They leased Kwajelein to the USA and pocketed that money, and moved all of their countrymen to the smaller islands, causing massive overcrowding. All the natives there have are coconuts and fish. Then the king entered into a deal with Japanese fishermen and leased the fishing rights to them, making themselves a few more billion dollars (by the way, the king and queen live in Hawaii). Now the locals have only coconuts.

No amount of thrift on our part is going to help the situation. If you want, you could give to a charity that wants to help the Marshalese people, but then you would just be lining the pockets of some other corrupt hierarchy.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I think about that sometimes when I’m buying something frivolous….and it’s part of the reason I don’t buy many frivolous things.

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