Charity vs Consumerism in EA

Ab­stract: The mod­ern life in the tech­nolog­i­cally ad­vanced parts of the world seems to be a breath­less chase within a con­sumerist race. In such a world, where spare money is prized as the lee­way to pur­chase the lat­est trends, evad­ing con­sumerist temp­ta­tions to com­mit to a life­time of dona­tions can be­come quite a challenge for the al­tru­ist. This un­der­grad­u­ate re­search strives to find whether con­sumerism or char­ity will be the most effec­tive method to benefit the in­di­vi­d­ual and the masses. First, the val­ues of con­sumerism and char­ity (re­spec­tively) will be weighed on equal scales of per­sonal grat­ifi­ca­tion by crite­ria based on of Maslow’s Hier­ar­chy of Needs. Then, their long-term global im­pacts are an­a­lyzed. This re­search is writ­ten in con­sid­er­a­tion of the ris­ing Effec­tive Altru­ism move­ment, a ris­ing move­ment that de­mands use of crit­i­cal think­ing and em­piri­cal data in char­i­ta­ble ac­tion and seeks to do the most effec­tive global good.

A grow­ing al­tru­is­tic move­ment seeks to find the most effec­tive ways to help peo­ple. In­stead of blind giv­ing, Effec­tive Altru­ism performs thor­ough re­search to make sure that the way they are giv­ing and to whom they are giv­ing can make the great­est im­pact. Three main de­vel­op­ers of Effec­tive Altru­ism, Peter Singer, William MacAskill and Toby Ord., lead the move­ment into a larger spec­trum in 2011. Effec­tive Altru­ists are known for of­ten de­cid­ing to donate a fixed ten per­cent of their life’s in­come to the most effec­tive char­ity or­ga­ni­za­tions. One is­sue cur­rently re­sid­ing in our cur­rent so­ciety and in the Effec­tive Altru­ism move­ment is the dilemma be­tween liv­ing a life of con­sumerism and char­ity. Although Effec­tive Altru­ists ar­gue that giv­ing ten per­cent of one’s to­tal life in­come does not ac­tu­ally cause much change in the donor’s life, there are cer­tainly cut­backs to their ma­te­ri­al­is­tic lifestyle, which is why so many peo­ple hes­i­tate to vow to this goal.

The is­sue at ques­tion here is, what is the most effec­tive lifestyle to help the most peo­ple pos­si­ble- con­sumerism or char­ity? In the his­tory of Amer­i­can so­ciety, “con­sumerism” is defined as the idea that pro­motes peo­ple to spend their in­come on pro­gres­sively more goods and ser­vices to in­crease the con­sumer’s level of hap­piness and to en­sure a con­stantly pro­gres­sive eco­nomic cy­cle of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion (Wright and Rogers). Wor­ld­wide level of con­sumerism be­gan with the In­dus­trial Revolu­tion in England in the mid-1700’s, when the in­ven­tion of steam en­g­ines and ma­chines al­lowed for mass pro­duc­tion of con­sumer goods for the first time ever. From England, the tech­nol­ogy of the In­dus­trial Revolu­tion made its way to other parts of the world; now, con­sumerism can be seen as the pri­mary sys­tem of liv­ing in many de­vel­oped coun­tries, in­clud­ing the United States. “Char­ity” can be defined as the act of giv­ing one’s own pos­ses­sions or perform­ing ac­tivi­ties to help oth­ers who lack a nec­es­sary need in life. The con­cept of char­ity has been in ex­is­tence for longer than con­sumerism; in fact, the word “philan­thropy,” which is a syn­onym of char­ity, can even be traced back to 500 B.C. Usu­ally, con­sumerism is not as­so­ci­ated with helping peo­ple. How­ever, like char­ity, it is de­signed to be a lifestyle that sup­ports peo­ple, both phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally. Con­sumerism ar­gues that peo­ple should spend their in­come on pro­gres­sively more goods and ser­vices, not only be­cause it will in­crease the con­sumer’s level of life satis­fac­tion, but also be­cause a con­stant cy­cle of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion is benefi­cial to the econ­omy. While in­di­vi­d­u­als for their own benefit may use con­sumerism, it also helps the econ­omy of coun­tries based in con­sumerism.

What is the most effec­tive lifestyle to help the most peo­ple pos­si­ble- con­sumerism or char­ity? I will first define the word “help.” Both con­sumerism and effec­tive al­tru­ism can be of help to peo­ple through differ­ent ways. “help” is defined as an ac­tion that as­sists fulfilling a nec­es­sary need. “Ne­c­es­sary needs” can be phys­i­cal, such as need­ing food or shelter, or psy­cholog­i­cal, like need­ing com­pan­ion­ship or a cer­tain level of hap­piness in life. The types of needs that con­sumerism and char­ity must help to fulfill will be in­spected fur­ther in the es­say.

How effec­tive is con­sumerism and char­ity (re­spec­tively) in helping peo­ple who prac­tice it at­tain their nec­es­sary needs? In other words, I will be search­ing for how effec­tive both char­ity and con­sumerism are on a per­sonal level. This first sub-topic puts em­pha­sis on the first half of the main ques­tion: what is the most effec­tive lifestyle. To judge both con­sumerism and char­ity on an equal scale, Maslow’s Hier­ar­chy of Needs will be used. The differ­ent types of nec­es­sary hu­man needs that ev­ery in­di­vi­d­ual pro­cesses were men­tioned in the pre­vi­ous para­graph; these needs were ac­tu­ally ad­dressed by a fa­mous hu­man­is­tic psy­chol­o­gist Abra­ham Maslow in 1943 and or­ga­nized into differ­ent cat­e­gories, fa­mously known as “Maslow’s Hier­ar­chy of Needs.” Ac­cord­ing to Maslow’s Hier­ar­chy of Needs, there are cer­tain crite­ria of needs that ev­ery hu­man seeks to meet in or­der to lead a phys­i­cally and men­tally fulfilling life. The Hier­ar­chy can be di­vided into five cat­e­gories: phys­iolog­i­cal needs, safety needs, be­long­ing needs, es­teem needs, and self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion, the high­est need be­ing self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion. To mea­sure how effec­tively con­sumerism and char­ity help peo­ple, each will be re­spec­tively weighed by Maslow’s Hier­ar­chy of Needs to de­cide their value. Abra­ham Maslow’s Hier­ar­chy of Needs can be used to mea­sure how con­sumerism and char­ity can be of help to peo­ple per­son­ally, and on what lev­els, they can ac­com­plish the needs that ev­ery­body pos­sesses. Whether it be con­sumerism or char­ity, the lifestyle that is able to fulfill the crite­ria of Maslow’s Hier­ar­chy of Needs will have to be the method that helps in­di­vi­d­ual prac­tic­ing it most effec­tively.

Char­ity or con­sumerism is helpful to in­di­vi­d­u­als can only be­come valid af­ter they have been shown to be able to fulfill Maslow’s Hier­ar­chy suc­cess­fully. First, let’s weigh the effec­tive­ness of con­sumerism as mea­sured by Maslow’s Hier­ar­chy of Needs. Ac­cord­ing to Mihaly Csikzen­timiha­lyi, a pro­fes­sor of Psy­chol­ogy at Clare­mont Grad­u­ate Univer­sity and an ac­knowl­edged psy­chol­o­gist in his field, con­sumerism is able to fulfill the differ­ent crite­ria of needs in Maslow’s Hier­ar­chy. In his schol­arly jour­nal, “The Costs and Benefits of Con­sum­ing,” Csikzen­timiha­lyi di­vides the differ­ent needs into two cat­e­gories: “lower needs,” which in­clude sur­vival and safety (phys­iolog­i­cal and safety needs), “higher needs” which in­clude be­long­ing, es­teem, and self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion. Csikzen­timiha­lyi sug­gests that lower phys­iolog­i­cal and safety needs, such as the need to eat, drink, and have shelter could be met by the prac­tice of con­sumerism – for ex­am­ple, the de­sire to buy houses in a “good” neigh­bor­hood may also be part of the de­sire for a safer en­vi­ron­ment. Fur­ther­more, Csikzen­timiha­lyi pre­sents “bars, restau­rants, sports are­nas, mu­se­ums, and con­cert halls” as ex­am­ples of places where con­sumerism offers op­por­tu­ni­ties to mix with oth­ers and cre­ate bonds to fulfill their higher be­long­ing needs. In fact, con­trary to the nega­tive at­ti­tude to­wards so­cial con­for­mity that con­sumerism of­ten en­courages, Csikzen­timiha­lyi ar­gues that con­for­mity to buy­ing the lat­est prod­ucts placed in the con­sumer mar­ket is a means to ac­com­plish feel­ings of be­long­ing to the mass pop­u­la­tion. Pur­chas­ing items that rep­re­sent one’s su­pe­ri­or­ity and so­cial wealth, such as pricy cars or cloth­ing, can also in­crease feel­ings of es­teem. How­ever, Csikzen­timiha­lyi points out that achiev­ing self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion, the need placed in the high­est cat­e­gory can be a differ­ent case: in­di­vi­d­u­als who fo­cus on self-growth tend to fo­cus more on im­prove­ment of the in­ner self, rather than im­prove­ment of their outer goods. It is im­por­tant to note that the ac­qui­si­tion of the high­est level of need, self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion, can­not be met through con­sumerism alone; fur­ther­more, the achieve­ment of self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion leads to the diminish­ment of a con­sumerist lifestyle. Since con­sumerism is un­able to fulfill the high­est need of in­di­vi­d­u­als on Maslow’s Hier­ar­chy of Needs, it sug­gests that con­sumerism fails to fulfill the most im­por­tant and so­phis­ti­cated level of an in­di­vi­d­ual’s needs. As men­tioned be­fore, “help” is defined as an ac­tion that helps to fulfill a nec­es­sary phys­i­cal or psy­cholog­i­cal need. Thus, be­cause con­sumerism fails to help the per­son achieve the high­est psy­cholog­i­cal level of need on Maslow’s Hier­ar­chy of Needs, it is con­cluded that con­sumerism is not the most effec­tive means to help peo­ple on a per­sonal level.

Let’s now dis­cuss the effec­tive­ness of char­ity on an in­di­vi­d­ual scale by also in­ves­ti­gat­ing how helpful it is to fulfill the differ­ent cat­e­gories of needs pre­sent in Maslow’s Hier­ar­chy of Needs. In con­trast to the anal­y­sis of con­sumerism, in which the con­clu­sions were based on de­duc­tive rea­son­ing, let’s now uti­lize in­duc­tive rea­son­ing, an­other method of mak­ing ar­gu­ments in Crit­i­cal Think­ing. In­duc­tive ar­gu­ments “claim that their con­clu­sion prob­a­bly fol­lows from the premises” (205). How­ever, in­duc­tive ar­gu­ments are not nec­es­sar­ily less de­pend­able than de­duc­tive ar­gu­ments; in fact, de­pend­ing on how log­i­cally my rea­son­ing fol­lows one af­ter other, an in­duc­tive ar­gu­ment can be stronger than a de­duc­tive ar­gu­ment. Un­like con­sumerism, where the in­di­vi­d­ual was able to provide their nec­es­sary needs for them­selves, char­ity is able to fulfill the nec­es­sary needs of oth­ers. In fact, there are nu­mer­ous char­i­ta­ble or­ga­ni­za­tions to­day that are ded­i­cated to pro­vid­ing shelter (such as Habitat for Hu­man­ity) or food (such as Feed­ing Amer­ica), ac­com­plish­ing the “lower” sur­vival and safety needs on the Hier­ar­chy of Needs. Also, Peter Singer in his book, The Most Good You Can Do, ex­plains peo­ple usu­ally give to char­ity be­cause they feel in­cluded in the com­mu­nity that they are giv­ing to, or be­cause of the “warm feel­ing” they get at the sense of helping some­one. In such a way, char­ity can also in­crease the feel­ing of be­long­ing and es­teem for donors, thereby fulfilling their higher needs of be­long­ing and es­teem on the Hier­ar­chy. Char­ity, like con­sumerism, is able to achieve the di­verse lower and higher needs of in­di­vi­d­u­als, but through differ­ent means. The differ­ence be­tween the effec­tive­ness of con­sumerism and the effec­tive­ness of char­ity, then, can only be de­ter­mined if char­ity is able to help reach the most so­phis­ti­cated level of need on the Hier­ar­chy, self- ac­tu­al­iza­tion. The ar­ti­cle “Why Do Peo­ple Give to Char­ity?” by Sean Stan­nard-Stock­ton ex­plains how char­ity can fulfill the crite­rion of self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion in Maslow’s hi­er­ar­chy. Although Stan­nard-Stock­ton is not a psy­cholog­i­cal spe­cial­ist, he is a spe­cial­ist in philan­thropic plan­ning, in which he con­sults with many al­tru­ists who wish to im­prove the welfare of oth­ers through dona­tions. In this as­pect, his ar­ti­cle dis­cussing the differ­ent qual­ities of a philan­thropist is re­li­able. The au­thor dis­cusses that the qual­ities of peo­ple who have reached self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion are very similar to qual­ities of the “very best philan­thropists.” Stan­nard-Stock­ton rea­sons that gen­er­ally, peo­ple who have lived a life of con­tin­u­ous giv­ing share the qual­ity of hav­ing ac­quired self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion, which means that they have ac­com­plished the high­est tier of need on Maslow’s Hier­ar­chy of Needs.

From Stan­nard-Stock­ton’s ar­gu­ment, we can use in­duc­tive rea­son­ing to fol­low the idea that the philan­thropists who en­coun­tered Stan­nard-Stock­ton, who have also already met the high­est level of need in Maslow’s Hier­ar­chy of Needs, are peo­ple who are already com­plete in meet­ing the lower phys­i­cal and psy­cholog­i­cal needs that lead up to reach­ing the level of self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion. The in­duc­tive ar­gu­ment en­tails the as­sump­tion that al­tru­ists should be able to reach out to oth­ers since they have already fulfilled their ba­sic lower needs. For ex­am­ple, Effec­tive Altru­ists ded­i­cate ten per­cent of their life’s in­come to char­i­ta­ble dona­tions, since they are fi­nan­cially sta­ble enough to be able to sup­port them­selves while donat­ing a por­tion of their in­come. In con­trast to con­sumerism, char­ity helps to achieve the high­est tier of need of self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion. Through in­duc­tive rea­son­ing that peo­ple who have lived a life of con­tin­u­ous giv­ing have achieved the char­ac­ter­is­tics of self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion, and that they have already ac­com­plished the lower needs on the Hier­ar­chy, we may con­clude that char­ity is an effec­tive lifestyle for in­di­vi­d­u­als to at­tain their nec­es­sary needs.

Now let’s delve into the im­pacts of con­sumerism and char­ity on a long-term ba­sis, and thereby ad­dress the long-term im­pacts of con­sumerism and char­ity, re­spec­tively. For a lifestyle to be helpful to the most peo­ple pos­si­ble, it must have pro­long­ing effects that are not only global, but also con­tin­u­ous on a long-term ba­sis.

Con­sumerism is an idea that pro­motes peo­ple to spend their in­come on pro­gres­sively more goods and ser­vices to in­crease the con­sumer’s level of hap­piness. In other words, a ma­jor aim of con­sumerism is to help the con­sumer achieve hap­piness. A pro­ject done by Pew Re­search In­sti­tute in 2007 col­lected data of coun­tries in Asia with emerg­ing eco­nomic mar­kets, such as In­done­sia, China, and Malaysia for seven years. In 2014, they found that the pop­u­la­tions that ex­pe­rienced strong eco­nomic growth are much hap­pier to­day than seven years ago. Strong eco­nomic growth is largely as­so­ci­ated with the raise in the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion’s level of in­come; raise in in­come, like­wise, is as­so­ci­ated with the in­crease of the con­sumer’s abil­ity to pur­chase more goods and ser­vices. From this re­search, it is pos­si­ble to ar­gue that con­sumerism is suc­cess­ful in helping con­sumers reach hap­piness. How­ever, a similar re­search over a longer pe­riod shows oth­er­wise. An in­ves­ti­ga­tion ti­tled “Hap­piness and Life Satis­fac­tion” by Our World in Data, a database or­ga­ni­za­tion pow­ered by Oxford Martin School of Re­search, aids in ex­plain­ing the long-term im­pacts of con­sumerism on a global scale. The re­search col­lected lev­els of hap­piness and life satis­fac­tion in con­sumerist coun­tries for sev­eral decades, to see if there was a cor­re­la­tion be­tween the rises in gen­eral in­come and the pop­u­la­tion’s level of hap­piness. In one ex­am­ple, the re­search shows a graph of the lev­els of life satis­fac­tion of the peo­ple of Ja­pan through the years 1958 to 1986. In Ja­pan, de­spite very rapid eco­nomic growth of more than five per­cent over the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s, the level of life satis­fac­tion re­mained rather con­stant. The re­search also pre­sents a phe­nom­ena called the “Easter­lin Para­dox,” which claims that the re­la­tion­ship be­tween in­come and hap­piness or life satis­fac­tion be­comes “less definite” as in­come in­creases, and over time, there seems to be no re­la­tion­ship at all. In­crease in in­come in a con­sumerist so­ciety means the in­crease of availa­bil­ity to pur­chase more goods and ser­vices. If in­creased in­come had no long-term effect on the level of the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion’s hap­piness, then that means con­sumerism has no long-last­ing effec­tive­ness in helping to give more hap­piness to those who prac­tice it. The Easter­lin Para­dox is a cru­cial so­cial phe­nomenon to know­ing that on the long term, con­sumerism is not the most effec­tive lifestyle to help the most peo­ple.

What are the long-term im­pacts of char­ity? Char­ity was defined as the act of giv­ing one’s own pos­ses­sions or perform­ing ac­tivi­ties to help oth­ers who lack a nec­es­sary need in life. One of the most nec­es­sary needs in hu­man life is phys­i­cal well-be­ing. GiveWell, an Effec­tive Altru­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion which performs de­tailed re­search on the effec­tive­ness of di­verse char­ity or­ga­ni­za­tions, claims that the act of donat­ing to de­worm a child has “a sub­tle, last­ing im­pact on their de­vel­op­ment, and thus on their abil­ity to be pro­duc­tive and suc­cess­ful through­out life.” This claim is based on the re­ports from the Rock­efel­ler San­i­tary Com­mis­sion’s cam­paign in South Amer­ica in the early 20th cen­tury, in which they found that ar­eas treated for hook­worm in­fec­tions “ex­pe­rienced greater in­creases in school en­rol­l­ment, at­ten­dance, and liter­acy.”

Cer­tain types of char­ity that aim to im­prove the well-be­ing of an in­di­vi­d­ual can make longer, last­ing im­pacts by af­fect­ing the in­di­vi­d­ual’s life by in­creas­ing their qual­ity of life. In­creas­ing a per­son’s qual­ity of life could lead to end­less new pos­si­bil­ities for the per­son, but also to his/​her en­vi­ron­ment; in the case of Rock­efel­ler’s de­worm­ing cam­paign, the chil­dren who re­ceived treat­ment for hook­worms were able to re­ceive ed­u­ca­tion to a bet­ter po­ten­tial be­cause they stopped be­ing sick from hook­worm in­fec­tions. Con­se­quently, the chil­dren who were given the chance to re­ceive a ful­ler level of ed­u­ca­tion are ex­posed to more op­por­tu­ni­ties to spread change and make even more im­prove­ments to their sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties. Of course, there are also other types of char­ity that tend to be less effec­tive; in fact, some large char­ity or­ga­ni­za­tions similar of­ten fail to achieve their ini­tial goal of helping peo­ple, due to their large ex­pen­di­ture on hu­man man­age­ment and hu­man re­sources. An ex­am­ple of such a failure would be the Red Cross’ record of build­ing merely six homes for the peo­ple of Haiti af­ter their ma­jor earth­quake in 2011, af­ter rais­ing ap­prox­i­mately half a billion dol­lars for the pro­ject. Like­wise, there are nu­mer­ous other in­effec­tive, yet large char­i­ta­ble or­ga­ni­za­tions that fail to ex­e­cute their char­ity with the most effec­tive re­sults. De­spite such flaws in ma­jor char­ity or­ga­ni­za­tions of to­day, Effec­tive Altru­ism acts as the ris­ing coun­ter­move­ment to such less effec­tive ad­minis­tra­tions; Effec­tive Altru­ists fo­cus on cre­at­ing the biggest im­pact from a limited amount of re­sources by fo­cus­ing on gath­er­ing ac­cu­rate re­search and ev­i­dence be­fore tak­ing ac­tion; in other words, by us­ing crit­i­cal think­ing. Ac­cord­ingly, with the right pro­cess of think­ing and plan­ning, char­ity is able to make the most pro­long­ing im­pact in the lives of the peo­ple it helps.

This anal­y­sis found that con­sumerism and char­ity are both able to fulfill most of the tiers on Maslow’s Hier­ar­chy of Needs, which show that both lifestyles can effec­tively sup­port in­di­vi­d­u­als phys­i­cally and psy­cholog­i­cally. How­ever, con­sumerism is un­able to fulfill the fi­nal stage of “self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion,” where the in­di­vi­d­ual stops im­prov­ing their goods and ser­vices and be­gins to im­prove their in­ner be­ings. Through the ex­am­i­na­tion of both con­sumerism and char­ity, the phe­nom­ena of Easter­lin para­dox re­vealed there was no cor­re­la­tion with hap­piness and con­sump­tion in the long term, thus show­ing that con­sumerism is not able to make a pro­long­ing pos­i­tive im­pact on the world. On the other hand, cer­tain types of char­ity, such as de­worm­ing, was found to have cre­ated last­ing im­pacts by in­creas­ing the qual­ity of life of the peo­ple who re­ceive them. In both the two ques­tions that probe into the essence of char­ity and con­sumerism, char­ity was found as the lifestyle that makes the most pro­long­ing and effec­tive im­pact, not only on a per­sonal level, but also on a global and long-last­ing per­spec­tive. Although char­ity seemed to pre­vail as the more effec­tive lifestyle, both char­ity and con­sumerism were found to have limi­ta­tions; for ex­am­ple, while con­sumerism is un­able to help the con­sumer reach self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion on Maslow’s Hier­ar­chy of Needs, some char­ity or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the Red Cross are in­effec­tive in giv­ing the most effec­tive help to those in need. How­ever, with the ris­ing move­ment of Effec­tive Altru­ism, there is pos­si­bil­ity to im­prove char­ity to fulfill the ini­ti­a­tives in the most effec­tive man­ner. In this as­pect, char­ity as a lifestyle hold more po­ten­tial for the fu­ture, as a lifestyle with the abil­ity spread change with a more pro­long­ing and sig­nifi­cant im­pact.