Monday, June 15, 2020

"How Big is Our 'Us'?"

Recently, I listened to the NPR Hidden Brain’s podcast titled “Playing Favorites: When Kindness Toward Some Means Callousness Toward Others.”

This podcast hit on topics that I have been thinking about a good bit lately---namely selfishness, giving, poverty, family, favoritism, and a culture of “us against them.” This post only has the slightest connection to business, so I will include the rest of the post under the break.

As I explained in a post about Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, the father in the story has a deep love for his son, but the father’s willingness to kill, steal, and ignore the pain of others “for” his son contributes to a bleak (and dangerous) world. While there is something beautiful in the father’s love for his son, when it eclipses all care for “the other” that love adds to suffering, glorifies selfishness, and sets a bad example for his cherished son. 

The NPR podcast references a famous thought experience in which philosopher Peter Singer (Princeton) asks his listeners to consider coming across a drowning child in a muddy shallow pond. Singer asks -- if you could save the child with no physical danger to yourself, but at the cost of ruining your nice clothes, would and should you do so? Virtually all listeners say that it is morally right to save the child and that they would do so. Peter Singer then notes that there are dying children all across the world that could be saved with a donation of less than the cost of a nice outfit. 

So why don’t we write more checks to organizations that are saving dying children?

Singer says that his students give all sorts of excuses including: “can we be sure that our donation will really get to the people who need it? Doesn’t most aid get swallowed up in administrative costs, or waste, or downright corruption? Isn’t the real problem the growing world population, and is there any point in saving lives until the problem has been solved?” 

At this point in my life, however, favoritism, not charitable inefficiency or overpopulation, is my main excuse for not giving more. I love my three young children infinitely more than other children. The NPR podcast reshapes Philippa Foot’s Trolley Problem to ask whether you would change the train’s direction so that it killed your own child instead of killing five other children playing on the tracks. 

My answer is that not only would I let the five children die, I would probably allow millions of children to die if the only other option was changing the train’s direction to kill my own child.* This is borne out in my expenditures. I spend a tremendous amount of money on luxuries for my children -- a 10th outfit, swim team fees, a trampoline, a beach trip, etc. -- but I spend very little money to help children who are literally dying for want of basic necessities. 

Even as I write this, I see how I - like the father in The Road - am setting a pretty poor example for my children, even though I tell myself that my motives are good. 

Part of the problem, I think, is recognizing where Singer’s reasoning leads. If I truly think all children are equally valuable, and that my favoritism is bad, how can I justify any expenditures on my children above the basic necessities?

As I have thought about this more, I think the solution is not to be overwhelmed by the potential sacrifices this reasoning requires, but rather just start doing more. Peter Singer started by donating 10% of his income and graduated to between 33% and 50%. Still, he admits that he is no saint and could and should do more, given his comfortable standard of living. 

In their book, God and Money: How We Discovered True Riches at Harvard Business School, Gregory Baumer and John Cortines offer a few thoughts on how to increase generosity. The three that stood out to me were the following:

  • Setting a Minimum Giving Percentage. For the authors, they set this percentage at 10% of gross income. This is a floor that they set, and they have ratcheted the percentage up over time and hope to continue to increase the percentage. This minimum percentage, however, keeps them committed to significant giving even as they repay student loans and save for retirement. Others, like Rick Warren, have decided to do a "reverse tithe" - giving away 90% of their income. And, famously, over 200 of the world's wealthiest individuals (including Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates) have signed the Giving Pledge to give away a majority of their wealth during their lifetimes or at death.
  • Setting Spending Limits and Financial Finish Lines. For the authors, they set their spending limit at $100,000 net per year. This may seem like an incredibly high limit for some, but for two HBS grads this will likely lead to significant giving, perhaps well above their 10% floor. Within the first six weeks after writing the book, for example, Cortines was offered a $300,000+/year job and Baumer received a $400,000+ payout from his startup company. The authors also committed to not accumulating more than $3.3 million dollars for themselves. Again, this seems like a pretty high ceiling, but they both probably have earning potential well above this number. More inspiring, I think, are Tom and Bree Hsieh, who committed to live at or below the median household income for the nation (even after receiving a multi-million dollar payout from their involvement in the early days of Earthlink). In any event, this sort of precommitment is likely easier than trying to downsize after the fact.
  • Creating Accountability. The authors set up a Board of Directors for Life to keep them accountable in their giving. (Writing the book will also likely keep them accountable, now that they have published their commitments for all to see). This Board of Directors for Life consists of seven friends from HBS. They share financial information, commit to keeping one another in check, and even do some joint giving. This seems a bit radical to me, as I have never shared our detailed financial information outside of my immediate family, but I think the accountability could help you stick to your giving commitments. 

I am still thinking through this, with the help of a couple of friends in our neighborhood, one of whom suggested the book. On one hand, I can see a never-ending list of advantages I would like to provide for my children, and I sense special responsibility toward them. But on the other hand, I know other people’s children have unique value too and many have much more serious needs than my own. I also know that I want my children to be generous, and should set a good example for them in this. Furthermore, setting reasonable limits on what we spend could actually help build character as they are encouraged to work and learn self-denial.

As mentioned, this thought process might be easier for people (including our students) to do before they commit to fixed expenditures. Of course, most of us could cut back our spending, but that is certainly much more difficult to do than limiting spending in the first place. This thinking could also extend to businesses, like Newman’s Own, where they decided to commit 100% of the profits to charity. 

In any case, in a time where we are tempted to only look out for ourselves and those close to us, I think it can be good to see if we can expand the circle of those we care about and help.

* (I do think there is a difference between doing and allowing harm --- while I would allow millions of children to die, I don’t think I could actively kill innocent children to save mine. That said, I could definitely appreciate the passion of Denzel Washington’s character in John Q. when he resorts to threatening violence to save his son.)

Books, Business Associations, Business School, Haskell Murray | Permalink


I think it's an age-old moral issue about how much we personally sacrifice to benefit others, if we recognize in the abstract that everyone has equal moral value. And I certainly don't have the answer to that question, but I do have strong feelings about the my children versus other children thing, and that's because it's a question not merely of personal favoritism but responsibility. Legally, morally, we are assigned responsibility to a greater extent for certain lives/causes than others. You have more responsibility for your children than you do for other children, which justifies some degree of favoritism, though certainly I wouldn't presume to quantify how much. It's why, for example, one might favor children over a spouse if forced to make a choice, or children in general over adults in general. It's not about favoritism or affection, but where responsibility for care lies.

Posted by: Ann Lipton | Jun 15, 2020 1:00:41 PM

FWIW, my verse of the day was Malachi 3:10:

"Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it."

Posted by: Stefan Padfield | Jun 15, 2020 1:18:48 PM

I love this post, Haskell. So much to think about. And I am a fan of Peter Singer (although I do not agree with him all the time!). Most of us can and should do more.

I wonder if your conversations have strayed at all into the realm of answering a different, but related, question that finds traction with me: "When am I giving money instead of making changes in my life that can forward real change?" I worry sometimes that I consider giving money to be a substitute--and maybe not a good one--for action. I am curious as to whether this has at all come up for you in your conversations.

Posted by: Joan Heminway | Jun 15, 2020 1:55:54 PM

Thanks for engaging Ann and Stefan. Ann - I agree that we have significant responsibility to our children, but (as you note) where is the line? Much of what we spend in middle/upper class US is WAY above providing the basics for our children. Stefan - supposedly the Old Testament tithe was more like 23% than 10% - either being quite the challenge though.

Posted by: Haskell Murray | Jun 15, 2020 2:01:18 PM

Excellent related question, Joan. I think your question can be broken into at least three parts. (1) where we spend our money, (2) what we spend our money on, and (3) what we do with our time. Perhaps there is more, but I’ve been thinking about all of these things as well - especially since Covid - although often cost and convenience win out and volunteering is a bit more difficult during this time.

Posted by: Haskell Murray | Jun 15, 2020 2:08:33 PM