Last week at the supermarket, I felt a bit greedy when I noticed I was taking all the good brussels sprouts. Most of them had yellow, wilted outer leaves, which would have to be peeled off, and some had tiny black dots that were either rot or the entrances to bug-tunnels.
But a few dozen were almost pristine, and they were all in my bag. It occurred to me that if I wanted to treat others as myself, I should take no better than an average group of sprouts.
I reassured myself that it was perfectly normal to take the best available specimens in the produce department. In many areas of civilized life, we’re expected to aim for fairness or better. We’re supposed to let others enter doors before ourselves, and never eat a larger-than-equal share of the pizza, at least until grandma insists that she only wants half a piece and that you can go ahead.
But the modern produce department is more like the prehistoric savannah than Grandma’s house. The rule is to take all you want and all you can get, even though you are sometimes the victim of that policy, and even though we know society would be better if we thought about the people coming after us to the feeding bowl. Mother Nature supports this system, however—evolution would be nowhere without competition. And competition means feeling no shame about serving yourself—and maybe your friends and relatives—the best brussels sprouts you can get your hands on.
This is the sort of philosophical reflection I have about twenty times a day. So I didn’t think of it again until I read an article from the Guardian about a woman named Julia Wise, who had an unusual dilemma. She believed everyone’s well-being was equally important, and so it wasn’t right to care more for herself than for anybody else.
At first, that doesn’t seem unusual at all. It’s really just a rigorous application of the golden rule, or something like it—don’t put yourself before others—a maxim which many people think is just common human decency.
In reality, it’s not common at all. Almost nobody lives like that. Most of us wouldn’t think twice about spending fifteen dollars on wine, even when we know it could have protected a dozen kids from polio. We routinely pass up chances to alleviate great suffering for some real person somewhere, in order to pleasure ourselves in some small way.
Apparently, Julia did not experience this normal cognitive dissonance. It seemed wrong to her to pursue her own luxuries at the expense of others’ necessities, and so from an early age she knew she was morally obligated to spend much of her life helping others.
She and her husband decided they could live on half of his salary, and donate the other half (and the entirety of Julia’s salary) to the best charitable causes they could find. Still, they always wondered if they could do more. Regardless of how much they were already giving, five dollars spent on an unnecessary indulgence still meant someone would suffer needlessly. Read More