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Are You Good Enough?

metal heart in hands

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. 

Nobody likes Ned Flanders

The article is fascinating, but not exactly uplifting. The more you learn about the couple’s dilemmas, the more tempting it is to dismiss them as crackpots. Aren’t these people just driving themselves crazy? Maybe, but even if their generosity does run them into the ground, their sacrifice has already saved many times more lives than the two that are being consumed for it. We admire self-sacrifice when it involves a burning building or a live grenade, but for some reason when it comes to striving to be ever more charitable and generous, we get suspicious.

Later in the article, the author explores this strange backlash effect: for a variety of reasons, we tend to resent people who are “too good”. We become suspicious of their motives, and worry that they will push the bar too high.

The creators of The Simpsons, when it was still groundbreaking social satire, designed a character to illustrate exactly this phenomenon. In a show in which every character was a familiar stereotype, Ned Flanders represented the neighbor who is impossibly, obnoxiously good. He made sacrifices happily, even for people who hated him. He took criticism with a smile, and even donated a kidney and a lung to “whoever needs them first”. Homer often resented him, because Ned’s earnest goodness only underscored the moral shortcomings of the Simpson family; they argue a lot and don’t always do the right thing, traits which make them a relatably normal family compared to the Flanderses. The Flanderses are the Joneses of the moral neighborhood.

We dislike it when people make us look bad, or feel bad about ourselves, even if they do it by being good. You may have even experienced this as a new employee somewhere. If you outwork your colleagues too visibly, you “ruin the curve” for everyone around you, and someone might tell you so.

When I was in New Zealand, I picked kiwis in an orchard to earn more traveling money. One day our picking crew, which included both rookie backpackers and veteran seasonal pickers from India and Nepal, was reprimanded for being too slow. Management told us they’d replace us all if we didn’t pick up the pace. The next day, my backpacker friends and I roared through the orchard, doing our absolute best. But we couldn’t help but notice that the Indians and Nepalis weren’t pulling their weight. They had sped up a little, but clearly none of them were doing their best.

Later, when I was on a different team, I learned from an outspoken Maori man what our Middle-Asian co-workers had been too polite to tell us: by picking too fast, we were making them choose between looking bad, and working harder than they needed to. Since they were paid by the hour, their strategy was to do it just slowly enough to not get fired. That way they get the most money out of the company. Raising the bar, whatever the reason, is often not appreciated.

Selfishness is no anomaly

I recommend reading the Guardian article. If you do, I’d like to hear how it makes you feel about altruism. I don’t want a life like Julia’s, at least I don’t think I do. But it seems like the alternative is to decide what degree of selfishness to settle on.

How good should we be? Is it wrong to spend eight dollars a month on Netflix when we could be sparing kids from painful diseases? It sure seems like it on paper, yet I suspect my binge-watching days are far from over.

I don’t have an answer for you. One thing should be clear though. If we acknowledge that we all exhibit some degree of selfishness (probably a large degree) then we should be much more forgiving of selfishness in others than we tend to be.

While the minivan owner who parked on the yellow line probably doesn’t have a good reason for his thoughtless act, maybe he isn’t quite a monster either. He was simply putting himself ahead of others, as we all do every time we treat ourselves to a sundae instead of feeding the poor. It’s just easier to appreciate the harm selfishness causes when it’s happening to you.

This kind of forgiveness doesn’t mean we ought to start ignoring moral lines (or parking lot lines), only that we stop treating every incidence of self-preference as though it’s an anomaly. Self-preference is the rule, not the exception, and it shouldn’t so easily surprise us or infuriate us. (We should also stop throwing around that awful word “deserve” so freely.)

We already know how to be more forgiving, because we do it out of habit with our friends and relatives. When a family member eats the last piece of cake (or the last three) from the fridge in the middle of the night, we aren’t pleased, but we don’t hate that person either. This is because we don’t see their flaws in isolation; we know that in addition to being gluttonous, they can also be kind, generous and remorseful.

With strangers and media figures, often all we know about them is that they did something greedy or unfair. We can be quick to crucify them, in our heads if not in public, as though the selfish are a separate class of person from our friends, relatives and ourselves. In reality, we’re all fallible, in pretty much the same way: we care about how we’re doing more than we care how others are doing. The differences are only in degree and style.

One simple way of putting this philosophy into practice is something I suggested here:

#28: When driving, pretend the other drivers are all friends and relatives. It makes the driving experience friendlier, and often hilarious.

I urge you to try this. It allows you to remember the good that lies alongside the bad, and it also reminds you of how ubiquitous selfishness really is. If selfishness seems common, it’s not because the world has gone to Hell, or because people don’t respect each other anymore, but because human beings are nowhere as good at being fair and thoughtful as we’d like to be. But it’s encouraging that we have such high expectations.


Photo by joe del tufo

Arthur October 26, 2015 at 12:33 am

I like what Mr. Money Mustache says about this, he basically says first you have to help yourself before you can help others. That way your helping is more generous and effective. Once your financially free you can help more than if you were struggling pay check to pay check. The thing is most people never help themselves enough to reach financial freedom…so where does the line get drawn. Great read David!

Zoe October 26, 2015 at 2:42 am

I agree with you Arthur (and Mr. Money Mustache).
I think that if you take good care of yourself, you can take better care of others. Then of course you have to define what “taking good care of yourself” means… not to be confused with buying yourself the latest gadget!!

David Cain October 26, 2015 at 8:14 am

I think that balancing point is something Julia and her husband thought a lot about. There’s no sense in giving so much that you reduce your ability to be giving.

The Usurper October 26, 2015 at 1:59 am

I find the selflessness philosophy useful in times such as peak hour. Although I ride my bike 99% of the time, I occasionally catch public transport. Rather than feeling like the world is getting in MY way, I remember that everyone is feeling tired and rushed right now.

In regards to eating the last piece of cake, while I dont eat cake, I’m always happy to take the last bit of food. Saves everyone else the guilt!

David Cain October 26, 2015 at 8:15 am

You are a hero in many ways!

Joel October 26, 2015 at 2:37 am

Another excellent article, David. Self-awareness, generosity, self-compassion, forgiveness – some of my favorite topics. Thank you.

David Cain October 26, 2015 at 8:15 am

Thanks Joel.

Zoe October 26, 2015 at 2:46 am

Thanks for the article, David. I’ve just come back from a stay with my in-laws and found out that my mother-in-law gives regularly to charity, despite earning very little herself. As my husband pointed out: it’s often people who earn the least who give the most to charity. While I’m not entirely sure about that (there are some very rich people who do give a lot to charity), I do think the gesture has more meaning because the people who earn less and give more are making more of a conscious choice to put others first.

David Cain October 26, 2015 at 8:19 am

I have heard that too, particularly about the unusual generosity homeless people extend to the homeless. There is also something to be said about giving when you have little to give. Bill and Melinda Gates give an enormous amount of their time and money to charity, but as generous as they are it will never threaten their ability to pay their own bills.

Pippa October 26, 2015 at 3:15 am

What happened with the brussel sprouts?

David Cain October 26, 2015 at 8:20 am

I steamed them.

Aga October 26, 2015 at 10:00 am

might i suggest roasting? once you roast vegetables, you’ll never steam anything again. you’re welcome.

Pippa October 26, 2015 at 4:25 pm

…or parboil and then cook in butter, mmmm!

Aga October 26, 2015 at 11:13 pm

i’ll raise you – make it browned butter. then it’s pure heaven!

David Cain October 28, 2015 at 4:12 pm

I do roast them occasionally, but the advantage of steaming is that it doesn’t take as long and you don’t have to add any oil. I love my steamer. But it’s true, I don’t roast vegetables often enough.

George Halloway October 26, 2015 at 3:27 am

I too believe that “everybody’s well-being is equally important”. The question is: What’s the correct way to put this idea into practice?

Because here’s the kicker: Usually you – as a person – can improve your own well-being far more efficiently than you can improve the well-being of stranger.

So in practical terms, a certain degree of selfishness is actually a good thing. Indeed, I think that one of the problems in this world is that too many people are oblivious to their own best interests. Most people are too consumed with pettiness and jealousy and greed to efficiently pursue their own happiness.

Of-course this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be committed to the happiness of others as well. But step one is healing thyself. And you know something? Once a person learns to let go of pettiness and jealously and greed, s/he automatically makes the lives of other people better too.

David Cain October 26, 2015 at 8:23 am

This point comes up in books about Buddhism a lot. Often the best thing you can do for the world is to work on your own well-being, because it will lead to many more good deeds done in the long run.

Naomi Frances October 26, 2015 at 3:58 am

Thought provoking as ever…..doesn’t it depend on your idea of what doing good is? The solutions Julia found are all about money, and that works for her, makes her feel ok, (isn’t that a form of selfishness?) but we can all do good in our own different ways, and that often means giving time, or using #28 or whatever. The link to Givewell is really useful in the Guardian article, and it’s really worth reading ‘How to be Good’ by Nick Hornby. It’s a novel about a man changing his life in order to be ‘good’ and the impact this has on him and his family.

David Cain October 26, 2015 at 8:26 am

Yes, it definitely does depend on what you determine “good” to be, and each person needs to think about what they can do that’s most helpful in creating that good.

I will check out How to be Good.

Vilx- October 26, 2015 at 4:07 am

Hmm… well, I guess like in most cases, the best place to be is the middle ground. Somewhere between total selfishness and total selflessness. Extremes are almost always bad. But where that point is might be a subjective thing. We each have different values, so I think the middle point will align differently for us. And for some it could be very far on one or the other side. I guess you just need to judge for yourself, where is the place where you feel comfortable.

A more interesting question to me is – should there be “socially acceptable” boundaries placed on this and what (if anything) should be done with people who wander outside it.

David Cain October 26, 2015 at 8:29 am

I think that for better or worse we are all going to end up in some sort of middle ground. True selflessness is either incredibly rare or impossible — the story of Jesus is supposed to be an example of it. If you wanted to be optimally good, you would have to devote every waking moment to doing good and reducing suffering, and give up all personal interests. I wrote about what that might be like here:


DiscoveredJoys October 26, 2015 at 4:34 am

I’m working my way through “How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness” by Russ Roberts which is presenting Adam Smiths other famous book “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”.

Adam Smith argues that we behave ‘well’ so that we can think of ourselves as behaving well in the eyes of the General Other:

“Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise. He dreads, not only blame, but blameworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be blamed by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of blame.”

I guess that Julia Wise is an extreme example of this ‘holding oneself to account’. Yet before we decide that we are not nice people we should bear in mind that Adam Smith considered that we were selfless through our own self interest.

David Cain October 26, 2015 at 8:32 am

That is really interesting, and it says a lot about how closely related generosity is to identity. We don’t just want to do good but to be goodness.

I think it is probably possible to act without regard to personal identity though, and that theme is a big part of Buddhism and even the story of Jesus.

Jordan October 26, 2015 at 4:40 am

Great article, David. I’m glad to see writing on the ideas of justice, compassion, and equality, especially in terms of consumption in a materialist world.

One point I disagree with is that “evolution would be nowhere without competition”. Perhaps not outright disagreement with that point in itself, but that’s only half of the picture. Evolution would be equally nowhere without cooperation. The only reason the human species has gotten this far is because of our inclination for compassion and cooperation, especially in our own family and perhaps our wider community. On the other hand, the root reason that our continued existence on this planet (along with all other living beings) is in such peril due to climate change is because of our inability to care for others. Your article makes note of our need to expand the circle of our compassion though, as you point out by saying that we can make our driving experience more enjoyable by pretending all other drivers are our friends and family. Why not substitute driving with living, and alter this to say that our living experience can be made more enjoyable by pretending all other livers are our friends and family? In another article, you mention being annoyed with a stranger on the sidewalk who is walking too slowly, but then recommend making an inner resolution to help that stranger if they end up falling or needing help in some other form, which then seems to magically absolve all harboured feelings of ill intent toward that person.

You ask us to share what we think is the right amount to give. The Christian concept of penance can be useful when thinking of what is the right amount to keep for oneself, and what is right to give to others. I come from a Christian background, and while I don’t share the religious views anymore, I still share many of the better social and ethical views. Many priests take a vow to live a life of poverty, perhaps so their efforts will be focused toward helping others, rather than accumulating material wealth for themselves. Since poverty is a bit too much for the lay parish, the recommended penance to be given to the church is 10% of one’s salary. I give much less than this myself, which I justify because I’m in thousands of dollars of student debt, but I still give between $25 and $50 a month on average. However, most people are in debt, so I’ve been considering upping my charity donations to 10% and trying to cut other luxuries from my life so that I won’t have to reduce my student loan payments.

I recently bought a laptop for school even though I own a home computer because I wanted to be able to take fast notes in class, but I decided to take handwritten notes instead, and not to open the box when it arrived in the mail and return it for the $600 I spent on it. I realized that since that past version of me thought I could afford the $600 for the laptop, certainly this current version of me can afford to take $500 of the return for myself and give $100 to help out with the refugee crisis that’s plaguing Europe right now, so that’s what I’ve resolved to do.

To make a long reply even longer (sorry), I was reminded of a parable (or maybe a moral) by Peter Singer, the ethics philosopher. He told the story of a man who was walking through the park to work and came across a small child drowning in the pond in the woods. He looked around and there was no one else there, no parents or other passersby to save the child from what seemed like certain death. He thought about jumping in to save the child himself, but then realized he was on his way to work, and was wearing one of his best suits and brand new shoes, which would be ruined if he saved the child, and then he’d also be late for work and in trouble with his boss. So he decided to just pretend like he never saw a thing and the child drowned and died. Peter Singer then reflects on this story. If we heard about a person actually doing this, we would consider this person a monster, and they would likely even be thrown in jail for their utter lack of compassion and complete disregard for human life. However, we don’t think of our decisions this way when it comes to charity giving. Like you said, the $15 we spend on wine could likely save a dozen children or more from hunger or some disease. However, many would still buy the wine. Maybe a person will buy the wine and then still give $15 to a charity that provides vaccines, but the wine was still bought, and only one dozen children were saved, not two. But if someone came up to us outside the liquor store, lined up twelve polio-stricken children, and said there lives would be spared if we returned the bottle, I bet 99% of people would return the wine. Part of Singer’s point is that we have a sort of blindness for those we don’t see. But some people, like Julia Wise, have the visual imagination, or perhaps just the inner compassion, to always see the people who are being affected by the decisions she does, or doesn’t make.

Thanks again for the read.

David Cain October 26, 2015 at 8:38 am

The moral philosophy that Julia and her husband are following is apparently called utilitarianism, and Peter Singer is a well-known proponent of it. The drowning child example is really interesting: we let children “drown” all the time, because we don’t really have an experience of the harm we are allowing. It’s too abstract. The same principle is why it’s so much easier to be compassionate to your “relatives” in traffic than it is to people on the other side of the world. Our emotional distance from the people we affect with our actions makes a huge difference in how we treat them.

leigh October 26, 2015 at 9:44 am

Jordan — great comments here, but I would like to point out that if everyone stops buying the $15 wine in favor of vaccinating children, the business of wine making will diminish to the point that the employees no longer have jobs. Now you have children who are vaccinated, but starving. It’s not a guns-for-butter trade-off, and even buying the wine benefits those employees and businesses who provide it. It’s not as selfish as it seems on that scale.

shreen October 26, 2015 at 4:59 am

Aren’t humans more likely to help those closest to them though, because we see strangers in a far off land as abstract concepts rather than real, 3-dimensional people living complex lives? People who can think beyond those concepts are in danger of feeling an overwhelming sense of responsibility, because they can so easily think of and feel other people’s problems. Some people have to make a conscious effort to feel empathy. I feel it almost all the time, it’s tiring.

This sort of extreme altruism that the Guardian article talks about is very common amongst animal-obsessives as I found out after working in animal care. There is a certain type of person who pares back their own life drastically in order to focus more time, energy and money towards animal causes. There are some that approach it in a healthy way of course, but often they’re frazzled, overworked, suffering from depression and anxiety. I can’t remember where I read it but there is a very high suicide rate amongst people who work in animal rescue relative to other caring professions (I only know a few rescuers but am often hearing about suicides, it’s incredibly tragic). You’d think by helping animals they might feel good about the world and their agency to effect change, but it actually tends to highlight how much more there is to be done, how many more animals that need help and how little other people care in comparison. One person can only do so much.

Feeling things too deeply and caring too much is not a nice predicament, and sometimes the only way to make those feelings go away is to help the person/animal in suffering. But you fix one problem and another pops up. It’s like you’re chasing that feeling of satisfaction of solving a problem (or at least, making it a little less crappy). But it’s a never ending chase for some, and you could easily draw a parallel between this and any form of never-ending desire that you cannot satiate (like a desire for wealth).

I agree with the above comment – some degree of selfishness is necessary and healthy to your well-being. Without your health, you can’t help anyone.

David Cain October 26, 2015 at 8:44 am

Great comment, thank you shreen. You hit on something that I think about a lot: if we could truly comprehend how much suffering there actually is out there, it would completely overwhelm us. In order to function, we need to have that cognitive dissonance. This means most of the suffering in the world will remain abstract to us, and those who are particularly empathetic can be crippled by their appreciation of suffering.

shreen October 27, 2015 at 12:04 pm

Yup that abstraction is useful. I have spent too many nights unable to sleep because of what I’d seen working with vulnerable animals and children and asylum seekers. In hindsight, perhaps not the best lines of work for someone with empathy issues. :/

Sarah Noelle October 26, 2015 at 5:44 am

Hi, thanks for this thoughtful article. As someone who’s pretty focused on personal finance and trying to pay back my massive student loans, it can be really difficult to figure out how much money to give away while still taking care of myself and doing what I need to to do get out of debt. (Is my getting out of debt more important than someone in a poverty-stricken country staying alive? Is my loan repayment plan selfish? Yikes! What difficult — but important — questions for me to consider.)
Like Jordan, I was reminded of Peter Singer in reading your article. I actually don’t think Dr. Singer would think Julia and her husband were crackpots at all — quite the opposite. :) The wine thought experiment that Jordan mentioned is pretty representative of his views. I think he might say that it’s only failure of imagination that causes most people to go ahead and buy the wine. Interestingly, he offers an income calculator online that suggests an amount you should give to fight world hunger each year (not entirely sure what the algorithm is based on though): http://www.thelifeyoucansave.org/take-the-pledge

David Cain October 26, 2015 at 8:46 am

> (Is my getting out of debt more important than someone in a poverty-stricken country staying alive? Is my loan repayment plan selfish? Yikes! What difficult — but important — questions for me to consider.)

This is a really tough question, and there’s lots of ways to think about it. Perhaps people will die if you pay off your loans before giving money, but in the long run fewer people will die if you pay off your loans faster because you are losing less money to interest. But it’s so hard to arrive at a satisfying answer.

DiscoveredJoys October 26, 2015 at 11:02 am

I’ve not read all the comments yet, but one aspect doesn’t seem to have cropped up. Like many other people I pay various taxes and they add up to a significant fraction of my earnings. A lot of my taxes go towards the ‘UK infrastructure’, including health care, i.e. the general good, but also towards the UK government’s commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI (Gross National Income) on Official Development Assistance.

So even if I gave nothing personally, I’m giving impersonally.

trillie October 26, 2015 at 6:08 am

Man, I had to laugh at that brussels sprout story, because it is so relatable! I often feel guilty about taking, say the last spagetti squash when there are only two, and my boyfriend thinks I’m crazy :p
I also often struggle with where to draw the line with charity. I always give about 1-5€ to homeless people, but am always painfully aware that I could just as easily give them 20 and I wouldn’t even notice at the end of the month. So how do you decide on the limit? If you give away everything you don’t NEED… well that’s a hell of a lot. I’ve kind of settled on the fact that making too much money always ends up making me unhappy, because then I end up buying lots of expensive gadgets that ALWAYS give me buyer’s remorse, so I just started working part time so I can volunteer the rest of my time. I know I could just keep working the same amount and donate the rest of my paycheck, but it’s more efficient to put in the hours yourself than to pay someone to do it.

David Cain October 26, 2015 at 8:49 am

> If you give away everything you don’t NEED… well that’s a hell of a lot.

Yes, it sure is. Technically, all you need is that which keeps you alive and able to continue to give. But then there’s the question of how to spend your time, as you say. Depending on how much you can earn with your time, it may or may not be more efficient to give time than money. It’s so complicated.

Sky October 26, 2015 at 6:26 am

There are no actions which are not selfish. In the end everything you do is to make yourself feel good. Whether that is hogging all of the good brussels sprouts or donating all your money to charity.

Helping those around you is just a more sophisticated type of selfishness. E.g – if I help my community and share my wealth with them they will have a better standard of living which means they will be more pleasant and safe to live around (an advantage for ME).

Even Mother Teresa was selfish, ultimately because the people she helped made herself feel good (and she probably also wanted to go to heaven).

David Cain October 26, 2015 at 8:53 am

I agree with you, but I do wonder if it is possible to do something truly without regard for your own feelings. For example, if it felt bad or wrong to do good, could we still do it?

Tim Arendse October 26, 2015 at 6:55 am

Excellent article, David, and very timely for me.

Regarding the Guardian article, this was my dream when I was a kid. Unfortunately, that feeling was coming from a place of shame. I wanted to give all I could, even if it meant giving up my own happiness. If I gave up enough, eventually I would be loved.

That’s obviously not an admirable position, and I hope no one reads The Guardian’s article, feeling like that.

These days, I feel that I have a healthy level of altruism. It’s probably still more than most people but it’s not to the extreme. If I can alleviate someone else’s temporary suffering with a minor detour, I do it. I don’t set out to save the world anymore.

On a lighter note: have you seen what Brussels sprouts look like when they’re on the plant?


I saw them in COOP. I didn’t know what I expected.

David Cain October 26, 2015 at 8:56 am

The Adam Smith passage that DiscoveredJoys posted is really interesting and relates to what you’re saying. Sometimes we give because we want to be loved for it. That is part of why I feel guilty for giving to charity sometimes: it’s all wrapped up in my feelings towards myself and I wonder why I am doing it.

I have seen those stalks of brussels sprouts. They’re adorable. Before that I pictured them growing on the ground in tiny rows like Barbie-sized cabbages.

DiscoveredJoys October 26, 2015 at 11:07 am

At Christmastime my local supermarket sells red Brussels sprouts on stalks. They are really more purple than red. They are less bitter than green Brussels sprouts (for those people like me with the ‘bitter Brussels sprouts taste’ gene).

Chris October 26, 2015 at 7:59 am

This gets even more interesting for me within family dynamics. My wife and I had a talk about why she felt that I was being selfish when I bought weight equipment for the house. She had stopped going to our gym (pregnant), so we were paying for a family membership needlessly. Within 6 months, the money not going to the gym covered our expenses. The weird thing was that she didn’t mind me taking the time going to the gym, but once I brought it into the house, it made her feel like I was being selfish (even though I now spent more time at home!).

In the end, we both realized that there were other areas of our life where I needed to focus on for improvement but the negative feelings were manifesting themselves at the most recent annoyance.

So, long story short, I think you’re right. We should try to be conscious about our actions instead of just going with the flow and thinking “f everyone else.”

David Cain October 26, 2015 at 8:59 am

Heh… we can have some really strange ideas about what is selfish, or at least they’re strange when we think about them. We can even think it’s selfish to take care of our own health or to get adequate sleep, if it seems to be in competition with something else that we deem important. We are complex creatures.

Dragline October 26, 2015 at 8:44 am

Why do we think people like Julia are that unusual (or even worth writing about), when we don’t bat an eye at extreme philanthropy like the Gates Foundation? The differences are really just temporal in nature — i.e., the “when”, not the what.

Julia’s story seems like over-dramatized navel gazing — about whether she “should be” using her resources this way and whether it says anything about how others should act (logically, it doesn’t — it’s a version of the “slippery slope” or “what if everybody did this” fallacy — unless her real goal is to assemble followers).

Does it really matter in the end whether the giving is constant or occurs more in large clumps or bequests all at once? Perhaps to the individual giver, but maybe not so much to the world at large. If anything, the large bequester is probably more effective as a practical matter, because there is more organization and planning in how the gift will be used.

David Cain October 26, 2015 at 9:06 am

Good question. I think we are used to the idea of the rich philanthropist, for one thing. When someone builds enough wealth that giving it away doesn’t really have a downside, nothing about that bothers us. But when it’s somebody in our socioeconomic class, it triggers some uncomfortable soul-searching.

It probably doesn’t matter whether giving is done at once or on a consistent basis, but I don’t think that’s the question. We aren’t all on our way to being Bill Gates. The real question is “Given what I believe about morality, am I doing enough?” Many of us do believe in moral obligations, or we say we do (as in Peter Singer’s pond example) but we don’t necessarily act this way. The article is highlighting one person’s moral self-examination, and most people reading it will at least think about their own stance on giving.

George G. October 26, 2015 at 8:51 am

Great stuff, as always! I’ve recently been thinking how my sense of compassion towards others has been slipping lately. A prime example is with my reaction to people like Martin Shkreli or Kim Davis, and just how eager I feel to judge them for their media-worthy transgressions… Not just judge, but desire that they suffer in ways that you’d typically only find in torture porn horror movies. And the realization that I hold such grudges against people I don’t even know on any personal level has made me step back and reassess my own way of living lately.

David Cain October 26, 2015 at 9:08 am

Same here… and mostly it has nothing to do with giving or charity for me, but how I interact with people, how I view strangers, etc. The Guardian article focuses on charity, but there are many avenues for generosity and compassion.

Aga October 26, 2015 at 10:10 am

i have to say that reading the guardian article made me almost physically uncomfortable: it’s so true that nobody likes ned flanders. and yet julia doesn’t come across as particularly judgmental towards those who aren’t as giving as she is, does she? there is a calculation to her (and her husband’s) thinking that is rather ugly. choosing not to adopt because an adopted child would have lower chances of being a do-gooder? that sounded harsh and cruel to me. i’m glad people like julia exist, but i sure as hell don’t want them in my life. i can feel bad about myself all on my own, thank you very much.

it’s interesting that your posts inspire rather than guilt into better behaviour but someone like julia would make me want to buy ten candy apples and shove them in my mouth right in front of her. not a good instinct, i agree, but there it is.

Fon October 26, 2015 at 10:40 am

U described me and my thoughts exactly.except it was broccoli sprouts.and ut was my mother whi only had half a piece..only, i feel like a smuck wen i act on these thoughts cuz i thought i was the only one stupid enough to do so. I remember wen u was a kid trick or treatiing with my best friend and someone ledt a big bag on the with a note to please take one. My friend wanted to take the whole thing, but i talked him out of it…5 minutes later his big brother went to the door and took tthe whole thing.and no he wouldn’t share with us…i never heard the end of it from my friend.

Sunny October 26, 2015 at 11:23 am

David, a slight digression: don’t say that evolution would be nowhere without competition! You know that that’s how such a wrong view as “social evolution” developed — it misinterpreted the theory. The theory is: “mutant” genes survive new environmental challenges better than “normal” genes. The relationship is between the genes and their environment, not between the genes themselves. Case in point: climate change gave birth to hair-covered mastodons. We both know that the difference only became important when social predators used the theory to justify greed, but because of that, it’s important to correct the record.

David Cain October 27, 2015 at 8:38 am

Not that it’s the point of the article, but is competition not a part of natural selection as we know it? Is it not clear that competitive behaviors like territoriality and shows of dominance have been selected for (alongside non-competitive behaviors like altruism)?

Delma October 26, 2015 at 12:05 pm

Selfishness is situational and subjective. Not only that, but it’s not an inherent trait in any of us. We each have the ability to freely respond to any moment by giving (whether it’s money or material goods), or not.

When we feel a call to give something, we should. When we want the best Brussels sprouts for ourselves, that’s just fine too. The only way to determine whether we should put the needs of others first is to rely on the impulse and moment. Does it feel right in this moment? Go for it. To do otherwise is a false action which is actually selfish. How? Because doing it in order to feel good about yourself is the motive. The act of generosity becomes about *you* rather than the act.

There’s no escaping selfishness when that happens.

David Cain October 27, 2015 at 8:41 am

I see what you’re saying but it’s hard to deny that there is such thing as moral obligation. Others have mentioned Peter Singer’s “drowning child” scenario. If you came upon a child drowning in a pond, is it not wrong to just walk on by, on the grounds that you’re “not feeling it?”

Marcella October 26, 2015 at 12:26 pm

First off, loved this article and it gave me a ton of food for thought, so thank you.

Secondly, it reminded me of a conversation I had recently with Ryan Allis, a young entrepreneur who sold his first company for $170MM at 27 years old. Wow, right? But he told me that his health suffered tremendously. And what he realized now that he’s working on his next projects is that if he takes care of himself, he can serve others and the world in a much better way. So in essence he seems to agree with Arthur, that you take care of yourself first to then be able to take of others, airplane-oxygen-mask-style… Anyway, the whole convo where he talks about this more in depth is here: http://www.marcellachamorro.com/process/007-ryan-allis

David Cain October 27, 2015 at 8:42 am

Hi Marcella. I think “put your mask on before assisting others” is great life advice :)

Ginette October 26, 2015 at 1:39 pm

I think giving to charities is both selfish and selfless. It makes us feel good to know we helped, even if just a little. It becomes not only about the amount of money, or time, but also which causes one should support or prioritize. Like most people I do give, but I really think government should provide most of the help,and for it to be able to do so, we should pay our taxes and not try to avoid it ( by paying “under the table”) or worse ( tax evasion) and not scream when there is talk to increase them. Many rich people do give to charities ( nice tax credit) but if owners of big companies would start by paying decent wages to even the lower levels, especially for their business in poor or developing countries, charities would not so desperately needed.
Charities seem like a bandaid on a problem that needs surgery.

David Cain October 27, 2015 at 8:47 am

> Charities seem like a bandaid on a problem that needs surgery.

I think this is a major reason many resist charity. Many see charity as a very inefficient form of wealth redistribution, which wouldn’t be necessary if we had different policies.

Samuel Mandell October 27, 2015 at 1:21 am

I found the end of the Guardian article to be pretty heavy:

“They lack that happy blindness that allows most people, most of the time, to shut their minds to what is unbearable. Do-gooders have forced themselves to know, and keep on knowing, that everything they do affects other people, and that sometimes (though not always) their joy is purchased with other people’s joy. And, remembering that, they open themselves to a sense of unlimited, crushing responsibility.”

Wow. I had a lot of emotions towards Julia while reading this article. First judgement towards her motives (there was a lot of “should” and “obliged to” wording), then sadness almost as if she had some kind of compulsive disease, and then I had peace about it. Where I came to was that why does it matter to me what she’s doing with her money and time? If she’s doing what she feels she must be doing, then why not? I ran her actions through my moral compass and came to the conclusion that while her actions aren’t the ones that I’m choosing to follow, there isn’t anything I feel I should push back against (as I would for instance with a violent person or someone who was inflicting some other kind of harm on another human being).

So now I’m in a place of “yeah, why not. Go for it Juila.”

David Cain October 27, 2015 at 8:49 am

I had kind of the same reaction. Part of what I felt was a certain weird gratitude that I *do* have the cognitive dissonance that allows me not to be overcome by a sense of moral duty. Left me with a lot of weird feelings, but generally okay, for what it’s worth.

Mark October 27, 2015 at 5:07 am

The way I see it: Charity sucks, most of them don’t do good, and even when one does, it’s an easy way to feel good about yourself and in the meantime shift the responsibility to other people, to solve the problem for you.

My motto: Spend your money on yourself, spend your time on helping others. If it involves money, then don’t give that, but (help to) buy the thing or service that is needed. I do this because money corrupts, and whenever I give money to someone, I transfer my responsibility of who will get this money to someone else, who might not get for it what they say they need the money for, or spend it at a shop / on a brand that’s harming others or our planet.

Actions count, money doesn’t. If you want to do charity, volunteer.

shreen October 27, 2015 at 11:53 am

Very few charities simply exist to redistribute wealth, certainly here in the UK (maybe that is because like someone else said, we have an OK welfare system). If you don’t want to give to those in need, that’s cool, but it’s unfair to say most charities suck. Perhaps they do where you are, I don’t know.

Denis October 27, 2015 at 8:01 am

Hi, i’d say it’s sort of soothing to know that everywhere people face the same temptations… I’m not used to travelling a lot and think (well thought by now) people are different to SOME extent depending on the culture they grew up in. However, skimming through these comments ive got a slight diversion towards generality of trials we face with no matter the place u live in
thank u, Denis, Russia

Free to Pursue October 27, 2015 at 11:13 am

All that from brussel sprouts?! I must be looking for inspired thought in all the wrong places.

The (re)discovery of the power of community has been a big “aha moment” for me when it comes to this topic. Community is a social construct that has been nearly destroyed with the advent of urbanization and distorted thanks to the redefinition of it associated with social media and the Internet in general to a certain extent. Having a strong sense of community redirects our attention from consuming the right things to doing what is right for our fellow man. Community helps us build character, in part thanks to the self-regulating effects associated with feeling ashamed by actions we take or consider taking that aren’t in line with what we know would be better for all. If the next person in line for the box of brussel sprouts were our neighbour or our friend, we’d most certainly make due with the average.

Darren October 27, 2015 at 3:12 pm

Darwin references cooperation over a hundred times and competition only a handful of times in his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Cooperation is considered a more important determinant of the survival of species, including the human species. Maybe that’s why the “everyone in traffic is your friend or family” feels so fun, easy and more effective. You’ve been naturally selected over millennium to do it naturally. So let’s all just do what feels good. PS David – thanks for steering me to headless.org

Hilary October 28, 2015 at 10:09 am

In late September, 2001, The Onion came back online and one of the top stories was “Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake.” It’s actually not a brutal piece at all — we were all still wondering when/how comedy could come back — and to this day I remember that headline when I see charity runners at marathons or links posted asking me to give what I can to some cause or another. I think comfortable western classes feel rather disassociated and lonely, and the easiest way to feel connected to anything is to simply decide to have or join a cause. Or cause-of-the-month. It kind of gives them something to do (a sort of direction) when they’re otherwise generally overwhelmed and anxiety-ridden and “so busy.” But at least they can bake a cake.

chacha1 October 28, 2015 at 6:11 pm

To me, the title of that Guardian article is a question that answers itself: “should you care for strangers at the expense of your family?” Well, no. And not at the expense even of yourself. Having skimmed the article, from my point of view Julia’s extreme altruism is borderline pathological.

If she had not arrived at a workable union with someone who was able to create a rational system, one that allowed them – as a family – a more or less normal life, she would probably have kept going through cycles of [work – give the money away – extreme poverty] herself. Would she have had any health care? Would she have relied on other people for lodging, or food? Would she have collected unemployment benefits?

It is a little like the “extreme minimalists” who couch-surf, or park their vintage RV in some tolerant relative’s back yard. The burden is simply shifted, not eliminated.

I think there is a clear line to be drawn between “taking care of yourself” and “being selfish.” Taking care of yourself means that you are not shifting responsibility for your own well-being onto friends, relatives, a spouse, or society at large. It can be measured objectively. Selfishness – as someone noted above – is a subjective concept.

The golden rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is one side of a basic civil ethic. The other side is “my rights end where yours begin.” My right to give away money ends at the point where someone else is covering my expenses so that I can give away money.

Fascinating discussion!

David Cain October 29, 2015 at 3:31 pm

Yeah I think the title is a bad one. Pure clickbait — clearly a person doesn’t need to put their family into any kind of bad state in order to help others.

A lot of people are saying it seems pathological, but I wonder if that’s fair. I think we often call people “mad” when they’re simply not being normal, or are less/more distressed than usual about particular things. Their moral stance is logical as far as I can see, it’s just really different than most people’s. One could argue that the rest of us are pathologically apathetic to the unseen suffering of others, if it wasn’t the normal way to be.

Julie November 1, 2015 at 3:18 pm

I came across your website some time ago and then forgot about it. A chance mention elsewhere brought me back, and I am happy to re-discover it.

My husband and I can easily relate to what you say here, and the final suggestion is something we started to practice the last few years. Our parents are in their 80s–and not the quickest drivers. Whenever we find ourselves irritated at a particularly slow/bad driver, we keep telling ourselves that these drivers could be our parents. Definitely a case of “do unto others…”

A different example is also apt here. I am a university professor, and I find myself especially careful neither to be an annoying driving or be too annoyed by a driver near campus. Just in case it turns out that I have an encounter with a student of mine… It would be awkward for both of us.

But, of course, both examples make me wonder then why I believe it’s ok to have an unpleasant encounter with a complete stranger? (The answer, of course, is that I shouldn’t think that…)

Diego November 10, 2015 at 5:03 pm

Made me think a lot about proportional generosity. I may give more to some charities than most other people, for example Kiva.org tells you the percentile that you fall into for number of loans accrued. Yet it still feels like a small amount proportional to my salary.

Should I feel guilty for not giving at least 10% now? Can I rationalize that by investing and multiplying my money, I will give that much more during retirement? Can I trust myself to not give it all to family by default in death? I want to save lives, and help the world, but sometimes the good that I do just isn’t. good. enough.

Nathan November 17, 2015 at 2:45 pm

I saw a documentary about the scientist George R Price, who wanted to know why some animals, like ants, choose to sacrifice themselves so that others could survive. His studies concluded that the altruistic act was a genetic tactic by the species as opposed to an individual wanting to do good. It kind of makes sense, given that you would be more inclined to sacrifice yourself for your kids, or your family, but less so for someone from another country. It would also explain why some of us would feel suspicious of “do-gooders” who have no tangible relationship to the people that they help.

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