Bringing Famine, Affluence, and Morality to Life
by Frank J. Martin
It is December 2020, the pandemic’s “second wave” is battering California. Many of my neighbors, including young children and seniors, are living in encampments throughout Oakland where I live. Other neighbors, who work in technology, finance, and law, continue to enjoy the fruits of their six-figure salaries and skyrocketing wealth. In the Bay Area, it is routine among professional circles to meet someone with a net worth of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars from a “good exit.” Here and elsewhere, there exists a vast and growing distance between the haves and have-nots.
Nearly fifty years ago, Peter Singer published the now canonized article Famine, Affluence, and Morality, responding to the human suffering he witnessed in what was then known as East Bengal. Today, like then, “the suffering and death… are not inevitable, not unavoidable in any fatalistic sense.” Singer called on us to alter our “moral conceptual scheme” by presenting a simple and profound argument: “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything else morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.” More simply: We who possess more than we need ought, morally, to give to those who have less than they need.
“…when we buy new clothes not to keep ourselves warm but to look ‘well-dressed’ we are not providing for any important need. We would not be sacrificing anything significant if we were to continue to wear our old clothes and give the money to famine relief. By doing so, we would be preventing another person from starving. It follows from what I have said earlier that we ought to give money away, rather than spend it on clothes which we do not need to keep us warm. To do so is not charitable, or generous. Nor is it an act which philosophers and theologians have called ‘supererogatory’ — an act which it would be good to do, but not wrong not to do. On the contrary, we ought to give the money away, and it is wrong not to do so.”
Why have we not witnessed significant changes in charitable behavior over the ensuing fifty years? What has prevented those of us with more than we need from taking more dramatic action? As Singer has noted in other work: “there is a gap between acknowledging what we ought to do and doing it.” And as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated in his famous sermon on Loving Your Enemies: “somehow the ‘isness’ of our present nature is out of harmony with the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts us.” I aim to animate Singer’s clarion call by offering a modest practice that harnesses the power of our innate desire for harmony so that our ‘isness’ can be more aligned with our ‘oughtness.’ I call this practice Bitter Champagne.
Before we discuss Bitter Champagne, I offer a mental framework for charitable giving which I call the Giving Trek. Outlined below, the Giving Trek consists of seven (7) stages that can be imagined as sections along a mountain path, beginning at the base where we are in a state of delusion, moving to the lowlands of awareness, and culminating in the highlands of action.
As you can see, the movement between the Giving Trek’s lower stages is characterized by a growing awareness and appreciation of one’s excess resources. These three stages of awareness are followed by four stages of action which culminate in a rare stage I call Agape, defined as giving to the point of martyrdom (ignoring or eschewing one’s own needs in service to others).
The Giving Trek begins, or perhaps better said has not even begun, at the mountain’s base where luxury is normalized through unconscious enjoyment of it in the face of the material deprivation others face. At Stage 1, Unconscious Luxury, there is no perceived distance between ‘isness’ and ‘oughtness’ because we pay no attention to the known facts and the feelings they should induce. We live a lie — it is of no concern that I am drinking champagne while others lack clean water.
Stage 2, Conscious Luxury, is characterized by active recognition of the rarity and specialness of the experience. This awareness marks our first break from total delusion. Though there are still no external manifestations, it represents an infinite leap forward from complete darkness to glimmers of light. We realize that our experience is rare and special and that very few people share such privilege. Further reflection upon our privilege motivates us to climb to the next stage: Gratitude.
Stage 3, Gratitude, leaves us in awe of our experience and resources. And we are grateful for these circumstances. I believe gratitude primes our brain to search for ways to ‘pay it forward.’ Gratitude moves us away from selfishness and toward behavior that benefits society.
Stage 4, Charitable Giving, is the first external action. Gratitude has moved us from a focus on self to a focus on others. We are ready to give. At this stage, our giving requires very little of us and we simply share out of our stores of abundance. Charitable Giving is easy and comfortable. Think of the checks written at the end of the year in response to our favorite organization’s annual appeal or tickets to a local charity’s gala with our friends. In short, Charitable Giving is giving that has no meaningful impact on our personal consumption or saving.
Stage 5, Philanthropic Giving, is the first level of giving that meaningfully impacts one’s life. People who practice Philanthropic Giving modify their patterns of consumption and saving so that they may give to others. They are moving beyond giving a small percentage of their excess resources. Many in the Effective Altruism community live well below their means so that they can practice Philanthropic Giving. I should note, many people that we call philanthropists are practicing Charitable not Philanthropic Giving. The core of the definition is that one must make non-trivial changes to one’s lifestyle.
Stage 6, Giving to Marginal Utility, is the complete embodiment of Singer’s moral argument. This level of giving would require much more than simplifying one’s lifestyle to give more.
And finally, Stage 7, Agape, is included simply to remind us that there is a level of giving that is possible beyond marginal utility — the life of the martyr.
Bitter Champagne encourages us to become aware of our position, to understand the moral obligations required of those of us in that position, and then to move from awareness to action.
Bitter Champagne has three pillars:
1) Using resources for luxuries when they could be used to alleviate suffering should cause one “dis-ease”;
2) We are morally required to cultivate attention to this “dis-ease”; and
3) Cultivation of this attention bridges the chasm between acknowledging what we ought to do and doing it.
Let us look at these in turn:
1) Using resources for luxuries when they could be used to alleviate suffering should cause one “dis-ease”
A condition precedent to the affective state of “dis-ease” for purposes of this claim is the knowledge that there is suffering that could be alleviated with material resources. Given that we live in the age of the internet, I believe that we would be hard-pressed to find an affluent person who is unaware of the daily suffering of those living in poverty. In the Bay Area, my friends and I witness this suffering first-hand by simply walking the streets of San Francisco, Oakland, or Berkeley. For some, only certain sub-populations of those in poverty (e.g., children, veterans, or the elderly) will conjure compassion and concern. I have read enough blog posts from young technologists in San Francisco to know that the mere sight of people experiencing homelessness can precipitate inexplicable rage and disgust rather than compassion. I will leave the work of ensuring our circle of concern for our fellow humans is expanding rather than contracting to another day. For now, given the variety of people suffering from poverty, let us assume that anyone with more than they need can find someone whose suffering is plain to see and deserving of their resources.
Once suffering is acknowledged, “dis-ease,” which I think of as a complex mix of discomfort, imbalance, and the dissatisfaction that accompanies an unfulfilled obligation, bubbles up from the perceived chasm between one’s behavior and Singer’s moral mandate to act. We are buying new clothes instead of supporting our local shelter. We are drinking champagne instead of funding potable water projects. The list goes on.
2) We are morally required to cultivate attention to this “dis-ease”
Because we are informed, and because we should have some level of “dis-ease” we now must decide how to engage with this discomfort. How much attention should we pay to the feeling? For too many of us, our default reaction is an attempt to ignore it. This is morally unacceptable. If we are morally obligated to redistribute our resources, then we are also morally obligated to take the prerequisite actions necessary to induce this action. We are morally obligated to cultivate attention to this “dis-ease” because, as I argue below, by connecting with and experiencing the affective state of “dis-ease” we are compelled to cross the chasm from awareness to action as we pursue harmony.
How much attention must we pay? The moral obligation is to pay some attention to the “dis-ease.” How much, how often, and how intensely will vary from situation to situation and likely intensifies over time. That is, the more attention one starts to pay to the “dis-ease,” the more likely they are to sustain the attention more often and more intensely until they have satisfactorily closed their “isness/oughtness” gap. As an opening bid, perhaps we should maintain enough attention to the “dis-ease” that while enjoying and being fully present for the momentary satisfaction one gets from luxuries, drinking champagne, for example, we maintain an awareness that these actions represent a break from our ‘oughtness’ and leave a subtle bitter aftertaste.
3) Cultivation of this attention will help us cross the chasm between acknowledging what we ought to do and doing it
“Dis-ease” is a catalyst for action. In biological systems, we see an organism’s attempt to maintain homeostasis. In human psychology, we see our attempts to find balance through reflection, self-care, and periodic reallocation of our efforts. Connecting with the “dis-ease” created by the distance between our “isness and oughtness” will spur action. Any progress along the Giving Trek is beneficial because it represents behavior that is more aligned with our obligations to society than all stages before it. The logical apex of Singer’s conclusion is that we “ought to give until we reach the level of marginal utility — that is, the level at which, by giving more, I would cause as much suffering to myself or my dependents as I would relieve by my gift.” Prior to this point, there are many beneficial behaviors that can incrementally improve society. That is to say, even if the practice does not lead us all the way to the top, which is unlikely for the vast majority of us, all forward motion is worthwhile. Few are willing or interested in the apex, but everyone can follow the practice of Bitter Champagne. Doing so leads only in one direction — toward progressively more morally acceptable behavior.
Singer gave us all a great gift with his simple and profound argument. My hope is that the practice of Bitter Champagne will motivate us to act on our moral responsibility.
 Martin Luther King Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,” Sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, November 17, 1957, accessed October 27, 2020, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/loving-your-enemies-sermon-delivered-dexter-avenue-baptist-church
 This is where practice and theory take a slight departure. Singer believes, correctly I think, that diverting resources spent on luxuries to helping those who are suffering is not “supererogatory” and not charity. For purposes of explaining how attention may motivate action, I believe charitable donations are a likely precursor to more dramatic redistribution.
 It is important to note that we are only talking about one specific type of suffering in the world — suffering for which material resources (typically money) can make a difference. Spiritual, religious, or other ethical doctrines may call on us to try to end all suffering in the world. Those arguments are beyond the scope of this work.