Friday, December 14, 2007

It's Never Enough Until Your Heart Stops Beating

Aaron Swartz quotes a paper by Louis Pascal posing a thought experiment. I wonder if many find this argument emotionally unsatisfying. It doesn't feel that one causes the starvation of others just by consuming one's income. And, although giving to charity may help a few, nothing is systematically changed.

But perhaps this is all self-justification. Aaron's argument reminds me of some of Blaise Pascal's mockery of the Jesuits. It is hard to approach how Pascal says they made morality all too easy to live up to:
"I mentioned, at the close of my last letter, that my good friend, the Jesuit, had promised to show me how the casuists reconcile the contrarieties between their opinions and the decisions of the popes, the councils, and the Scriptures. This promise he fulfilled at our last interview, of which I shall now give you an account.

'One of the methods,' resumed the monk, 'in which we reconcile these apparent contradictions, is by the interpretation of some phrase...'

'Take another instance: It is said in the Gospel, "Give alms of your superfluity." Several casuists, however, have contrived to discharge the wealthiest from the obligation of alms-giving. This may appear another paradox, but the matter is easily put to rights by giving such an interpretation to the word superfluity that it will seldom or never happen that any one is troubled with such an article. This feat has been accomplished by the learned Vasquez, in his Treatise on Alms, c. 4: "What men of the world lay up to improve their circumstances, or those of their relatives cannot be termed superfluity; and accordingly, such a thing as superfluity is seldom to be found among men of the world, not even excepting kings." Diana, too, who generally founds on our fathers, having quoted these words of Vasquez, justly concludes, "that as to the question whether the rich are bound to give alms of their superfluity, even though the affirmative were true, it will seldom or never happen to be obligatory in practice."'" -- Blaise Pascal, "Letter VI", Provincial Letters (trans. by Thomas M'Crie
(Letter XII is also on topic.)

One can react in various ways to the raw need that prevails so much throughout the world. I don't think I am very charitable, but you would think otherwise based on the organizations that feel it is worth their while to send me solicitations. A friend of mine adopted several children and founded his own charity. I never asked him his motivation.