Effective Altruism

TED Talks on Mondays are a staple for me. This compelling talk by Peter Singer is wrong. Let me share why.

1. Dr. Singer’s most telling question is founded on the UNICEF statistic that 19,000 children under the age of 5 die from preventable, poverty-rooted causes each day. “Does it really matter that you don’t have to walk around these children as you walk down your street? “I don’t think it does make a morally relevant difference. The fact that they’re not right in front of us… none of that seems morally relevant to me.”

I could not disagree more. Proximity matters. Relationship matters. I am not morally responsible to respond to every person in need, and I have a greater responsibility to those who are nearer to me.

Both Dr. Singer and I make our decision based on our faith. My faith is in Jesus Christ, and his is in humanity.  One of my favorite stories comes from Luke chapter 7. Jesus sees a widow draped over the coffin of her only son. His heart breaks, and he takes pity upon her. Now, I have to imagine that there were thousands of widows all over the world at that exact moment who were grieving a horrible loss. But Jesus took action this time. He was moved by what was right in front of him. 

Another example comes from a parable. Jesus tells the story of a man who is robbed and left for dead. Several religious leaders ignored the dying man, but a Samaritan brings the man to an inn and cares for his needs. Jesus did not tell a story to systematically end robbery. He did not propose a global solution to murder. He told the story of the good Samaritan, not the good statistic.

Statistics are helpful, but they are often used to over-simplify complex social problems. The fact that people are in need right in front of us matters.

2. The lion’s share of Dr. Singer’s talk is about what should be done. What success means, what is right, wrong, good, bad, etc. I believe very strongly that why is the most important question. Towards the end of his argument, Dr. Singer shares why he is motivated to help:

“I’ve enjoyed giving… it’s something that is fulfilling to me. Being an effective altruist helps us to solve the Sisyphus problem.”

Sisyphus is the king in Greek mythology who is sentenced by the gods to eternally roll a rock up a hill, and each time he gets to the top, he has to start over again. I can relate to Sisyphus each time I go to the DMV.

Dr. Singer says that our lives as humans are a bit like a “hedonistic treadmill”. We look to make more money to buy more stuff and make ourselves happy. On this point, I share some of Dr. Singer’s passion.

In stepping off the hedonistic treadmill, we must step somewhere else. What he doesn’t realize is that he’s stepping onto another hedonistic treadmill. Hedonism was proposed as an ethical construct by a student of Socrates. He believed that pleasure is the highest good. This is almost identical to the argument that Dr. Singer makes for giving. Effective altruism is motivated, for Dr. Singer, by an increase in self esteem, meaning and fulfillment. In other words, we give because we feel good, and in feeling good, we place our hope in headonism.

Rather than being motivated for effective altruism that makes me feel good, why not search for being a good steward, recognizing that my brief stay here on earth is not a story for my glory? I am motivated to serve my Lord, and live in a way in which he will say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant”. This motivation means dying to my desire to feel good each time I give.

3. Three people are highlighted as the ultimate examples of giving. Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Melinda Gates. Better than Carnegie or Rockefeller. The Gates Foundation is huge, and they’re doing great work. Their story contains no obvious parallel moral truth for my life. The giving of these people may be record-setting, but they do not give in a way that even closely impacts their standard of living. Also, their extreme wealth makes relationships with the poor practically impossible.

The Life You Can Save is a website that Dr. Singer started to help people make informed giving decisions. If you run the income/giving calculator, a person who earns around $500,000/year should be giving almost 10%, and a person who makes $50k/year should be giving around 2%.  These percentages are nearly meaningless and distract us from the real model of generous living.

What I see in scripture is that generous and sacrificial giving is my Lord’s expectation. Every act of generosity in scripture is tied in relationship (people who know or see other people in need). Giving is a partnership, awash in humility, hospitality, caring, reconciliation, compassion and trust. For Dr. Singer, giving is efficiency and (statistical) effectiveness. Where is the biggest bang for the buck… the greatest ROI?

I actually made an appeal to a mentor recently for the charity I lead. After he said yes, I asked him a little about how he makes his charitable decisions. One of the things he told me was, “I try not to over-think it”.

I know he has thought thousands of hours about why he gives, and thousands more building relationships with who he gives. Over-thinking it is what we do when we don’t have a relationship. Over-thinking is the byproduct of believing that we actually own our money. We are more simple than we think. We do our best giving when we see a need and fill it. The poor, widow, orphan or stranger. We take care of those in front of us, and we expect God to do something greater than our calculations.

Proverbs 3:27 Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.

James 2:15-16 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?



“The Million Dollar Dime” by Dr. R. Scott Rodin – Book Review

Exactly one year ago, I read and reviewed Dr. Rodin’s The Third Conversion. The Million Dollar Dime is the second, in what I hope is a long-running series.

This allegory picks up where our protagonist, Carl, is trying to help several people and organizations who are in great financial need. The story follows Carl as he helps a small women’s shelter (Esther House) put together a campaign to help them buy the home they’ve been renting. An heir to the home decides to sell the house, and she gives Esther House 30 days to come up with $1.2 million.

Carl is also involved in a church that is trying to close a year-end giving gap. Members of the church, particularly the stewardship committee, are infighting and chaffing against the realities of the economy.

Rodin knits these characters together in stunning fashion. Only someone who has navigated the most difficult financial development conversations could have scripted this beautiful novelette. I felt such conviction and empathy for the characters that at times I had to dab my eyes. It is truly a wonderful, powerful story.

Rodin’s books can be ordered from his website at kingdomlifepublishing.com. Sign up for his blog while you are there.

Big Take Away

I am at the Christian Leadership Alliance conference in Orlando. Yesterday I had the honor of sitting with 25 nonprofit (and one for-profit) CEO’s. Several of them were bi-vocational ministers, pastors and nonprofit leaders like me.

What really struck me was the excitement in the room when discussing how these leaders, average age of 55 or so, discussed the idea of how to communicate with people in their teens and twenties.

The problem I see is not a values problem but a process problem. The assumption older leaders make about younger people is that the values of younger people “ain’t what it use to be”. Chronology is the only solid identifier of an individual. The kicker is that youth today can’t be categorized and grouped like youth of any other generation. The trick isn’t to learn to speak to a generation. The trick is to learn to speak to a person.

OK, so There is one more identifier; youth generally don’t care what you wear. The MC last night informed us that “business casual” is the dress code. All I packed were jeans. My mission for the rest of the trip is to connect with other jean-wearers and make them feel welcome. Don’t let the man get you down.

The Teleios Man

It’s been four years since the death of one of my closest friends. His name was Sean T., and we met our freshman years at Green River Community College in Auburn, Washington. Sean was a local boy, like me. That’s about where our similarities ended. My family cared for and protected me. His abused and neglected him. Especially his dad.

If you prefer to look away from the ugly underbelly of sin, stop reading. Sean’s dad was a predator. He feasted on the sexual identity of his own son, stripping Sean of innocence, his purpose and his social belonging. Sean opened up his pain to me on the first day we met. He shared how his dad had molested him from his earliest memories. He shared how he had prostituted himself to make money in high school. He floundered for the words to express the anguish he felt… and the shame… from his severely broken relationships.

Sean was new to the faith. He had recently given his heart to the Lord and was attempting to break ties with the friends that would drag him into all kinds of sin. Pot, alcohol (which eventually took his life), lies and other types of evil were a perpetual temptation. Through me and my friends, we loved Sean with a love he had never known. He expressed how much  he loved to belong to our group.

Sean’s social awkwardness was compounded by ADHD, obesity and very low self esteem. People sometimes ran away as though he had the plague. I sometimes wanted to run too. I knew that I would never know the full extent of the grace Sean was given, and somehow, the Lord let his grace flow through me to Sean.

When his liver finally gave out, I was at Harborview Hospital by his side. I encouraged him to stop fighting and be with Jesus. His mom flew up for his well-attended funeral, and as we ate together before the service she made this comment:

“When someone does that to a child, they kill the soul and let the body walk around.”

What she hadn’t seen was the restoration work God had done to redeem Sean’s soul over the years. Sean was working on becoming complete in Christ, a “Teleios Man” as my friend Larry Titus would say.

In his book of the same name, Larry writes about mentoring and helping men to be complete. We’re all born into a broken state; broken relationships with sin-infused desires. Teleios is the Greek word for complete or finished. Larry writes about his experiences and expertise in mentoring men towards completeness in Christ. Some of these men are more wounded and abused than my friend Sean.

My challenge is not to figure out if I’m better or worse off than other guys. I’m challenged to live the most complete life I can, centered around my pursuit of God. My passion is getting as many men around me going in the same direction. I really don’t care if I’m at the front or the back of the line. I care about which line I’m in.

Do you have a Sean in your life? Are you being mentored and mentoring? At church about a year ago, the pastor singled me out to point out that I intentionally mentor younger men. He commented from the pulpit that I was probably mentoring at least three or four men. A quick mental tally (this isn’t really something I regularly tally) and I had the actual total: 12. Nice biblical number. I’m proud of those men. I love sharing my life with them, and I really love seeing their lives become more complete because of Jesus working through me.

Colossians 1:28-29 “Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus. To this end I labor, struggling with all His energy, which works so powerfully within me.”

The Great Reversal

The Great Reversal was coined by historian Timothy L. Smith. This term identified the shift of many evangelicals away from social concern to individual concern. Put another way, the emphasis of Christianity for the majority of those in the United States and the United Kingdom during the early part of the 20th century shifted. One hundred years ago, Christians en mass abandoned their passions for social concern and works to individual concern and grace.

I believe in sola gratia and most followers of the faith overwhelmingly agree that justification comes through grace alone. However, the very example of Christ’s love, compassion and evangelism, is depicted by a Christ who bore man’s physical burdens as well as spiritual pain.

Many Christians I know dislike the welfare system; I would list toward counting myself among them. The problem is that my spiritual forefathers created the need for the system by abandoning their social concern in favor of pursuing individual spiritual concerns. The Great Reversal preceded, and I believe paved the way, for the modern Government-run/taxpayer funded system of socialist care we provide in the United States. Our current bother was birthed by the impotence of the churches of yesteryear.

C.S. Lewis noted that we don’t have a soul, we are a soul. We have a body. The problem with an over-emphasis on souls is that we forget that the quickest way to a soul is through the body. Prayer changes things in the spirit, but so does a much-needed bandage to the flesh change things in the spirit.

This is not a political, psychological or sociological problem. This is a theological issue. Does the church have, and more importantly, do Christians have a primary charge to provide relief to the poor?

Matthew 19:21

Luke 11:41

Acts 4:34

Our responsibility is not social justice debate. We are in a prolonged exegetical and theological affront to our stewardship theology, primarily as it relates to our personal comfort. Can we domesticate Jesus to the point that we no longer try to look like him, but mold him into our image? We don’t need social justice, we need Jesus justice. The kind that would bring a grown man to his knees, willing to give his shirt, his job and his life for the kingdom. The kind of reckless abandon to the faith that makes it really difficult for people in need to not believe in God.

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