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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #34, 11/27/2006

How to Change the World... Your Way

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

Our noblest goal in life is to improve the lot of humanity. On our deathbed, we want to be able to say that the world is somehow better now than if we had never lived. We also want to say that we did the most we could with the resources we had and that nothing significant was wasted.

The only question now is how to go about it. Should we take the Mother Theresa route where we hole ourselves up in the slums of Calcutta, giving everything we have to the destitute? Or is there some other way to help the world, without the obvious self-sacrifice?

As an alternative, we could follow the Bill Gates blueprint where we make gazillions of dollars in the cutthroat world of business and then turn around and give it to worthy causes. That's okay, as long as you are comfortable in the world of business and what you are doing there isn't causing any harm. If a big casino company uses some of its profits to fund treatment programs for problem gamblers, that isn't really charity on the whole, because it is just repairing some of the damage the company itself caused.

We can go about helping humanity in one of two directions. One is the microscopic approach, where we try to improve our own family, neighborhood and city, interacting personally with the people we are helping. The advantage of this approach is that we get a lot of direct feedback on what we are doing. We can see which techniques work and don't work, and when they do, we get some immediate emotional satisfaction from it. Foster parenting is a microscopic effort, as is volunteering at a homeless shelter or giving to a local charity whose works we are personally involved with.

The other approach is macroscopic, where you are concerned with helping humanity on the whole. Maybe you join the staff of the United Nations and try to figure out what is best for the health of whole countries, or you might become a scientist and try to develop new medicines or foodstuffs to reduce human suffering. Macroscopic efforts have the potential for improving many more lives that microscopic ones, but these systems are also very complex, and you are less likely to know if you have really done any good for the planet.

You may come up with a method to grow food crops from seawater, feeding thousands of people who would otherwise starve, but that breakthrough isn't going to help the planet if those thousands starts reproducing and eventually outstrip the new food supply. Everything you do on the macroscopic level is likely to have unintended long-term consequences that you have little control over. On the macroscopic level, there are no easy answers to anything.

Mother Theresa is microscopic. Nuns like her are running orphanages around the world, helping abandoned children survive. Microscopic efforts, however, tend to overlook the big picture of how these efforts will play out over history. If the Catholic Church opposes birth control, for example, then anything its charities do with orphans is spitting into the wind, since a new batch of unwanted children will be coming along right after this one.

Macroscopic efforts, on the other hand, tend to be pompous and ineffective. How do we solve world hunger? Let's hold a televised concert! Everybody sings along and feels good about giving, but nobody thinks about where that money is going or whether it is really effective in the long run.

Your own role in the world is very limited. You basically have only a single resource: your time on earth. You want to get the most you can from your resource, but moving to the slums of Calcutta might not be your cup of tea. Is there any hope for us heathens who want to give the most we can to humanity but who aren't fond of pain?

Yes, there is! It involves a mixing of the microscopic and the macroscopic. Getting the most from your resource is more than just giving, you also have to be smart about how you give, and smart takes time and doesn't always move in a straight line.

You don't have to graduate from high school and immediately join a convent, giving every moment of your time to serving the destitute. That's painful, and it's also dumb. In reality, raw charity like this rarely helps anything over time, because certain problem clients are going soak up all of your efforts while doing little to help themselves. Giving up all your freedom to a raw charity would be purely microscopic because you haven't learned how to work the macroscopic yet.

There is something to be said for education and life experience. If you went to college instead of the convent, you would have an opportunity to learn about psychology, social systems and statecraft, as well as meeting, in dorms and fraternities, some of the self-destructive people you will eventually be dealing with. Helping a single person isn't necessarily your highest goal, but helping groups of people takes subtlety and intelligence that don't come to you instantly. The fact is, you have to have to kick around in the world a bit before you really know how to help it.

"Giving your all" isn't necessarily the best use of your resource. You also have to take time to maintain yourself, learn about the world and hone your skills. There is no sense in giving 100% of yourself to others, since this will only drain you, sidetrack your personal development and ultimately destroy your ability to help anyone in the future. Giving 25% might be more effective and sustainable, with the rest being used for your own development and self-maintenance.

Your life is your tool or instrument by which all good works are accomplished. You can't neglect the maintenance of this device, or all productivity will cease. If, for example, you die trying to save someone else, that doesn't improve the world any. It also doesn't help anyone if you totally burn out on what you are doing, so that you end up falling ill or quitting in disgust. If you are dead or drop out, you can't help anyone anymore, so staying alive, physically healthy and mentally fit ought to be a top priority.

You also don't help anybody if you're stupid. If you don't have a coherent, realistic, field-tested philosophy for giving, then chances are your efforts will be wasted. You will spend your resources trying to solve one problem only to create another in its place. Gaining the appropriate wisdom takes introspection, experience and time. It is not like you need to be helping people every minute of the day. Sometimes, one thoughtful, experienced, significant act can accomplish more than working for a lifetime in a slums of Calcutta.

Giving to a major charity is a blind and risky solution, because you aren't choosing the goals and don't have direct feedback about how effective the efforts are. Effectiveness isn't just a matter of trying to do good but of carefully monitoring the results and fine-tuning your efforts until they really work. This is where the macroscopic must always be seasoned with the microscopic. To be effective, you have to thoroughly understand the environment in which you are operating, and this requires interacting with real people in the field, not just studying theory.

Your chosen Good Work should be a middle ground. It is a place where, due to your personality and background, you are both comfortable and effective. No matter how much you may be needed overseas, your most productive charity is probably close to home, because this is the environment you know and are the most efficient in.

Charity doesn't have to be painful. If it is, then maybe you aren't operating with the appropriate grace, wisdom and creativity. Whatever solution you come up with for yourself ought to be unique and organic, something that grows naturally from your personality and your own experience and that, for you, is comfortable, sustainable and guilt-free.

You aren't Mother Theresa, and you shouldn't be aiming for sainthood. You just want a way of giving to others that works right for you. On your deathbed, there probably won't be an accounting, and God, if He is compassionate, will probably love you no matter you have done. So in the end it's just you and the problem: how to get the most from your instrument.

—G.C.




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