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
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
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
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
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