Peter Singer & Mother Teresa

It is difficult to get a liberal arts degree without encountering the thought of Peter Singer, a philosopher at Princeton. Singer is perhaps most widely known for his work on animal liberation, but in pro-life circles he is known as the man who believes that the unborn are just as human as the infant in your arms… and concludes that infanticide is sometimes acceptable.

As a pro-life-every-step-of-the-way vegetarian, I was almost always more confident in dealing with Singer than my meat-eating “animal loving” pro-choice classmates. But there was one argument of Singer’s that I had to accept: it is morally wrong to enjoy excess while allowing others to suffer and die from a lack of resources. Distance is no excuse. Others might insist that distance is everything, and that we help others based on proximity and community. But as a Catholic1, I must accept that we are required to help others because of the inherent value of human life.

The inherent value of human life does not change based on whether a friend’s child is drowning in a nearby pool (yes, I must jump in and save the child, even though it will ruin my fabulous new boots) or a child I have never met is starving halfway across the world (yes, I must forgo buying the boots in order to pay for food and medicine for the child).

Which brings me to Mother Teresa. Rachel reminded me of the popular anti-abortion quote from Mother Teresa:

It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.

I knew that it was out of context to apply the quote to a situation of slightly increasing the chance of miscarriage for women in order to allow them to live with less physical pain, but I try to accept all opportunities to examine my life2.. So I considered what I have done with my body so far this year. I have eaten a lot of white flour. That is not good for growing a healthy baby, but pretty hard to feel guilty about since it was a financial necessity, and it is not likely that simply not eating would have been a better choice for preparing my body for pregnancy. The ramen was slightly less excusable given the unnecessary MSG, but it is hard to believe that such a small amount would actually have a significant impact given the fact that have-I-mentioned I am not actually pregnant?! Maybe it will sit around in my body for years and ruin everything… but that does not seem likely.

I  thought some more and remembered the two times that we stopped at Taco Bell. I looked up the nutrient information for the vegetarian burrito which is my usual choice and still did not feel guilty for harming my body. But what of the money? It was slightly less than $5.00 so far this year, but totally unnecessary. I could have waited until we got home to eat some lentils and bread. And the money could have gone to provide food for someone who really needed it.

I do not in any way feel guilty for making choices with my body which may perhaps someday make me more likely to miscarry a child. I am guilty for failing to provide for real children who exist in this world right now. I do not feel guilty for taking painkillers which enable me to function normally, I am guilty of consuming more than I need rather than giving to others who are in desperate need.

I know that my standard is stricter than Singer’s and that he only insists on giving up gross luxuries. But I am pro-life and cannot believe that my comfort is worth more than another person’s survival.

I also know that I cannot hold myself to an impossibly strict standard or else I will break down and do nothing. It is okay to occasionally buy chocolate, garlic, or avocados even though they are not necessities. I also know that not everyone is called to give up their own material desires so that others may live better lives. But I am not convinced that it is okay for me to do only the minimum required by basic human morality.

These past few months have taught me how little I really need to spend to get by. And I hope to continue living with as little as possible so that we can give as much as is good. We will resume occasionally buying portobello mushrooms, but we do not need to ever return to having expensive dairy products as a regular part of our diet (and all dairy seems expensive to me unless you like pet goats). We will use the air conditioner in the hottest months of summer, but we do not need to have a large apartment or house to keep cool. We will fly or take road trips to see family, and even just to take vacations sometimes, but as we earn more we will give more rather than focusing on what we can acquire to make our lives better materially. I will buy more clothing in order to meet the basic societal expectations of others, but I will not buy things simply because it is fun or cute to have more.

I may never accomplish much, and I will never meet others’ standards for what it means to really be “pro-life” but I can at least meet my own standards of goodness. And for me that means valuing the life of the child in Zimbabwe as much as the child next door. I cannot imagine allowing the child next door to die of preventable disease so that I can eat young Thai coconuts and wear a new skirt. I understand that others will have their own standards, but this is where I fall under the influence of both Peter Singer with Mother Teresa. I hope that you’ll hold me to it.

1. My husband thinks that he can come up with a Thomist argument to counter Singer. I don’t think that he can, but if we continue to differ then we will just have to move to Mexico City. That way we will share the same view of our obligations. Nice, right?
2. While there is the significant reality that I may likely never be pregnant I still find it valuable to make choices as if pregnancy were likely at some point.

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10 thoughts on “Peter Singer & Mother Teresa

  1. Claire

    Thinking through this as I write, so I know this will be a bit rambling…

    This post made me think about how Mother Teresa did not believe in “loving our neighbor less than we love ourselves,” and how she urged people not give the poor their “throw aways” or “hand-me-downs” but to give out of the best that they possessed. (Similar to Thomas Dubay’s exhortation in his book “Happy are you Poor” to give not only out of our surplus, but even out of what we ourselves may need.)

    Now, this is connected, but the next part may seem at first to be a little off-topic. This is what your post made me think about:

    I am a naturally cheap person. Or rather, I was well-conditioned, as a child of missionary parents. :) So I am not inclined to fine dining and all that, but I am quite happy with simple lentil-and-rice meals.

    With my neighbors who are poor, however, I have found myself meditating on the verse about inviting the outcast and the infirm when you throw a banquet, and it seems to me that it is not at all inappropriate to “go nuts” on the poor, a little. Why not be a little extravagant for others who have never been “spoiled” in this way? And by this I don’t mean throwing around money in a way that would draw attention to the disparities between our respective incomes, but I mean simply to take them out for lunch, when I would have just as soon make a couple of sandwiches at home to share. (And it doesn’t have to be a sushi restaurant or anything, either.) Or, to serve a dinner to the poor and include side dishes, a dessert and even a beverage of some kind! This might be a kind of “gluttony” I do not usually allow myself, but for the poor, it might be a kind of lavish generosity that is completely appropriate.

    I see the Missionaries of Charity encouraging this at their shelter for the homeless in my city, and it strikes me as a great kindness. Of course, the missionaries do not join in the meal; they live a very austere kind of life, but they are so genuinely happy and it shows (unlike most of the very sad and desperate women who come through their shelfter).

    On more than one occasion, it has made me wonder: Is it a privilege to deny oneself? And I believe the answer is yes. It is a great gift to be able to voluntarily “fast” in this way in order to feed others.

    1. Rae Post author

      That is such a wonderful point. Refusing to be consumed by consumption allows us to accept the joys of giving, and that is a tremendously positive thing. Perhaps the problem with my post is that I am still working on this and so it sounds as though I am sacrificing rather than simply learning how to live with the happiness of sharing with others.

      And I could not agree more with your idea of lavish generosity. The human spirit flourishes on beauty, both given and received.

  2. Kathleen

    Oooh. Squirming. Especially since I posted today on having fourteen kids over for a Batman party. Even approaching it from a “save $$” standpoint, it’s so clearly one of those excesses that permeate our view of life.

    Someone I know (who shall remain nameless for my sake) forwards the argument that we should throw money around and spend it because that gives poor people jobs. IOW, we should buy two houses and hire a staff to keep the one we don’t live in just b/c then we’re giving people jobs, and that is virtue. This argument infuriates me, but at the same time, when I start spinning out the implications of a radical shift in life–if everyone lived as you do, Rae, or even as we do, which is considerably more lavish despite being simple in comparison to average–what would happen? If people suddenly stopped buying clothes just because, and eating out b/c they don’t want to take time to cook–if everyone held on to their TVs until they went kaput, and their cars until they fell apart…what would that do to the economy? And if companies had to lay off people, wouldn’t that, in turn, cause MORE poverty and distress?

    It’s all too big for me. Really, I think everything’s about being in the middle.

    1. Rae Post author

      It seems to me that different degrees of simplicity are appropriate to different states of and stages in life. I don’t have children, so I should be able to live with a lot less. It is wonderful that you were able to put on such a great party without spending much money. I suspect that it not only blessed your son, but also filled an important role in connecting with friends/neighbors who attended. Some level of “excess” seems necessary to facilitate social connection, and it is as important to take care of others emotionally as physically… so I see no need for you to squirm!

      You are right that there would be a problem if everyone suddenly started living simply. But practically, I don’t think that is going to happen. So if I happen to rush to an extreme it is likely that I am only balancing out one person who is busy consuming as much as possible.

      And for a more ideal theory, if everyone were to consume less of what we don’t need, we could redirect the resources to other things which are currently “too expensive.” Perhaps this person employs people to take care of an extra house, but they could instead be employed to work at a hospital (and there are plenty of people who need more medical care). Instead of people working at fast food restaurants they could work in more labor-intensive sustainable farming. Instead of reading administrative reports at the TV store one could work as a teacher and have a lower student/teacher ratio in our public schools.

      There will always be plenty of work to do, it is simply a question of whether we think that it is better to pay people to work in a Pepsi factory or a plant making tools for small-scale farmers.

  3. Sarah

    I liked this post. I think it really makes you think. I could be wrong here, though, but I do think the Catholic principle of subsidiarism does adhere to the idea that our obligation does vary based on vocation and proximity (if you’re married, your first priority is your husband and kids, then the immediate needs around you, etc). I think the idea behind this principle is to actually *increase* a sense of duty and community… it encourages local communities to take care of one another and recognize the needs and meet them with the practical, natural and creative resources available. It also discourages a victim/hand-out mentality that says “the world owes me/us” or a one-word government mentality that says, “We should just have one huge entity taking care of everyone.”

    Still, your post makes an excellent point about how we still cannot forget the children of the world.

    1. Rae Post author

      I agree that location matters. But I do not think that subsidiarism means that we can look around at our local community, see that all the children are fed, given schooling and medical treatment, and conclude that it is okay for us to enjoy material excess simply because we cannot see those who still have need.

  4. Claire

    I need to retract my statement that my comment was not off-topic. I think it is. It is more of a stream-of-consciousness train of thought about what it has (sometimes) meant for me to be generous to the poor. I need to overcome my cheapness and really Give something that costs something.
    Another example I was thinking of this morning is flowers: when I visit my poor neighbors, I cringe at the thought of “spending money” (as if that were an absolute evil or something), when really bringing a bouquet along with the meal is kind of just a nice thing to do sometimes.
    I hate to admit all of this, it just shows how far I still have to go. (sigh)

    ps: I love Sarah’s comment. I have had similar revelations about family and how unnatural it is to get closed in on one’s own little world of husband and children, and how home/family duties are actually designed to inspire more generosity toward others. For me, that was quite a revelation since for years I bought the line that homemaking was the loss of a woman’s identity, blah blah.

    1. Rae Post author

      I’m not sure about off-topic or on-topic, but I really appreciate your comments. For some reason you remind me of Elizabeth of Hungry (maybe some story about her bringing flowers to peasants?) and that is great.

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  6. Thomas Manning

    I thought I was an overthinker. At some point it does no good to give up take-out vegetarian burritos because you put the people who make and serve them out of work. As Harry’s Hot Dogs used to advertise, “Come in to eat or we’ll both starve!” If there were no excess, you wouldn’t have anything to give away. The modern economy that enables us to feed the starving all over the world begins and continues in excess. As Edwin Land once said, “Nothing succeeds like excess”. We gave up tilling the ground with a stick for a reason. We wouldn’t even have modern hand tools without advances in other areas! I follow the tradition of tithing time, talent, and treasure. I give time to my inmates and my Confirmation candidates. I do architectural work pro bono for St. Maurice, MACC, and WAIM. I write a check to one or two organizations that I trust each week, and I put that first. To do it I had to give up the $100 haircuts and then the $15 haircuts. Now I cut my own hair. I teach my candidates about Pierre Toussaint, and don’t worry about whether the hairdressers will survive. I eat a bowl of oatmeal in the morning and pack a salad and an apple for lunch. When things get so hectic that I can’t even do that, I go to Burger King for a bacon double cheeseburger and don’t worry about the pigs, the cattle, the poor, or my cholesterol. We own a four bedroom house, but it’s the least expensive way to live, and we put it to good use. One of the three children we adopted from the Philippines has left the nest, and the other two will follow soon enough. (I know all about endometriosis. (I know nothing about endometriosis.)) I added ramps and renovated the first floor bathroom so that we could care for my in-laws rather than put them in a nursing home. I tell my Confirmation candidates that when they start earning money they should give 10%, save 10% for retirement (they laugh), save 50% for their education, and spend the remaining 30% to enjoy it. I’m pretty sure that I’m doing the right thing, but it isn’t always pretty.

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