Book Review — The Millionaire Next Door

If you haven’t read the book, I’m going to spoil it in one sentence: most millionaires are working-class small-business owners with frugal lifestyles.  The underlying principle — blindingly obvious in hindsight — is that to accumulate wealth, you need to spend less than you make.  The working-class millionaire doesn’t spend much to maintain his lifestyle or keep up with the neighbors.  On the other hand, the high-income professional may adopt a lavish lifestyle which prevents him from actually saving money.

The Millionaire Next Door reads like a modern-day book of Proverbs.  It contrasts financial fools and the wise, and none of the advice is new or surprising.  My main criticism of the book is that it defines new acronyms UAW / AAW / PAW to describe Under, Average, and Prodigious Accumulators of Wealth.  It’s a mental strain to read paragraphs filled with these acronyms.  I’m not linking the Wikipedia entry to the book because the use of acronyms makes a number of points unclear or simply wrong.  The authors suggest that an Average Accumulator of Wealth (AAW) should have a net worth equal to one-tenth their age multiplied by their current annual income.  That formula unfortunately doesn’t work well for young people who only recently entered the working world.

While a million dollars sounds like a lot of money to accumulate, it’s surprisingly in reach of many people.  In one Lazarus at the Gates session, we used an Excel spreadsheet to add up the total amount of money we could save by making simple lifestyle choices.  For example, you might decide to have a frugal yet meaningful wedding.  Or as another example, you might decide to put your two children in public school instead of private school for grades 1-12.  At an average annual tuition of $20k, this works out to 2 x 12 x 20k = $480k, close to half a million dollars in today’s money.  If you assume a 6% annual increase, the total cost would be $675k.

The book heavily criticizes subsidizing the lifestyles of children who have grown into adults — it coins the term “economic outpatient care” for this practice.  By teaching grown children that they can spend beyond their income, parents are passing on foolish values.  As a result, these grown children  are much less likely to save money and accumulate wealth.

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37 thoughts on “Book Review — The Millionaire Next Door

  1. As a follow-up to your comparison of the difference between sending kids to private vs. public school, I wonder if–taking this idea to its arguably logical extreme–we could just not have kids at all. If raising 2.7 kids in the Western world, according to some research (http://www.boston.com/community/moms/blogs/child_caring/2009/11/how_much_does_it_cost_to_raise_a_child_1_million.html), can cost up to $1 million over 24 years (assuming you send him/her to college and invest in other non-essential expenditures such as sports lessons, etc.), then we could choose not to have any children and save (and therefore donate) up to $1 million over a 24-year period, which is a pretty phenomenal sum.

    I say this with the full recognition, however, that I’m not particularly interested in having children myself. Friends and family who would like to/already have children–and who no doubt outnumber me–cite personal reasons such as fulfillment/joy and having “a retirement plan” as well as moral reasons such as perpetuation of the species and economic viability. For example, I’ve been told that everyone in the United States needs to have 2.2 children in order for us to just sustain the U.S. population.

    My questions in response to the latter reasons would then be as follows:

    1. Is it a moral imperative–a mandate from God–for us to perpetuate our species, a la “be fruitful and multiply”?

    2. What would be the full spectrum of economic and other implications of being underpopulated?

    In other words, what’s to stop us from choosing not to have children and to give all of those savings away instead? Is it a human right–or is it a human privilege–for us to have children just because we want them? It concerns me, on a number of levels, that the societal default for people my age (and a bit older) is to have biological children, when some parents may not be ready (emotionally, financially, spiritually or otherwise) and when there are so many other people, including children–some without parents, in need. And even if it is a right, does it mean that must always exercise it? For example, I do not currently exercise my right to bear arms.

    Whew… now that nobody I know will ever want me to baby-sit for them, I’d love to hear your thoughts, Ed, along with anyone else’s. 🙂

  2. Ada, thanks for contributing this wonderful thought.

    I myself have been thinking hard about the rationale behind having children in the context of being quite aware of the vast numbers of orphaned, needy, and underprivileged children that already exist in this world. Because I think it is just as strong a call for people without children to help others with the care of children as for parents to take care of their own children, I’ve been trying to get getting involved with nonprofits with safe-familes.org and http://www.youshare.org to try to support needy families.

    In that spirit, I think that the rhetoric in evangelical/conservative Christian circles must more seriously emphasize the theology of adoption when thinking about what God has done for us by adopting as children into His Kingdom… because a natural, practical extension of that is to think about adoption of needy, unworthy people, whether partial or real, in this world.

    • Thanks for that very practical response, Stina! I agree with you about adoption becoming the natural (and morally consistent) extension of our theology, and I will definitely look into these nonprofits you mentioned.

  3. Thanks for the thoughts! I personally believe it’s a fundamental human right to marry and to bear, adopt, and raise children.

    As for the cost of raising a child, I regard it as an investment in the future of this world, as well as the Kingdom of God. I have the hope and expectation that my child(ren) would make that investment worthwhile, and more so than any alternative investment (like a charity). And whether I adopt or not, I’d be investing the same amount of money.

    • Thanks for your reply, Ed.

      Hmm… perhaps this is the latent Peter Singer/utilitarianist in me kicking in, but if raising a child is an investment in the future of this world and there are number of parent-less children waiting to be raised, would it make more economic sense for us to raise adopted children rather than our own biological ones? This is because the opportunity cost of bearing and raising our children is that another child–who has already been born–may not be raised at all when he/she could just as equally be an investment in the Kingdom of God?

      My question assumes that our biological children by virtue of their genes do not have an inherent advantage over other children in becoming worthy investments in the Kingdom of God.

      (The above also assumes financial and other resources on our part such that parents could not bear and adopt a limit-less number of children with no opportunity cost whatsoever, but I don’t think that’s an unrealistic assumption to make.)

      • The utilitarian view is complex if you believe in the fundamental human right to raise children. Let’s assume the world consists of 10 couples, each of whom have the resources to raise one child. Say one couple is irresponsible and gives birth to 9 children with no means to support them. By asking the other 9 couples to adopt these children, you’re taking away their right to raise their own children as well as rewarding irresponsible behavior of the child-bearing couple.

        Without the fundamental human right to raise your own children, sterilizing the poor is the simplest way of eliminating poverty in one generation — clearly a morally objectionable policy. By allowing people to bear and raise children in poverty, you get to the tough issues I brought up in my post, “Think of the Children.”

        Peter Singer himself does not advocate strict socialist equality. He says that if people are living in comfort, then they should work to alleviate abject poverty rather than increase their own comfort.

        Finally, adoption is definitely not a no-cost solution to helping with parent-less children. There is a lot of oversight and work required to vet the potential parents and guard against abuse or exploitation. The long wait for adopting newborns points to the existing demand vs. supply. There are also cultural issues — I’ve heard (but can’t find the source) that the U.S. currently prohibits a white couple from adopting a U.S.-born black baby because of these.

  4. I wanted to respond to Ed’s comment about the scenario in which 10 couples have the resources to care for 1 child each and one couple decides to have 9 children.

    I think this is actually a pretty accurate description of the world, except that the 9 couples can actually afford to raise 10 children each but decide to have none or 1 but the one couple with 9 children has only “enough” to raise 0 children according to the living standards of the other 9 couples.

    I think that in a situation in which one poor couple already has 9 children and the other 9 couples are deciding what to do with their lives and resources, those couples who have been moved by God’s grace, and who have a deep sense that having a child is always somewhat of a risky endeavor, would consider adopting a child if the couple feels they cannot adequately provide for that child. Of course, we know the complications: better to adopt as early as possible, etc.

    And of course, I also believe that people should have rights. Rights to have children, to have certain levels of healthcare, educational access, safety, security, etc. It is a dangerous society that does not protect these rights. At the same time, we see that the Christian faith is a mysterious process that often results in people willingly giving up their rights for God’s glory and God’s Kingdom; this economic discipleship blog is a story about us learning to willingly give up our rights to consume our own money for ourselves… rights guaranteed to us by society, but ultimately a right that is itself a grace of God since He technically owns everything. So I think in the context that God is the Creator and also the ultimate “owner” of all things on earth, including biological and non-biological children, the concept of adoption need not sound so radical… just as giving away our hard-earned money doesn’t seem so radical….

    Note: Adoption is often a heartbreaking experience. I know of a few couples who adopted several siblings who were older, and it’s been so painful. I’m not encouraging other people do the same thing. But it’s worth thinking about in the sense of reflecting on how we are unworthy, adopted children of God who cause God continual heartbreak.

  5. These are some thoughts I had as a follow-up to Ed and Stina’s second comments (and, admittedly, after I had a conversation with Stina).

    1. I agree that it is a fundamental human right to decide whether or not to have children and that it would be morally objectionable to forcibly sterilize the poor, as Ed noted. There is a subtle distinction, however, between the right to _choose_ whether or not to bear children for yourself and the right to _have_ children. At the very least, at the most implicit, linguistic-psychological level, the words “right to have children” suggest a sense of entitlement that risks conflating having children with happiness. As Stina pointed out in a separate conversation we had, equating anything (other than God) with our happiness (which is a hackneyed term anyway)–including marriage and having children–puts us at risk of idolatry. And the aforementioned distinction is subtle–but impactful, I think.

    2. Second, I would like to respond to the assertion that bearing children is a fundamental human right by answering my own question in my first comment–that even if something is a right, it doesn’t mean that we have to exercise it. I 100% agree with Stina in that while society may give us rights (e.g. to have healthcare, to choose to have children), we as Christians in particular can be moved by God’s grace to give these up for the sake of loving one another–and also because ultimately, societal rights notwithstanding, we owe everything to God. So, just as many of the readers of this blog have been blessed with the financial/educational _privilege_ of giving up our societally given right to live very comfortably in order to give our money away, I believe that we may out of God’s grace be moved to give away the right to bear our own biological children in order to adopt other children of God.

    In particular, the verse that comes to mind is 1 Corinthians 8, in which Paul describes how even though there’s nothing wrong with eating meat (i.e. he has a right to eat meat if he wants to), he will not eat if his eating meat would cause his brothers to stumble. So, he lays down his right for his brother, I wonder if we as Christians are similarly called–in some cases–to lay down our rights to having biological children for the sake of, say, other families who may not be able to support their children for one reason or another.

    P.S. I just had an epiphany as I was writing this! If I were to logically define the right in question as the right to _choose_ whether or not to have children (vs. the right to _have_ children), then actually, we are exercising our rights when we give up having biological children; we are exercising our right to choose not to. In this paradigm, we do not lose our rights at all!

  6. Also wanted to throw out there that the attitudes of more enfranchised parts of American society (particularly older white adults) towards the younger generation, which are increasingly becoming more and more diverse (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/05/us/05census.html), will play critical role in shaping public policy (esp. regarding healthcare and education) towards this more colorful, different, younger generation.

  7. A few points about Singer and utilitarianism that might be helpful.

    1) Singer is a “preference utilitarian”. Which means he thinks that the morally correct choice is the choice that has the best consequences. And the best consequence is the result that satisfies the most preferences of most people.

    2) Singer does not believe that talk of “rights” is helpful in thinking about morals.

    Generally, you can’t violate someone’s “right” to something, no matter what overall benefits might come about.

    But utilitarians claim the overall benefits are all that matter. In general, anything may be justifiable (even killing innocent people), as long as the action improves overall consequences.

    3) This means there’s really no such thing as a “right to have kids” under the utilitarian perspective. There are only individual persons’ *preferences* to have kids, and these preferences can be outweighed by other, more strongly-held preferences. (like the preference not to starve).

    4) Would a utilitarian advocate mass sterilization? Perhaps. But it’s not clear why any utilitarian should think we should target *poor* people.

    This is because one major point in favor of utilitarianism is its commitment to *equality*. Nobody’s preferences count more than anyone else’s. Rich or poor, white or black, male or female: your preferences count the same.

    So everyone’s preference to have kids is just as significant as everyone else’s. If the solution is to sterilize people, the utilitarian is going to want to sterilize everyone. (Or, alternatively, everyone will have an equal chance of getting sterilized.)

    5) Your example seems to involve twenty adults (10 couples) and 9 kids (all from one couple), but enough resources for exactly 30 people (one child per couple). The utilitarian answer seems pretty simple: pick one family at random: they get to have one more kid. Then sterilize all the adults, and everyone helps out to raise the kids. This is the option which produces the best overall outcome, considering the preferences of *everyone* (including the children).

    This solution assumes we don’t care about what happens with genetic problems for the grandkids. But that’s an artifact of your setup: your world includes only 20 adults with resources for only 10 humans in the next generation: that spells genetic trouble no matter what.

  8. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments and discussion. I agree that a major theme in Christianity is to give up your own “rights” for a higher purpose, as exemplified by the kenosis of Christ himself. What I worry about is taking such voluntary action and turning it into public policy with disastrous results. I often wonder why the Christian and morally right thing to do on an individual level fails when turned into a broad rule or law.

    As an example, Christ asks us to give our cloak to those who have none. But if that were made into law, no one would have an incentive to buy cloaks and instead demand them from the cloak-haves. This leads to the type of atrocity as seen in China’s cultural revolution.

    To bring it back to the example of adoption, I do believe that if someone has the heart and calling to adopt children, then that’s a great way to serve the poor. It’s quite a serious calling, much like becoming a missionary or committing to live at a living wage and giving away the rest.

  9. If it were a law that everyone must give their cloak to anyone who asks, wouldn’t it be trivial to get your cloak back by simply asking? I don’t see how atrocities would follow. And if cloaks are a *necessity*, then maybe everyone should have at least one, anyways.

    Jesus’s talk about cloaks in Luke 6 seems to be about rewarding thieves by giving them more than they were able to steal. This is more radical than your proposal. Maybe what Jesus really meant is captured in Matthew 6, where the instruction seems to be: give those who sue you more than they were awarded.

    • I think the way forceful redistribution has played out in modern history has been more violent and less pedantic. Meaning there’s no “give me my cloak back” but rather “let’s loot the rich and then kill them.”

      • You create problems when your means of implementation is lynch mobs. It doesn’t matter what policy you’re trying to implement.

        Forceful redistribution can work when the government enforces it through taxation. Many countries with the highest tax rates also have the least inequality and the happiest people. (e.g., Denmark)

        In any case, I don’t know of cases where a country really tried to implement Jesus’s recommendations.

  10. Great to see so much discussion on adoption!! I agree with Ed that adoption is a serious calling. And if we really want to make an impact and care for children who have no parents, we would go even further in giving up our rights to have our own biological children and ONLY consider adopting children who are 5 or older.

    Most countries have a long waiting list of parents who want to adopt only babies. In Costa Rica, nationals wait about 2 years for a baby. And because there’s such a high demand for babies (families will pay thousands of dollars to adopt), the system is open to corruption.

    We had a family visiting last week from Guatemala who are now fostering 9 children. They shared that even though the U.S. shut down intercountry adoptions from Guatemala in 2007 (due to the Guatemalan government not complying with the regulations of the Hague Intercountry Adoption Convention), there is still a large black market for babies. One of their friends decided to foster with the hopes of adopting a baby, only to find out a few months later that the child was actually kidnapped from her parents.

    It’s the older children, the ones who are no longer considered “adoptable”, who really need a family. And it’s the families I know who have adopted these children who have my wholehearted respect and admiration as they respond to Jesus’ invitation to care for the orphan.

    • Thank you for educating us on the realities of adoption practices and actual needs, Jodi. I know that I personally am guilty of liking children who are younger by virtue of their being seemingly more adorable, so I’m glad you pointed out where the need really is. If you’d be up for it, I would love to read a guest blog post from you some time that scopes the need for adopting older children and perhaps profiles in greater depth families who have done so.

      • Thanks for this comment. My husband and I feel blessed that we found each other while we were young and have time to save money, pray, and consider the opportunity to domestically adopt or foster children. My Dad was an orphan, and through Catholic charities, my Grammy was able to adopt him while he was still an infant. Previously, I had only considered adopting an infant, but after working with a lot of urban youth who are shuffled in and out of foster homes… it wakes me up to the growing needs for foster families. Had I not moved to the city and spent time with youth from the city, I don’t know if I would have come to this realization. Thanks for your post, Jodi!

        -Candice

    • A friend of mine was the executive director of International Orphans Foundation, which focused on placing older children with adoptive parents.

      http://www.orphansfoundation.org/

      It looks like they’ve since shifted focus. From their website:

      “From 2000 to 2007, IOF focused on orphan adoption. While many orphans were welcomed into permanent homes and loving families during that time, IOF has since focused on sponsorship of orphans in Christian family-style children’s homes.

      In April of 2008 first Children’s Home was opened in Barwani, India. By the spring of 2009, eleven more Children’s Homes had been established throughout the country. In 2010, IOF opened its India Headquarters in New Delhi.”

  11. Ed,

    I guess I feel your thought (that it’s wrong to force people not to have kids) doesn’t really address the worry that Ada and Christina have voiced.

    Christians think lots of things are wrong, things which shouldn’t be legally prohibited. (Take premarital sex, for instance. Or dishonoring your father and mother.) The fact that x shouldn’t be legally prohibited doesn’t make x okay.

    The question is whether it’s *wrong* to choose to have a kid when it’s an option to adopt. You clearly think it’s not wrong to decline to adopt, but I’m still not sure why.

    Actually, it’s now very unclear to me what this blog thinks about the moral status of “simple living for just giving”. I thought from previous posts that you guys are saying it’s *wrong* for the rich to continue spending on themselves when there’s extreme poverty around.

    Now, I’m starting to think your position is much more modest: just as we do *no wrong* when we decline to adopt, the rich do *no wrong* in spending on themselves. It would just be a good thing (or a “special calling”) for the rich to give more to the poor.

    • Hey Ang, thanks for your question. My own view is that right and wrong are shades of gray on a spectrum (see my post: https://economicdiscipleship.wordpress.com/2010/10/27/the-all-or-nothing-fallacy/ .

      So it’s not a matter of commission or omission as Christina writes below, but rather the moral quality, say rightness or wrongness of an action. In that context, I would say that the more a rich person spends on himself to the exclusion of the poor, then the more wrong it is. Buying a Ferrari is worse than buying a Lexus, which is worse than buying a Camry, which is worse than driving your old car, which is worse than biking or walking. But in the end life is complex and we make concessions and draw a line in the sand. One example of such a line is to live at the “living wage” referenced many times in this blog.

      Back to the matter of adoption, I would say that adopting an older orphan is better than adopting a newborn whose parents can’t care for him, which is better than direct Big Brother / Big Sister involvement, which is better than donating to a charity for children, which is better than clicking a Facebook “Like”, which is better than not caring at all.

      From my shades-of-gray perspective, I would see adoption of older children as a moral high ground that is out of reach of most people, even most readers of this blog. Maybe it’s the same order of difficulty as a vow of poverty or long-term missions. So I find it hard to recommend in the general case. The whole question of rights and legality has confused the issue, so I hope this comment clarifies it instead.

      Finally, the different authors on this blog all have slightly different takes, which makes the discussion so interesting!

      • Ed:

        You say, “right and wrong are shades of grey on a spectrum”.

        Wow. I didn’t realize the “shades of gray” metaphor was your basic view on right and wrong in general.

        If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re saying that every moral choice of ours is unavoidably sinful (or wrong, or, in your parlance, grey), because there’s always something better we could be doing.

        Is this really your view? I can see why it might be plausible. But I’m straining to see where it’s coming from.

      • Hi Ang, you are understanding me correctly, except that I wouldn’t say *every* moral choice — just the vast majority of them. As to where it comes from, maybe just my own opinion based on my experience and reasoning. Is this a standard (and maybe refuted) belief system within the field of philosophy?

        Laws have different punishments for felonies vs. misdemeanors. And when society changes its threshold for what is too wrong to accept, they change the laws. To me, this is society drawing its own lines in the sand. Similarly we discipline our children according to the degree of infraction.

        I’m curious about your own view. Do you believe that in every moral choice, the actions can be divided into 2 sets: wrong and right (black and white), or maybe there is a white set of actions and then among the wrong ones there are shades of gray?

      • Ed,

        There are certainly *many* moral theories which say that morality is so demanding that nobody ever does what’s right. But if your moral theory has this conclusion, it’s widely taken to be a *problem* for your theory.

        Why? Because it’s generally assumed that “common sense” (what we think before we start philosophizing) tells us that morality is *not* that demanding.

        (Generally, in philosophy, if your view goes against “common sense”, that’s a problem for your view. This is especially true of moral theories.)

        Your take on morality is interesting because you’re happy to accept a conclusion that most philosophers think goes against common sense.

        My own views are still in flux, but I’m inclined to reject your view, for theological and philosophical reasons. I think we have a lot of freedom in life, and only a (relatively) small set of forbidden actions are wrong. Don’t lie, steal, cheat, kill, etc., and you’re fine. Kantian views can give us this conclusion: they provide a plausible “line” that sharply divides right and wrong actions.

        What about Jesus’s example and teaching? On the one hand, he lived a *completely sinless* life, and he seemed to have been an unexceptional kid and carpenter for his first 30 years. If so, this might be evidence against your view, because it shows you can live a fairly normal human life, doing fairly mundane things, without ever sinning at all.

        But of course, Jesus also had 3 years of radical behavior which I *don’t* emulate. And he also has radical teachings in the sermon on the mount, which are hard to understand.

        Is Biblical teaching in line with your view? The clearest counterexample that comes to my mind is 1 Cor 7:25ff, where Paul seems clearly to say that we can do much more good for God if we stay single, but it’s no sin to marry. This seems to me to show that at least one moral choice can be unsinful even though other options would produce better results. Why shouldn’t this generalize to most choices—including the choice to have our own kids and not to adopt, or the choice to give away only 10% of our income when giving away 20% or 30% is feasible and would do more good?

      • Hi Ang,

        A point of clarification: when you characterize my belief as “nobody ever does what’s right”, I would replace “right” with “perfect.” Most people do what’s right by common-sense morality, but rarely do people choose the perfect course of action. Often, it doesn’t even cross their mind!

        If I understand common-sense morality, it would take any given situation, look at a finite set of choices, and characterize each one as right or wrong. For example: you see a wallet fall out of a man’s pocket. Do you pick up the wallet and hand it back to him, or do you take it for yourself?

        The failure I see with common-sense morality is that it doesn’t address how much to help the poor. Common sense would say that if your sibling or friend shows up starving on your doorstep, that you would give them something to eat. But what does it say about the poor living in your city, or halfway across the world? At best, common sense would say the right thing to do is feel bad and give occasionally when you feel like it. Mostly common sense fails because the most common response is to ignore the problem.

        I find it hard to accept your viewpoint of freedom in most things except for a small set of forbidden actions (c.f. the Garden of Eden). What about the Sermon on the Mount (which you noted is difficult to understand) where murder is connected to anger, and adultery to lust? It’s wrong to commit adultery, but what about sending a shirtless picture of yourself in response to a Craigslist ad? http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/10/AR2011021004509.html
        What about responding in the first place? Mulling over the decision about responding? Browsing the ads in the first place? Thinking about browsing the ads? Which one of these is morally permissible (right), and which ones are forbidden?

        From your example of 1 Cor 7:25, I would take that as evidence for my view that some actions are better than others. Whether the worse action counts as “sinful” or “permissible” I would leave up to God, and whether something is “legal” or “illegal” I would leave to the lawyers. Another example would be Luke 10:42, where Jesus commends Mary without saying Martha is sinful.

        Finally, I wouldn’t interpret the relative dearth of canonical writing about the childhood of Jesus as “normal childhood = sinless.” It’s likely that the authors of the Gospels didn’t feel like most of his childhood was relevant, except for the part where he runs away from his parents for a few days. 🙂

      • Ed,

        You bring up a *lot* of points; I’ll try my best to respond to each.

        1) I accept that some actions are better than others. What I’m inclined to reject is the view that says (the right act)=(the perfect act)=(the best act). My basic claim is: you can (usually?) choose a less than perfect action and yet remain perfectly sinless in making that choice.

        This means it is often *not at all wrong* (or sinful, or bad) to fail to make the best (or perfect) choice. The clearest, most biblically supported example of this is the choice to marry instead of remaining single so you can devote all your attention to serving God.

        2) I’m still working through my own view on poverty.

        I *want* to say: A) our duty is to contribute our “fair share” to alleviate overall, global poverty (this is the 0.7% UN target).

        And if others aren’t doing their fair share, thus leaving poor people around, we will have B) an additional obligation to directly eliminate poverty among those with whom we have some special relationship (friends, family, colleagues, those close to us, etc.)

        So, my recommendation is: You’ve done enough when you send 0.7% of your income to the UN, lobby to get the government to meet the .7% target, and work to make sure nobody with whom you have an independent relationship is suffering from poverty.

        I don’t know if I can defend this, either philosophically or theologically. I’ll have to write a paper. Or two. (I don’t know of anyone else who holds this weird view.)

        3) The Sermon on the Mount is hard. How do you deal with Jesus’s explicit instructions to self-mutilate, which come immediately after the stuff about adultery in your heart?

        As I said, I’m attracted to Kantian views on ethics, which take *slavery* as the starting point for all wrongs. (As Lincoln puts it, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”)

        The basic idea is that all wrongs can be traced to forcing someone else to act for an end she does not share. And sexual gratification is special: the only way you can consent to sex is within marriage.

        (The reason sexual consent requires marriage is because of the psychology of sexual desire, which Kant says is an urge to use another person’s body for the gratification of your own pleasure. To act on such an urge is to use someone as a means to your end, not treating her as an end in herself, which is wrong.

        Sex can be legitimate if you mutually *own* the other person’s body, but transfer of ownership happens only through marriage. My explanation is *extremely* compressed. See Barbara Herman, “Could It Be Worth Thinking About Kant on Sex and Marriage?” in _A Mind of One’s Own_, eds. Louise Antony and Charlotte Witt, Westview Press, 1993. Kant also thinks masturbation is wrong, so the bit about ownership is complex.)

        Anyways, I don’t recall if Herman takes it this far, but I think Kant’s views can help us understand why lust is wrong. It is wrong because your thoughts of someone help you achieve an end (your sexual arousal) which she doesn’t share, and, in fact, *can’t* legitimately share unless she’s married to you.

        Regarding the examples you mention: the wrongness will depend on the psychology of the people; namely, whether sexual titillation between unmarried people is involved. This, I think, is also the Biblical answer.

      • Hi Ang,

        It seems that we agree most acts fall on a spectrum of morality. Your view is that a significant set of those are non-sinful. To quantify it, let’s say morality is on a scale of 1-10, where 10 is perfect. Then maybe a sinful action is anything below 5. So in choosing between an action of 7 and an action of 10, neither is sinful. Am I portraying your view correctly?

        To quote Wikipedia and many sermons I’ve heard on sin:
        “The Greek word in the New Testament that is translated in English as “sin” is hamartia, which literally means missing the target.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_views_of_sin

        Then the question is: Does God give us an achievable target (like the example 5+ on my 1-10 scale), or does he measure us against perfection? I honestly don’t know the answer to this. I can think of examples like the teaching on divorce in the Sermon on the Mount, where God (through Moses) permitted a lesser-moral action because “your hearts were hard”. There’s also the rich young man who asked Jesus how to attain eternal life and was answered in two parts, first to obey the law, and next to sell his possessions. And your example of Paul’s teaching on marriage too.

        I’d like to believe that God gives different thresholds to different people, according to their ability. C.S. Lewis talks about this in Mere Christianity. But I also don’t believe in a purely relativist morality in which it’s ok for the deranged and evil to commit really bad acts. So again I go back to my inability to define God’s notion of sin, or where he draws the line.

        As for the Sermon on the Mount, I interpret the instructions for mutilation as hyperbole. Similar to the way a Tiger Mother might say to her child, “It’s better for you to lose a finger than to not get into Harvard.”

        It’s interesting that you bring up Kant’s focus slavery, since that’s an excellent example where the American founding fathers had “common sense” that slavery was ok. Whereas we are more enlightened now and see that the common sense of the past was insufficient. Similarly, I think our current common sense of how to treat the poor may one day be viewed as insufficient.

        I don’t have many thoughts on sexual morality besides as an example of moral gradations; just working through economic morality on this blog is plenty already!

      • Ed,

        To be precise: I believe we have duties, and it’s wrong to fail to do our duty. But I also think it’s possible to go *beyond* our duty.

        I understood you to be saying that our duty *is* to do the best thing; the only right choice is the perfect one, and anything that falls short is wrong.

        A good description of our dispute is here:

        http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/supererogation/

        My position is called “qualified supererogationism”, while the position I think you’ve adopted is called “anti-supererogationism”.

        I agree that our moral intuitions aren’t infallible. Though, I’m not sure if slavery is a good example of this. If Appiah is right (see link below), people had strong moral arguments against slavery for centuries, and they justified it not through appeal to moral intuition, but to tradition or necessity.

        Anyways, I do agree that it’s possible to make moral progress. But progress is hard, because extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If we want to claim that a commonsensical moral view is wrong, we’ll need to have a strong motivation. I think qualified supererogationism is commonsensical. I’m still not sure what your reasons are for rejecting it.

        OK, so here’s an interesting take on what practices of ours will be condemned in the future:

        http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/24/AR2010092404113.html

        It’s interesting Appiah didn’t mention our attitude towards poverty. Maybe this is because he’s focused on identifying intentional, deliberate actions of ours which we know are wrong yet we refuse to stop. Maybe he sees charity as supererogatory; or maybe he’s happy with the progress we’ve made so far in addressing poverty.

      • Hi Ang,

        Thanks for the link to the articles. I can’t fully digest the one on supererogation, but it does remind me that I need to fix my sprinklers. I do understand why the Calvinist (and modern-day Evangelical viewpoint) would be anti-supererogation, by preaching “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” in the context of moral duty, and that Christ is the forgiveness of these sins and the only means of justification before God. I understand that to mean that the duty for all people is to be sinless, and no one achieves that level, so there is no question of going beyond duty.

        My own position on superegoation is more agnostic. I believe that laws are necessary for a society to function, and that duties are a placeholder or scaffolding for a stage of moral development. But I believe God would like us to get beyond the concept of duty, and to think in terms of gradations of good, and to grow and improve along those lines. If duty is no longer at the forefront of morality, then categorizing acts according to their relationship with the duty-threshold is less important too.

        For example, let’s say I have a 9-year-old son, and I would like him to clean his room before I come home tonight. His duty would be to do as I said, and also avoid worse forms of evil like setting the house on fire. Going beyond his duty would be not only cleaning his room, but also the rest of the house as well. What I really want long-term is for him to take ownership of household cleanliness to the same degree I do, such that we work towards keeping it clean on a regular basis without me having to assign duties.

        Re: Appiah on slavery, I think there are moral arguments about ending poverty now, just as there were arguments against slavery. Back then, there were three views on slavery: actively oppposed (the moralists), actively supporting (those who profited directly), and passively accepting (the vast majority of people, including those who profited indirectly). Anyone not actively opposed could cite tradition or necessity as reasons for keeping it. In general, I do agree that extraordinary claims (outside of common sense) require extraordinary evidence and reasoning (like quantum physics). In the current-day situation on poverty, I believe we both have the means (there is enough to go around) as well as a Biblical mandate to end poverty. It’s just that not enough people — even Christians — care enough to be actively involved. I hope that discussions on this blog give us all the means to clarify our thoughts and support each other in our chosen courses of action.

      • Ed,

        I distinguish between facts in general and our knowledge of those facts. Just because we don’t know what something is doesn’t mean it exists. (According to common sense, Neptune didn’t just pop into being after we found out about it; it was there all along, waiting to be found. At least, this is what common sense says.)

        Similarly, I agree that, because we don’t know how to eliminate poverty, I don’t know what my fair share is. But I don’t conclude that “there is no set amount which qualifies as duty.” I insist that there *is* a set amount waiting to be discovered. We’ll know what it is once we come up with a plan to eliminate poverty.

        At least, that’s what common sense tells me. In the meantime, I’ll take my fair share to be determined by the best plan available, which I think is the UN plan.

      • Hi Ang,

        Fair enough. I recognize that duty is a useful benchmark even in the face of unknown or uncertain information. The UN estimate may be lacking, but it’s a start, and I personally don’t have a better plan either.

      • Ed,

        Interestingly enough, I just ran across someone (Jon Garthoff) who claims (as you initially did) that there *is no fact* about what an individual’s fair share is until we have a plan that we know will eliminate poverty. If Garthoff is right, I am mistaken in comparing our “fair share” to things like Neptune. Unlike planets, which exist whether we know about them or not, our “fair share” doesn’t exist until we know how to eliminate poverty.

        His argument, put very simply: we are obligated to alleviate poverty, but to do so we must first solve a “moral coordination problem”: to establish social conventions of behavior which themselves determine *what justice is* for each participant. But since these social conventions can only be established through legal sanction, justice in this matter is determined through legislation. Our duty to give doesn’t materialize until the legislation exists.

        This is one of the more interesting views I’ve come across. (And it’s even wackier than mine!) It seems Garthoff is saying that our obligation to the poor consists *first* in passing legislation which would coercively enforce individual contributions to the poor, and *only then* will individuals have obligations to contribute.

        Anyways, you can find Garthoff’s argument in section 3 of his paper, “Legitimacy is not Authority”. I read it fairly quickly; there’s a chance I misunderstood his position….

        http://www.philosophy.northwestern.edu/people/faculty/documents/Garthoff_4_Not_Authority.pdf

    • Ed,

      We may have found the basic root of our difference. We agree that acts can be ordered along a spectrum of goodness. I take it to be common sense that we can go beyond our duty. From this I infer that there must be some threshold along this spectrum, so that acts below this threshold are wrong and those at or above are not wrong.

      You’re agnostic about whether this threshold exists. I’m still not sure what your reasons are. Perhaps it’s because you think the threshold, even if it exists, is unimportant, because our goal in any case is continuous moral improvement along the spectrum of goodness.

      I am in agreement that we must strive for moral improvement. But I don’t think this shows the threshold is irrelevant: we need moral improvement because we actually do fail to do our duty in numerous ways.

      Two more quick notes about supererogation: 1) It’s generally taken (even among folks who reject supererogation for humans) that God’s act of redemption is supererogatory for God: because of our sin, it wouldn’t be wrong for God to damn everyone. God’s forgiveness is offered out of His grace; it wasn’t offered because God owed forgiveness to us.

      Shouldn’t this mean that Jesus’s radical sacrifice was itself supererogatory? If so, then it’s a mistake to look to Jesus’s radical sacrifice as an indication of what our duty is; it’s an example of what it looks like to go beyond our duty.

      2) I think the Protestant rejection of supererogation is unconvincing. The Catholic problem was the selling of indulgences. They claimed the saints amassed a huge treasure of moral good through their supererogatory acts, and that the Church could sell that good to absolve your sins.

      But I don’t need to reject supererogation in order to reject indulgences. I can say very simply: the “excess” moral good of supererogatory acts can’t be amassed and sold. This might be a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater…

      Finally, two quick notes about poverty: 1) I agree that we act wrongly when we do nothing about poverty. But I think it’s important to distinguish our duty (perhaps: contributing our fair share) and going beyond that duty (which I think includes radical lifestyle changes that allow us to give extravagantly).

      2) It’s not clear to me that we have the means to eliminate poverty now. The problem: we don’t actually know how best to apply resources, even if they suddenly became available.

      We know some ways of distribution cause more problems than good. Does anyone have a comprehensive plan for eliminating poverty, guaranteed not to do more harm than good, which isn’t being implemented solely because the resources aren’t there? If so, I’d like to know what it is.

      • Hi Ang,

        Yes, we’re in agreement about the spectrum of goodness, and only differ in where a line should be drawn to determine duty vs. above-and-beyond. I agree that if there is such a line, it should be common sense that we can go above it. (Unless the line is set impossibly high that no one can achieve it, which is my understanding of Calvinist theology.)

        I reject the notion of duty when it comes to helping the poor largely because of your note #2: that we don’t know how to best apply resources or having a plan for it. Even the 0.7% UN estimate fails in this way. A fair share argument can only be valid if it is part of an overall plan which is valid itself. Or to appeal to the common sense argument: it is common sense that if we can redistribute resources fairly, then our duty is to give our fair share; conversely if we have no actual means of distribution, then it is common sense that there is no set amount which qualifies as duty.

  12. Echoing Ada, would love to read a post from Jodi about adoption, orphan care, and especially the economics/politics/corruption behind adoption and orphan care.

    I also very much agree that we should be particularly concerned about the “unadoptable” and I think more study is needed into the best type of program/intervention for older orphans. In fact it is not clear to me that the best intervention for older children is adoption but I am ready to change my mind if there is evidence to the contrary.

    And to respond to Ang: The Bible is quite clear that there are sins of omission in addition to sins of commission. When thinking about the prospect of adopting older children and seeing my own unwillingness at the prospect, it reminds me of two things: how much of a sinner I am, and secondly, that God adopted us “unadoptable older” orphans into His Kingdom even though we were rebellious, unworthy, and unmoldable… just like Israel in the Old Testament. So I proclaim myself a Christian not because I am so moral or righteous but because I am so immoral and unrighteous and the only reason God would look on me with favor is because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

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