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Pippa’s dilemma: the moral demands of affluence

By Scott MacInnes - posted Thursday, 25 October 2012


Last week ABC’s Life Matters ran an intriguing segment on their ‘Modern Dilemma’ series, which could pose a serious challenge to us all. This was Pippa’s dilemma, as presented by Natasha Mitchell.

I would dearly love to re-visit some of the great art galleries of Europe. I have no doubt this would be a very enriching experience for me personally. I have been able to save enough to make this overseas trip, about $6,000.

But here’s the rub. 

I could spend the money in this purely self-indulgent way and travel abroad. I could argue that I already do my fair share towards alleviating world problems, by giving 10% of my aged pension (my only income) to charity, by reducing my consumption of animals by 90%, by conserving energy usage, recycling, driving less, walking more and so on, (none of which, I should add, has caused me any hardship).

I could genuinely claim that the travel is for a high spiritual purpose.

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Alternatively, I could choose to give away these surplus funds in the belief that, if enough other people did likewise, it would certainly help alleviate the suffering of some of our fellow human beings who we know to be in much more desperate need than ourselves.

By doing so, I would also avoid further burdening our planet by embarking on unnecessary air travel that pollutes our environment and unsustainably uses up precious limited resources.

Years ago I would not have given this matter a second thought. I would have felt entitled to spend my money as I liked. But now my conscience won’t let me do it so easily.

Damon Young, a guest panelist, began by describing Pippa as a ‘secular saint’ but also made an impassioned plea for the value of art, its potentially profound effects on the individual, its vital importance to society and its need to be supported.

He got closer to her dilemma when he described Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer prizewinning photo of a starving child in Africa being shadowed by a vulture – a profoundly moving image, considered to be of great aesthetic value. However, he agreed with philosopher Munroe Beardsley that the life of that child was of infinitely greater significance than any aesthetic experience we may get from viewing such an image.

Doris McIlwain, the other guest panelist, felt that in some way Pippa was asking them to come between her and her conscience. She agreed with her that there was no real argument against saving lives versus flitting around the globe to view artworks. But she thought there was a good question here about the limits of personal sacrifice for others. A person also needs to invest in their own self-flourishing, to enhance their own being and not sacrifice too much.

Reading Pippa’s later comments on the website, it is clear that she values art just as much as Damon and that she is very committed to enhancing her own being. For Pippa, this pilgrimage to the sacred sites, which hold the greatest works of art ever created, would clearly be a profound spiritual experience. It would enlarge her own being immeasurably and would most likely have significant flow-on effects for others.

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But how should she weigh this against her equally strong compassion for those suffering souls much less well off than herself? Particularly when also confronted by her clear awareness of the scale of the environmental problems facing the planet, for which she feels partially responsible?

Socrates may have been right when he said that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ but Pippa’s dilemma exemplifies the profound difficulties of living out such a conviction in the modern world. In a sense she is, as Doris suggests, the living embodiment of what Garrett Cullity describes in his book as ‘The Moral Demands of Affluence’.

In a provocative essay written over 40 years ago, Peter Singer suggested the following principle may be of some help: if it is within our power to act to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, then we have a moral obligation do so.

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About the Author

Scott MacInnes has a background in teaching, law and conflict resolution. He is now retired and lives in Tasmania.

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