Things not to do, even in pursuit of greater good

July 22nd, 2010
ea, fairtrade, money
In my previous post on giving I wrote that once you've set aside the amount you're going to donate, "you're free to spend it however will maximize your happiness." It's more complex than this, though. Talking to other people about my reasons for not buying ethical food and to Julia recently about chocolate, I think I need to figure something out.

Imagine for the moment that I am writing this blog here in massachusetts in 1810 instead of 2010. I believe that because I have sufficient money to provide for myself and my family, I should be sending the rest of what I earn to my local missionary society to help those unfortunate enough to have been born in regions where christianity is unheard of. [1] I also oppose slavery, and while in massachusetts slavery is not prohibited I think that it is wrong for me to benefit from the slave trade. [2] So what is 1810 jeff supposed to do about the many goods, including staples like sugar, rice, and cotton, that were overwhelmingly produced with slave labor? There are roughly three options:
  1. Buy the cheapest thing, send the money saved to do missionary work
  2. Buy the cheapest thing known not to be produced by slaves (possibly by substituting a different good or by choosing goods made in certain places or by certain trusted organizations).
Assuming that 1810 jeff believes that (1) produces greater good than (2), does he have to support the slave trade? I think he doesn't. 2010 jeff could save money on groceries by waiting in the whole foods parking lot and taking the bags of people who look affluent, justifying it on the grounds that they need the food a whole lot less than other people in other countries need the money I would save by not having to pay for it. That would be wrong. Getting cheaper food by enslaving people, even indirectly, would also be wrong.

While I don't put buying non-organic food in the category of "you should never do it", I think it's possible that buying some kinds of non-fair-trade food goods might belong in that category. The one that Julia brought up was chocolate. Apparently most chocolate is produced under near-slavery conditions. I need to read more about it.

Update 2011-10-05: I don't accept this argument any more. The problem with me stealing food from people in the parking lot is not that "it is wrong" but that it decreses expected happiness. People would respond to my theft, and their responses would be negative. Ending slavery might or might not have been a better use of time and money than funding missions, but one of the two is more cost effective at maximizing happiness (I don't know which one 1810 jeff would have chosen; I'm objecting to 2010 jeff trying to say "both"). So the question with chocolate is whether the benefit of spending more to buy fair trade is greater than the benefit of spending more on an effective charity. And I think the answer is in the charity's favor, by a lot.

[1] This was back before computers could do proportional fonts.

[2] I like to think I would have opposed slavery this actively.

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