Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Mother Teresa: less charitable than Bill Gates

Bill Gates has done some major good in the world. He's given away billions of dollars to various causes which are undoubtedly worthy. But I think it's safe to say that no one would accuse him of being a man of irreproachable virtue. Some thoughts from Peter Singer (h/t):
Gates may have given away nearly $30 billion, but that still leaves him sitting at the top of the Forbes list of the richest Americans, with $53 billion. His 66,000-square-foot high-tech lakeside estate near Seattle is reportedly worth more than $100 million. Property taxes are about $1 million. Among his possessions is the Leicester Codex, the only handwritten book by Leonardo da Vinci still in private hands, for which he paid $30.8 million in 1994. Has Bill Gates done enough? More pointedly, you might ask: if he really believes that all lives have equal value, what is he doing living in such an expensive house and owning a Leonardo Codex? Are there no more lives that could be saved by living more modestly and adding the money thus saved to the amount he has already given?
Gates has proven to be an all right guy. Certainly he is much more of an all right guy than the average member of the superultramegarich. He is almost certainly much more charitable than most of the rest of us would be if we were in his place. But, as Singer points out, if the needy really were his top priority, he would be giving quite a bit more than he has. He does care about the poor to an extent, but his devotion here is quite far from perfect. No one would dream of calling him a "saint".

But, if we judge purely on how each of them used the financial resources at their disposal, I'm pretty sure Bill Gates is more devoted to helping the needy than Mother Teresa ever was. Again, Gates' devotion to the needy is far, far from perfect. But I think it's better than Mother Teresa's.

Since we don't really have solid numbers of Mother Teresa's finances, I'm speculating a bit here, but I feel pretty safe in saying that (considered in proportion to total funds controlled) Bill Gates has done much, much more than Mother Teresa ever did in terms of spending his money towards making people's lives tangibly better.

Gates has given about a third of his riches. If Hitchens was right, then there are at least $50 million in just one of the bank accounts of the Missionaries of Charity. Given how pathetic the MoC's facilities clearly are, how the MoC apparently hates to shell out what little cash it takes to buy new needles before the old ones go blunt, etc., I wonder how much of just that one bank account has gone to any decent use.

Even worse: The money that Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity got from donors was sent with the (at least partially justified) expectation that it would go to help the poor. And that money got accepted with full knowledge that that was the intention behind the giving. In my mind, this yields a pretty serious obligation to use that money for the poor. In contrast, Bill Gates' charity comes out of money he got from his business. There has never been any expectation that he would donate such a sizable amount to charity, and the source of his money, in and of itself, yields no obligation for him to use it for the good of humanity. Mother Teresa was supposed to be charitable, in a way that Gates isn't.

Of course, one thing that might seem to make Mother Teresa a better person than Gates is that she lived more or less in poverty (with some hypocritical exceptions, which I'll get to another time), while Gates lives a life of mind-boggling luxury. But living a life of poverty doesn't actually make you a better person. If you're living a life of poverty because, say, you've sold your possessions and given to the poor, then that might make you a better person. But if you're living a life of poverty because you've got millions of dollars sitting around, and have decided that it shouldn't be used at all - neither for yourself nor for others in need - then that doesn't make you a better person at all. I'm not sure what it makes you, but it doesn't make you a better person.

But maybe Mother Teresa had something else going for her. If so, I'd like to know what that is. (I'll get to at least one other possibility some other time.) Barring that, though, it looks like one should sooner admire Bill Gates than Mother Teresa. But then one shouldn't admire Bill Gates, or at least not very hard or for very long. So why admire Mother Teresa at all?

(P.S., that essay by Singer is worth reading in full.)

The aforementioned shirt

Dawn suggested I post a picture: