Graphic by Janice Lin/MiC.

I’ve heard versions of the following two statements on several occasions and from several people, and I’ve even said them myself and still acknowledge them to be true to some extent. 

“The world is getting worse and worse every year, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“The average person could only do so much, but if Jeff Bezos really cared, he could solve all of the world’s problems himself.”

It is easy to give in to apathy about the state of the world considering that all that seems to make it on the news are stories about death, violence, corruption and the irreversible damage we did to our environment. For this reason, it is easy to be pessimistic about the power of our impact, but pessimism does not justify complete inaction.We often complain about the one percent, the group of individuals who make the most money. The amount of money one of them is able to contribute could make a huge difference, but because of the flaw in our economy — social and political power that allow for the existence of such a group — it is discouraging to see them not do much. Therefore, we feel like we ourselves can’t do much compared to them. Note, however, that while the US’s one percent earns approximately $700,000, the global one percent is made up of people who make about $52,000+ (taking into consideration purchasing power), meaning that there are extreme outliers that pull down the average that we should be concerned about. While as students we are most likely not part of that one percent, we could still do something to help people in extreme need. I am not suggesting you should feel obligated to solve global problems if you yourself are struggling near the poverty line. I’m merely putting things in perspective. We could very well be in a position to do more good than we think. 

As some of us are struggling college students, it is true that we might not have much to spare financially, yet we might succumb to purchases we don’t truly need. I would argue that sometimes this is needed for the sake of our mental health to destress or treat ourselves, but if we can afford to do so once in a while, what’s stopping us from investing that same amount into charity instead? In this sense, one can agree with Peter Singer, an Australian moral philosopher, when he writes that our traditional morals are upset because as a society we praise people who give but we do not retaliate against those who don’t. The responsibility of every individual is not mending a lack of information as much as it is researching where there is a lack of research, especially today with a resource as expansive as the internet. If you identify as someone from the middle class or above, it is important to understand one main point about your situation in relation to other people from the middle class and below to effectively understand Singer’s sentiment, especially because “middle class” and up is such a broad spectrum: the concept of diminishing marginal utility as applied to happiness.

The law of diminishing marginal utility is a concept that refers to the idea that the more we have of something, the less benefit we get from getting an additional unit of that same thing. In this case, we are talking about income and how it relates to happiness. According to this law, the poorest individuals with low incomes will immensely benefit from the additional income they get while individuals who are relatively wealthy will benefit less and less from additional income the more wealth they already have. This reasoning should be enough to convince us that we really are at an unprecedented position to make a difference in the world. 

Hans Rosling, author of Factfulness, illustrates this concept on a graph where each doubling of income is the same distance apart. This graph is more helpful to understand the law of diminishing marginal utility since it assumes that what matters is the happiness one gets from the increase in income and not how much the increase is. This approach is also used in Sacks, Stevenson and Wolfers’ study to show how doubling income generates a similar benefit for people at any income level. This means that if you are an individual who makes $12 an hour and this rate increases to $24 an hour, you would get the same benefit as someone who currently makes $1 and receives an increase to $2. In other words, for someone out there, $1 is all it takes to raise their happiness and wellness level, while if we were to lose $1 walking down the street, it wouldn’t really change our lives.

Now that we have cleared the misconception that only a high contribution is significant enough to help others in extreme need, there is still another hurdle. That is the misconception that we can rely on others to do good while we ourselves don’t. Some people are still inclined to say that since they don’t fall in the top 1% or 5% of the global income distribution, what they can contribute is so small that it would not make a difference. Yes, Jeff Bezos could probably solve the world’s problems, but what’s stopping us? It is a false belief to assume that just because someone else could make more of a difference, then our small contribution would be in vain. If we consider the concept of marginal utility explained above, we can see that even the smallest of contributions makes a huge difference to someone who is truly in need. In fact, one might not realize they are making a huge difference with their “small” donation precisely because their marginal utility is increasing at a decreasing rate. 

In his paper, Singer discusses his belief that we do not realize our moral obligations to help others and this belief is reinforced by the fact that not many people stop to think about the implications of our power to do good in the world. Singer calls it a duty, not a charity, and part of this duty is to take into consideration the income distribution of the world and our correct place in it. As well, our duty is to understand our ability to contribute a single dollar donation to someone in need as relatively greater than what we benefit ourselves from keeping that extra dollar. 

This being said, money is in no way the only means to contribute to our society and to other people in need. However, it is often the easiest and fastest way. I highly respect people who give their time and resources to a cause they care about and who would argue that actively helping is more important than blindly donating. However, for people who also feel like they don’t have the time in their busy schedules or the means to physically be somewhere, this article is to remind them that there is always a way to make a difference.

MiC Columnist Mariam Alshourbagy can be reached at marialsh@umich.edu.