Because most of us are so ignorant about how much everyone else earns, we often underestimate our earnings compared to the rest of the population and thus our charitable obligation to them.
Giving begins by looking down from your ladder
A small crate of white envelopes greets me on my return to London. Many of the letters are ornamented with images of sick children, scenes of famine or war or hungry families, and include the words "give generously". Not all of them are mail-outs from charities serving the Arab and Islamic worlds - although, with Eid around the corner, the majority are - but all are designed to tug at my heartstrings and loosen the purse strings.
Such charity appeals to the conscience are common occurrences these days, part of the background noise of the developed world. That images of such horror and suffering - and no one doubts the organisations are telling the true story - can become commonplace is testament to what charities called compassion fatigue, the exhaustion most people feel on being faced with such huge, apparently insurmountable, suffering.
That fatigue has increased with the global downturn. Since autumn of last year, charities have been reporting a significant drop in giving. In Arab and Islamic countries where companies are obliged to pay a percentage of their profits to charity as zakat, the drop in demand will naturally have an effect. Faced with economic difficulties, few have additional time to think about the needs of others. For those who feel they are not rich, it is hard to spare money for the poor.
And yet. The funny thing about wealth is that almost no one thinks they have it. That is one of the reasons charities struggle, because few givers think they can spare the cash. Statistics don't help: average wages in the US, the Gulf and Britain are, respectively, US$32,000 (Dh117,000), $37,000 and $40,000 (and no doubt even those have altered with the downturn). Yet the figures say nothing about the cost of living in those countries (and the enormous disparities within them) - and crucially fail to explain that the majority of people earn less than the average. That is because a small number of high earners push the average up. In fact, in Britain, two-thirds of the country earns less than the average of $40,000.
The numbers don't matter, but the attitude does: because most of us are so ignorant about how much everyone else earns, we often underestimate our earnings compared to the rest of the population and thus our charitable obligation to them. But there's another reason too: the poor are simply invisible to us. Here's why. Most developed countries are also aspirational societies, where we are surrounded by images of people who have more than us, people whose lives are portrayed as notionally superior to ours in so many different ways. In advertising, in the media, on television and on film we see those who appear to have happier lives, more free time, more money, healthier relationships. Of course these are myths: almost every part of the capitalist architecture is constructed to make us want to buy more things.
But they are persuasive myths and being constantly surrounded by such images and stories gives most people an unrealistic sense of where they are when it comes to lifestyle. It breeds a feeling of dissatisfaction, a feeling that other people - perhaps the majority of other people - are enjoying a better standard of living. The solution we are sold to that dissatisfaction is to earn more, buy better clothes or drive faster cars.
At the same time, images of poverty are removed from us. We are not surrounded by images and stories of people who have less than us. So we begin to feel that, on the one hand, the less fortunate are somewhere far away, hidden in urban slums or starving in dusty countries, and, on the other, that such lifestyles are exceptional, the results of bad government, freak disasters, or uncommon catastrophes. Living a lifestyle that involves climbing the ladder means we rarely look down, so we forget how high up we are.
Occasionally - very occasionally - we recognise our good fortune, either because of social or religious events like Eid and Christmas, or because of large-scale disasters such as tsunamis or earthquakes. Events that force us to ponder, or disasters that shock us to face them. We are compelled to look down, to see how the rest of the world lives, and confront one of the truths that most of us in the developed world find hard to stomach: that those who have adequate shelter, clean water and regular food are already on the top rung of the planet, among the most fortunate people who ever lived.
That truth is so hard to grasp - and its potential implications so far reaching - that we struggle to avoid it, focusing in a very human way on how difficult our current lives are, rather than how much worse they could be. Yet there are some facts that still have the power to shock: last year, the World Bank estimated the percentage of the planet living on less than $10 a day. That is, the number of people who survive, every day, on less than the cost of a basic meal in any developed city. The number was 80 per cent. Four humans out of every five. If you are reading this newspaper, you are almost certainly in the top fifth of humanity.
But so what? What is our responsibility - those of us who do not wake up without water and sleep without food - to the vastness of humanity, the faceless masses in need? In his book Living High and Letting Die, the philosopher Peter Unger sketches a thought experiment of passing a shallow pond where a child is in danger of drowning. All you are required to do is wade in and save the child from certain death, merely inconveniencing yourself by muddying your clothes. If you decide not to, he writes, "almost everyone's intuitive moral judgment is that your conduct is abominable".
He then outlines a second thought experiment, analogous to the anecdote that started this column: if, on reading the letters asking for money to save children from almost certain death, you simply cast aside the envelopes, have you done something immoral? "Almost everyone reacts that your conduct isn't even wrong at all," he writes. But Unger believes the two situations are the same: that we have the exact same moral duty to the children in the envelopes as to the child in the water. He concludes - after much argument - that our moral responsibility to help others less fortunate is not diminished by distance or by having to face the consequences of not acting. We are still letting people die.
Philosophers create these experiments to make us think, rarely to push us to act. And the political consequences of such views would be vast, reshaping our world. Yet there is an essential point at the heart of the experiment, whether or not one decides to fill every envelope asking for donations. That is that the world is skewed, very clearly, between those who have the capacity to donate, even a little - and those who have utterly nothing. Between those who can change a life for the price of a drink ? and those who might die for the lack of one.
That is the real responsibility of the rich. Not the obligation to give everything we have, but the recognition that it is the mere ability to give that makes us rich. Faisal al Yafai was the winner of the best journalist category at the 2009 Muslim Writers Awards. He is a Churchill Fellow for 2009/2010.