Luxury vs. Charity

First published at Between the Lines News on July 9, 2009

Some years ago I attended a seminar on charitable giving in the GLBT community. The event was aimed toward affluent donors, and judging by the cars in the parking lot, it hit its target. (I drove an old Nissan at the time, and was invited strictly because of my connection with one of the charities.)

One of the speakers exhorted the crowd to forgo certain luxuries in order to make a greater charitable impact. “An inexpensive car will get you from point A to point B just as well as a BMW will,” she said, “and with the savings you can make a real difference in another person’s life.” Most attendees were nodding politely, when a mouthy acquaintance of mine stood up.

“Look,” he began, “most of us had a really hard time growing up gay. We were taunted by our peers, and many of us felt alone and miserable. So now we’re enjoying some creature comforts. I worked hard to get where I am, and I’m not about to start driving a Chevy.”

I was sitting next to said mouthy acquaintance, and I sank in my chair. True, few people expected the attendees to follow the speaker’s suggestion. But it seemed obnoxious to point that out at the time.

But why? Is it selfish to want luxuries while others are in need, or merely unseemly to say so?

Luxury is a relative term, of course. If you have a car with crank windows, then power windows—which are standard equipment on most cars sold in the U.S.—may seem like a luxury. If you have to take the bus to work, having a car at all may seem like a luxury. If you live in a developing nation, buses may seem like a luxury. And so on.

Conversely, as we grow more accustomed to certain “luxuries,” they start to feel like necessities. My first car had vinyl seats—but hey, I had a car! The next one had plush fabric seats, which I thought were cool. Then I graduated to leather seats, which I thought were even cooler. Today I have HEATED leather seats, and I doubt I’m ever going back.

“But you NEED heated seats in Detroit,” my mother told me when I fretted over whether they were an extravagance. Funny, but I spent nine years here without them and managed to get around all the same.

I don’t think gays are any more prone to these tendencies than anyone else. To the extent that we fit this stereotype, it is largely because most of us don’t have children, which means that, on average, (a) we have more “disposable” income than those who do and (b) we can worry more about whether the sofa looks good, for example, than whether it will resist jam stains.

Of course, the fact that we can spend our money on things like fancy cars and fabulous sofas doesn’t mean that we should. Given the current desperate situation of many charitable organizations, the moral implications of luxury are worth pondering.

I’ll use myself as an example, just to show that I’m not trying to wag my finger at anyone else.

My partner and I recently put a new kitchen in our house. We do a lot of entertaining—including fundraising events—and most of our friends thought it was an excellent investment. I do too. I love it every day.

But meals from the old kitchen were just as nutritious and tasty.

And the old kitchen was, despite being ugly, cheap, and poorly installed, only eight years old. (It was put in by the prior owner, who “flipped” the house. It is now installed in the basement, where we use it as a backup kitchen for parties.)

And the thousands of dollars we spent on the new one could have helped people who lack not merely kitchens, but food itself.

So if I’m going to bristle at my mouthy acquaintance’s “I’m not going to drive a Chevy” comment, I had better be able to explain why I’m no longer cooking in a cheap—but perfectly serviceable—kitchen.

Ultimately, it’s because I don’t believe that moral values always trump aesthetic ones. A moral calculus would be undesirable and unsustainable if it condemned any action that could be replaced by one more virtuous.

Consider the alternative: any money you spend on an ice cream cone could go to Oxfam—so no more ice cream cones. Ditto for art, music, and dance, the absence of which is tragic but not life-threatening. That money you plan to spend on movie tickets could save a life someday.

It’s not just money at stake, but time. Every minute you spend watching TV, playing games, reading novels—or for that matter, reading this column—could be spent volunteering at the local soup kitchen.

And what about sex? Gays are hardly the only ones to engage in non-procreative sex, an activity for which we—though generally not others—get labeled as “indulgent.” But sexual intimacy, like many of these other things, is surely an ingredient of a well-lived life.

I don’t pretend to know how to strike the perfect balance—if there is one. (If you want someone that has all the answers, don’t read my column. Try Dr. Laura.)

I do know that most of us—me included—could and should give more to charity, and the arts, and other important causes. I admire those who live simply for the sake of helping others. But—I freely admit—I also admire nice cars, clothes, and kitchens.