During reflection last week, a member of my 4Boston group had an entertaining aside to share with everyone: “Jesus himself probably wouldn’t go to Boston College,” he said, “because Jesus could do a lot more with the tuition money to help other people than he could with his diploma.” The statement garnered some hearty laughter, and a few humorous responses. But I am more struck by the ironic digression, and what it means for all of us at BC.
There are, of course, an innumerable number of specific ways to help people in society—but, for the purpose of this column, I’ll just be focusing on the most generic methods we can consider: giving aid to those worldwide that are underprivileged, poor, or sick through monetary means. Give Well is a vetting group dedicated to measuring the efficiency of charities, and it estimates that the most cost-effective groups can save a life for donations under $5,000. Whether this is providing anti-mosquito bed nets to prevent malaria or funding the distribution of various vaccines, there is enough research today to show that money in the right hands can make a direct impact on a life.
Let us use that $5,000 as our figure for how much it costs to save a life. It costs roughly $260,000 over four years for a student to attend BC. Over these four years, we gain a host of memories, valuable connections with professors and alumni, and ultimately, a prestigious degree from an excellent university. It also comes with the knowledge that, hypothetically, the money could have been used to save 52 lives. Is college worth that much?
Naturally, a lot of us will take those degrees and graduate with a goal to contribute to society. Through our education and the resources granted to us, we talk a lot here at BC about “setting the world aflame” and giving back to those less privileged than us. But it is impossibly difficult to measure the “good” we do as professionals, whether that’s being a teacher, an accountant, or an entrepreneur. We’re all providing services that society demands, but do we necessarily need the BC degree to do so? Could we have gone to state schools and saved a few hundred thousand dollars? After all, that is a lot of lives saved if we donated that money. But, okay, perhaps I’ll give our education the benefit of doubt. It’s too hard to quantify the exact benefit we bring upon society with our occupations. But what about the little things?
The little things, like the MacBooks I see littered in front of me as I sit in Bapst writing this column. Those cost anywhere from between $1,000-$3,000. Sell two laptops, and we could hit that $5,000 figure. Wouldn’t it be the right thing to do to sell our laptops and use the desktops in the libraries? Maybe we wouldn’t get to watch Netflix before bed, but aren’t we saving lives? What about the hundreds of flat screen TVs that populate common rooms throughout campus? Taking all our commodities, our spending habits, our necessities of life—they add up to $5,000 pretty easily.
I’m not trying to guilt-trip anyone. I take Ubers, I own a MacBook, I splurge on White Mountain. It’s much easier for us to do these things than to think of a child, thousands of miles away from us, that desperately could use clean water, mosquito nets, or vaccines.
In the film Schindler’s List, Liam Neeson plays Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who employed thousands of Polish-Jewish refugees during the Holocaust in order to insure their safety from the Nazis. At the end of the final act, Schindler breaks down, realizing that all of his material possessions, from his car to his rings, could have been used to save more lives. He could have used the money to better bribe the Nazis into sending him more workers—but he didn’t. As viewers, we easily sympathize with his pain, quickly reassuring ourselves that if we were in the same situation, with lives to save during the Holocaust, we obviously would’ve done the same. But why is that ideologically different from the kids thousands of miles away from us now that need our help?
Okay, now let’s say we all start donating. We start selling our laptops, TVs, excess articles of clothing. We donate the money and start saving lives. Still, how much do we keep for ourselves? Do we adopt the Jesuit ideal of taking a vow of poverty and give up nearly everything we have? When is it okay to feel satisfied and say, “I’ve given enough?” Suppose there’s a billionaire, who, once a retired man, spent $500 million (half of his whole net worth) saving lives under our $5,000 per life figure. That’s 100,000 lives. The contributions he’d be making would be astounding. But let’s say that with the rest of his wealth, he bought himself a few islands, various private jets, and a lavish mansion in Long Island. Would we, as outsiders, judge him for being selfish? He could have saved so many more lives! He has no right to own those islands or jets. But how many jets is he allowed to own before it’s okay? No jets? Should he donate everything he has until he’s penniless? Has he earned the right to splurge a little because he’s already donated $500 million? Tough to say.
Ultimately, I think only we can be the judges of our own morality. Only I can look at what I own, what I’m willing to sell, what I’m willing to donate. I could give up everything and take a vow of poverty, but it would be unfair and unreasonable to judge everyone else for failing to do so. It’s hard to ask everyone here to drop out and go to a state school. It’s incredibly challenging to make these decisions. I don’t believe there’s a right or wrong decision, because everyone’s moral compass is different. Giving up certain material possessions will cost us. We might not be able to study as well without laptops, or focus as well without daily lattes and mochas. But does it cost as much as a human life? Can we even measure a human life? To be honest, I don’t know. But maybe it’s something we should all start thinking more about.
Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphics