Basic human needs are often defined as food, shelter, and clothing, so for this question I will use this basic definition. I feel at some point in most peoples' lives, they find they have what most would consider disposable income. This income is spent on things they enjoy, aka wants: a trip to the movies, a vacation, restaurants, etc. These items and services are not required for them to live. Meanwhile, there are millions of people around the world who do not have the basic needs as defined above.

Given that I know of these people who are not having their needs met, and I have the means to help them (through my disposable income, most likely donated to an appropriate charity or group), I believe I am morally obligated to help them. Does this mean any money spent on wants for myself and not for the needs of others is immoral?

In simplistic terms: I can spend $10 on a movie ticket or donate $10 to a charity that will feed a child 3 meals that they would not otherwise get. Am I immoral for ever spending money on the movie ticket?

  • 1
    ... assuming that these 10$ actually end up with these people.
    – user2953
    Nov 23, 2014 at 9:19
  • @Keelan yes, assuming in some way the money is going towards the betterment of their lives.
    – Matt
    Nov 23, 2014 at 9:22
  • @Keelan surely a significant amount does. i won't bother an answer, but a) do we have a right to happiness or flourishing b) are there better ways to alleviate extreme poverty than charity (not saying there are) c) giving all your money to charity will have effects on people close to you
    – user25714
    Jun 25, 2017 at 2:34

6 Answers 6


Your question is a bit border-line, as it essentially asks for our opinions. Instead I will discuss what some philosophers have said about this.

Let's, for the sake of the argument, assume that wealth indeed implies well-being, and that therefore wealth is desirable. I will also use rich and wealthy as synonyms, as I will use poor and unwealthy.
Then, we could say that the maxim we want to know if it's an element of or derivable from the ethics of certain philosophers, would be:

Act such that your actions will converge inequalities in wealth between all people as much as possible.

Now, let's see what Kant would say about this.


Kant's famous categorial imperative says, in the first formulation:

Always act according to that maxim whose universality as a law you can at the same time will.
– Immanuel Kant, Foundations, p. 436

There are two other formulations, but here, especially the first formulation is interesting. On wikipedia, the universability test, a method to determine whether or not your maxim can be one of those of the categorial imperative, is described.

Let's imagine a world in which the maxim as we defined it is a universal law. Therefore, everyone necessarily acts according to this maxim. Do we find a problem here? No, rather the opposite:

If everyone would act according to a maxim as "act such that your actions will diverge inequalities in wealth between all people as much as possible", the world becomes terribly unstable.
First of all, this will create one group very rich people and one group very poor people. However, in the end the rich people will need the poor to be richer in order to get richer themselves (to sell things, to produce more, etc.) So in the end we can't diverge anymore. Any action to make the rich richer will need the poor to be richer as well; any action to make the poor poorer will need the rich to be poorer as well. We're running into a state in which the maxim doesn't really have any effect anymore: a final state, in which people can't really follow the maxim to its end anymore. The question is whether this final state is desirable.
Secondly, imagine some kind of natural disaster, somewhere along the way to this final state. A big flood comes, destroys everything of the rich, making them poorer than the poor. Following the maxim, the 'old poor' will now become richer and richer, while the 'old rich' become poorer and poorer. This demands adaptability from us, the humans in the world, an adaptability that we don't really have.

So a world in which the opposite of our maxim is a universal law, isn't desirable. Kant doesn't say that from this follows that the maxim itself should be a universal law, but it could be argued with his help.


The immoralist. He didn't really formulate his own ethics, but had lots of criticism on others. He argued that 'God is dead', meaning that we don't have any moral framework anymore, and that we're "plunging continually":

Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?

– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.] (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/nietzsche-madman.asp)

It's a madman talking here, but it's assumed that Nietzsche referred to himself. In the end, the madman leaves:

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men."


Nietzsche of course doesn't really tell you what to do in this case, but he complains about there not being a (universal) moral framework. With Nietzsche, you could therefore argue that making any maxims yourself is pointless as long as they're not universal. Furthermore, you could say that making a maxim universal would require more than a human, and therefore that making maxims yourself is always pointless (because you can never make them universal). It would require a God, to make maxims, but unfortunately, God is dead, and we can't get him back.


I find the explanation of his thought on the Dutch wikipedia much clearer than on the English one, so I will translate a bit:

The postmodern society lost its belief in bigger contexts such as explicit ideologies, authority, religion, tradition, etc. In Lacan's terminology, the Other (with a capital), is the overarching justification of social order, death. This leads to social disintegration. As progressive thinker he doesn't regret every break with tradition, but he sees a couple of interesting, or alarming, effects of the lack of a social framework.

This last sentence is of course very much in line with Nietzsche, and Žižek also says, like Nietzsche, that this lack of a social framework is alarming.

Maybe now it's the time for Nietzsche's madman, in the form of Slavoj Žižek.

A way out from this lack of framework is not discussed as far as I know.

One could argue that you asking this question in the end is an effect of the lack of a moral framework, and that therefore your question "Am I immoral for ever spending money on the movie ticket?" doesn't make sense - there is no such thing as immorality.

Some loose thoughts

  • Spending money on a movie ticket may make you much happier so you become more productive, earn more money, and can give more money to charity in the end. It's not as black & white as it may seem.

  • How much of your donation will end up with the people needing help?

  • What is good help in this case? Should we try to help people get wealthier [knowing that this will take several generations, if we're ever going to succeed], or should we try to help the people that are alive now by social support, "being there for the other", etc.?

  • How much effect is your money really going to make? For $1000 you can feed x hungry people, who will then die one day later. For $1000 you can also travel there yourself (for example), talk to the people, give them this experience (being listened to) that they will never forget, and give them strength for the rest of their lives, albeit short.

  • You state that you think you're morally obliged to help less wealthy people. Yes, this does mean spending money on things you're not morally obliged to spend money on, would be considered immoral. However, I've been trying to point out that this moral obligation is not so clear-cut.


Let's step back for a moment and ask a pragmatic question: do people need some level of satisfaction of wants? That is, one might not need a new smartphone, a sushi dinner, a visit with friends in a distant city, and a flavored latte made with exotic organic coffee; but does it work for people to never get any such things?

It seems to me, put this way, that the answer is no, people need some level of satisfaction of wants to be motivated, productive, and psychologically healthy. If your morality insists that people not meet their need-of-wants at all, then it's not a very appropriate morality for humans.

Therefore, we conclude that it is okay to some level to satisfy wants. Since this is an argument by contradiction it doesn't help us to know which wants are okay to satisfy, just that wanting something has some bearing on moral action.

  • For more context, consider Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs. "Wants" like social identity, hedonism and egotism may actually serve needs that allow us to remain connected to others and to our ethics in a sustainable way. Unless you are basically a saint, without them, you are likely to actually erode your concern for those people you are sacrificing for, and stop doing so.
    – user9166
    Nov 24, 2014 at 17:53
  • @jobermark - That is quite plausible. But even if you allow everything in Maslow's Hierarchy as needs not wants, there are likely to be more "wants" (e.g. relaxation / down time) that cannot always be skipped.
    – Rex Kerr
    Nov 24, 2014 at 19:47
  • I was trying to agree. But I guess the point was, you don't actually know what are needs vs wants. Food is a need, but mostly, we eat much more than we need, even when we think otherwise -- your body easily doubles the mileage it gets out of your food, if we don't eat as we want. By Occam, just discard the distinction and consider a single continuum.
    – user9166
    Nov 24, 2014 at 22:42
  • @jobermark - I was trying to agree before (just adding a wrinkle), and I also agree about discarding the distinction.
    – Rex Kerr
    Nov 24, 2014 at 23:25

Your intuition is that there is some duty of beneficence towards needy strangers. The money I can donate will have significant impact on the lives of destitute far-away strangers, while it will be a frivolous consumption if I spent it on me. So you ask,

Does this mean any money spent on wants for myself and not for the needs of others is immoral?

This is the core question in the field called the ethics of assistance. The indispensable guy in this field is Peter Singer, an uncompromising utilitarian, the most dangerous man in the world today a la his critics. To Singer, the answer to your question is, "Yes, it is immoral to do so." According to Singer, we should give until there is no money left for frivolous consumption, that is, until our spending is reduced to the need-based consumption. This implies that either our living standard should be reduced to the global poor or that we should spend our lives on saving the global poor.

Singer's answer instigated the moral sentiment of quite many philosophers. Their shared view, based on the common sense, is that our duty of beneficence towards far-away needy strangers can or should never be so demanding as Singer asserts. That is, almost all philosophers in this field want to say vigorously, "No, it is not immoral" to your question. They want to show that it is morally permissible to spend money on things we want and spend our lives towards our own personal projects, once we donated some money to charity. The question for them is how (or when) to stop giving without looking selfish. Some suggested solutions for the stopping rule are these: you can go on living your life when you did your fair share in saving the global poor (Liam Murphy); giving any further will make your life worse off in the sense that you will not be able to pursue the life project that you identify yourself with (Richard Miller). According to Miller, for instance, once donating some significant amount of money to charity, a Roger-Ebert wannabe can spend her money to buy movie tickets to be a great film critic, her life goal.

The debate between Singer and the common sense theorists is still going on since the common sense theorists have failed to offer a knockout stopping rule. However many times the Roger-Ebert wannabe has saved drowning children, she still looks selfish, when she decides to go on to watch a movie and letting this drowning child die.

  • what does singer say about killing oneself to save 10 others?
    – user25714
    Jun 25, 2017 at 2:59
  • Just to clarify: According to Singer you should not in every case give until there is no money left for consumption. It is only as long as there are people suffering and there is not enough money given. If everyone would give a little bit (estimate 2% of incomes), no one would be obliged to give that much. But as long as there is poor in this world, everyone are obliged to give as much as they can.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jun 25, 2017 at 8:40
  • Yes, you are to the point. "If everyone would give a little bit (estimate 2% of incomes), no one would be obliged to give that much." is the inspiration for Liam Murphy. But not all do, which is the problem for both Singer and Murphy, and their solutions differ. Jun 25, 2017 at 15:02

There is also the fact that we live in a world that is organized by economics.

If we all decide to consistently give our $10 to the poor and no one goes to movies, we have just created a couple more poor people -- the projectionist from the movie theater, and the counter server who sold the drinks. And since those people also spend money, we are undermining the economics of our community.

The next step up on the hierarchy of needs, the way our world is actually constituted, is a job of some sort that secures ongoing access to the lower needs. Many would say that below that level, people are not really living. They are not even subsisting, they are merely existing.

We have no control over the creation of the needs of the poor, people breed or they don't, and they develop problems that prevent them from being fully engaged in society for reasons beyond any humans' control. But we have control over the creation of work opportunities, by spending reasonably.

So another aspect of the question is whether it is better to directly support the needs of people with whom you have little contact or relationship, or indirectly support a functioning community with a shared set of values over which you can have some control.

Most of us generally choose the latter value, even if it abstractly offends our compassionate impulses.

I may seem heartless, but from that point of view, charities that simply meet needs are not doing what they could do. They are not putting these people to work. In the extreme case, like orders of nuns in poverty service, they are undercutting the value of the workers who give them free labor.

Your better option is to assign the service of the needs of those who cannot contribute to some shared base, like the government, or the kind of cultural center that the Church used to be when the tithe could be mandated. Then individuals should focus on providing for tiers higher on the scale of needs, and pull people up into a higher position.

Unless charity is in some way compulsory, it is just a competition to seem better than others seem. It is not a genuine reflection of compassion, or we would abandon our entire way of life and live as the equals of those who inhabit the margins of society, society would fall apart, and no one would be helped. When it is compulsory, it represents a civic value, when it is individual, it represents an affectation of self-defensive pretense.


Can you 'morally justify wants as opposed to needs'?

I will let history answer that question in a pragmatic manner.

The communist manifesto was based on: from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.

The capitalist manifesto (if one exists) is based on: whatever you can accumulate, you can keep and do with what you want.

Which was more successful? Which has contributed more to the elevation of the human condition? By far, the capitalist approach. Almost all of the innovations that have improved the human condition have come out of capitalist, free market countries.

It is important to remember, this is not a triumph of greed over selflessness. More a matter of state controlled planning simply not being able to keep up with individual initiative, where the free market, not individual people, set the priorities and reward the successful.


Oen position advocated by many people is the position advocated by Peter Singer. Once you have enough to live comfortably you should give the rest away, or the government should force you to do so. There are many problems with this idea if it is taken seriously on its own terms. Who should receive the income you give away? Poor people in other countries are often poor because their government are corrupt or tyrannical or both, e.g. - North Korea and Syria. So if you give money to somebody in those countries the government may just steal it and kill him. And even if they don't, such countries lack rational institutions that allow bad policies or people to be removed from power such as free markets or liberal democracy so the money may just be wasted.

Objectivists would advocate another position, see "The Virtue of Selfishness" by Ayn Rand, especially "The ethics of emergencies". Rand would point out that you don't owe another person anything except as a result of deals you enter into voluntarily. The alternative is to require that a person must act against his judgement about who should receive his money. This undermines rational argument about what a person should do with his resources. You might sometimes give a person money if he is having a bad time, but you should use your own judgement and should expect to gain by giving him money. The mere existence of suffering doesn't mean you should give away anything.

Positions in between those two extremes are bound to lose over time against anybody who is more consistent. Once you have conceded that some particular standard is correct, resisting progress toward that standard is contemptible by your own moral standards. I think Rand is right on this issue and that the alternative is openly anti-rational and anti-human.

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