I want to be very clear here: A desire to help people in need is a good thing. Paying a little more for a pair of shoes or a messenger bag because you want your purchase to help people is commendable. If that’s you, well done!
But TOMS and the many other companies like it are the charitable equivalents of yes men. They’re telling you what they think you want to hear in order to get what they want (for you to purchase trendy, pricey accessories), not what you need to hear in order to do what you want (to have your purchase to do as much good in the world as it can)
TOMS tells you that you that making the world a better place is all about you: that you know best how to help poor people, and that you are so powerful that it will take barely any effort on your part to make a huge difference in the world.
This is hardly a message that’s limited to TOMS.Why don't you donate both your kidneys? Sure, you'd die, but you'd help two other people live; perhaps you'd even save two other lives. You'd be dying for a good cause!
As I've said before, we tend to evaluate moral arguments entirely in terms of outputs. That's what, Amanda Taub, the writer of the Vox piece above is doing. She asks, quite reasonably, how much does buying a pair of TOMS shoes really do to help poor people, especially when compared to other things you might do, and figures out that the answer is "not much". That's a good thing I suppose, although I'd be more inclined to wonder why Vox readers get university educations if they still need to have this explained to them after graduating. No one should need more than thirty seconds to figure out that these campaigns are all relatively ineffective. That includes, by the way, the food banks you give to at the checkout of your local grocery store.
But what if we're asking the wrong questions. We start with a simplistic assumption that being good is selfless (that's the input end of a type of moral argument). We move from that to an assessment that says a morally good action is the one that has nothing in it for me while helping others in the most effective way possible. Therefore, don't buy any shoes at all and donate the money you'd spend to a real charity.
It seems to me that TOMS are playing on two things.
- TOMS shoes aren't exactly practical. The number of pairs of shoes you really need is probably one. The number of TOMS shoes you really need is zero. If you could only afford one pair of shoes, you'd never buy TOMS. There's a guy who is always outside the local liquor store whose figured this out. You feel guilty about the self indulgence when you by booze instead of simply staying home and drinking water so you're an easy mark.
- They are selling you a way of virtue signalling—buying the shoes is a way of telling everyone that you stand for what is good, never mind that what is "good" here shows a kindergarten-level understanding of morality. Adult: What did you learn at school today little boy? Little boy: Sharing is good! The little boy isn't stupid. He knows what answer is going to get him approval. But the little boy also knows that it's all a con. Do you?
The real problem here is not on the doing good end. Sure, there are lots of things you might do to help the poor but you're not going to quit your job, get medical training and go to work in an African hospital—you've already determined to keep leading your life pretty much as it is.
Here's an alternative: be honest about the inputs and your moral decision making will improve. You have no intention of being selfless. Every good and meaningful moral decision you have ever made was driven by your desire to improve yourself. Yes, you care about others but you do so because you want to make something beautiful and good of yourself. Be honest enough to admit that and you should be able to see that buying TOMS shoes is a pretty poor investment not only for the people who need help but they are also a poor investment for your project of making yourself into something beautiful and good when compared to simply living a good life and being a good friend, a good spouse, a good man or woman and a good citizen.