The Salvation of Zachary Baumkletterer

This is the name of a short story by George Mavrodes. The story begins:

Maybe Zack should have said more about what he had decided to do, right at the beginning, and especially to the people at the office. Sometimes he thought so himself. But he was a really shy sort of person, not much at ease in talking about himself. So he said nothing about it (except when he prayed, of course) until people started asking him.

I guess the first thing they noticed was that he stopped bringing his lunch, buying soup and coffee in the cafeteria and eating with the bunch at the corner table. But no one thought much of it because some of the people often went out for lunch. And when they realized that he wasn’t eating lunch at all, some of them thought that he was just trying to lose a little weight. But it was odd because he didn’t seem to be what you could call fat at all. And it soon became clear that he was getting really thin and his face looked a little pinched.

Soon the people in the office notice that he seems to be wearing the same clothes every day. They don’t really want to mention it but someone finally decides to ask him about his weight:

It’s a little awkward to ask someone why he wears the same clothes all the time. Kids might do it, but grownups are maybe more polite. I guess it’s easier to remark casually that you look a little thin, maybe you’ve been losing a little weight, have you? Anyway, that’s how Tom Houston finally broached the subject to Zack in the sixth floor men’s room. And Zack said Yes, he had lost some weight.

As he said it he tightened up a little because he really didn’t like to talk about himself. But there wasn’t anything in the whole affair that he was ashamed of either, and he thought he’d probably have to explain it sooner or later anyway. So, since he got along pretty well with Tom, he added, “It’s because of the famine.”

That obviously made it as clear to Tom as if Zack had said it was because of the theory of relativity. So he went on to explain that there was a shortage of food in many parts of the world, a real famine, and that people were starving, actually starving to death in Bangladesh, in the Sahel of Africa and in some other places.

And Tom broke in to say that he knew all that, he could read the newspapers and the magazines, but there wasn’t a famine here, for Pete’s sake, was there? (He really did say “for Pete’s sake.” He knew that Zack was a real religious nut, so he sort of toned down his language when he was around Zack.)

And Zack said No, there wasn’t a famine here (though he had heard that some old people and some black people were pretty hard up). But there was a famine in other places, and the people in those places were people just as much as anyone around here, and so he was sending money for the relief of the famine abroad instead of spending that money on himself.

Soon they find out that Zack isn’t even eating enough to survive:

The next solid piece of information was dug out by Hilary Whittaker, who was a real health nut and blunt mannered as well. When he knew that Tom Houston had broken the ice, he watched for a good chance to ask Zack right out what he actually was eating. Zack told him it was mostly beans and rice and potatoes (but he didn’t know how to make anything out of them that you could really call a lunch, to put in a bag). When Hilary asked him how much, Zack told him what he generally had in the morning and the evening. Hilary had his little book of calorie counts and protein content and things like that, and he added it quickly. Then something happened to his face, and he added it again. He got the same answer, and he knew how thin Zack was getting, and he didn’t add it a third time.

Instead he said, “Do you know what you’re doing, you idiot? That’s below the starvation level! If you go on like that you’ll actually starve to death. Actually starve, do you hear?”

Zack said Yes, he knew. He’d gotten some books from the public library and added up the figures just as Hilary had. “But,” he went on, “do you know that there are hundreds of thousands of people in the world, maybe millions, who don’t eat any more than this day in and day out? I read somewhere that there are ten thousand dying of starvation every week. I’m probably the only person you’ve ever seen who was starving, but I’ve read that in Calcutta they pick up the bodies every morning on the streets. Starving to death isn’t all that queer, you know. It happens every day.”

Finally they call in his pastor to try to talk him out of starving himself. The pastor presents various arguments that fail to persuade Zack to change his behavior. Finally, the pastor argues that even by the standard of doing good to others, he is not doing what is best:

“Well then, frankly,” the Pastor continued, “doesn’t it seem to you that you could do the poor of the world more good by seeing to it that you stay in shape to live out your normal life and to work in the normal way, giving a part of your income over many years to the relief agencies, rather than giving so much now that soon you won’t be able to work at all and may even die prematurely?”

Zack looked at him and said, “I don’t know. Do you think I could?”

“I’ve got no doubt of it at all.” As he said it he thought to himself that maybe this simple observation was all that Zack needed. But as soon as he had that thought, he had a second one, more doubtful.

“I’ve thought about it a lot,” Zack began. “I thought of it myself, of course, before I really cut down. And people at the office have suggested it and Mr. Pencewaite and now you. But I still don’t know. You see, if I died, somebody would move into my job, and he’d leave a vacancy and someone would move into that, and so on. Maybe at the bottom of the line somewhere someone would get a job which would make the difference in his surviving. And if I die, I’ll be leaving a part of the world’s resources – the part I’d consume if I lived – for someone else. On the other hand, maybe the poor would be better off if I stayed around. I really don’t know.

“One thing, though. I think it would be suspicious if the people who decided who should live and who should not were deciding about their own case too – especially if they generally decided that it would be better for the world if they themselves were to live. A Christian, anyway, has to remember how deceitful and wicked the human heart is.”

The conversation continues for a while, but the pastor is unable to convince him. We can’t really tell what would do the most good, Zack says, but “it doesn’t seem odd to me that a Christian might lean a little bit to the short side for himself. When it’s a matter of a massive famine that will mean, of course, going below the line.” After this conversation, “It was only a few days later that Zachary Baumkletterer collapsed over his desk at work.”

Zack is almost certainly mistaken on the question of how to do the most good for others. If you have a job and you die, you will not be merely giving the resources you would have used to others. You will be failing to produce the resources that you would have produced, and if you were earning enough to live on, you were already producing more than enough for a single person. So there will be a net loss to the world if you die.

As Katja Grace says in a recent blog post:

Suppose you are a perfect utilitarian of some kind. You also live in a world where the utilities associated with your actions are well worked out. You can always spend $1 to save a life, which is worth one million utilons. You can also spend $1 on a cup of tea, which is worth three utilons, and will also make you a little better at working all day, producing $30 of extra value. So tea is a slam dunk.

If it is not immediately clear why “tea is a slam dunk,” the point of course is that if you produce an extra $30 by having the tea, you will be able to use it to save 30 lives instead of the single life that you would saved if you had forgone the tea.

Katja’s post basically attempts to argue, in essence, that even if you place equal value on all human beings, you should act as though you care more about people closer to you. As I said in a comment there, I am somewhat skeptical. I agree with her that in practice you can do the most good by caring about yourself, your friends and family, and so on, and that if you were literally to treat everyone equally, you would do less good. But this is accidental: people’s behavior is determined by what they care about, and not by any utilitarian measure. I argued in a previous post that we do not treat anything as having an infinite value, even if it is infinite in itself. In a similar way, distance of any kind causes us to value things less, whether the distance is spatial, temporal, or conceptual. And arguing against this is pointless: it is simply to argue against human nature, which is not the kind of thing that can change in response to argument.