The Conservative New Ager pointed out to me that today is my favorite*philosopher’s birthday.
Peter Singer was born on July 6th, 1946 and on that day decided to never use his brain and went into working in “applied ethics” and espousing the ideas of utilitarianism, a philosophy that makes me want to punch things because it’s just that stupid.
A little less than a year ago, I embarked on a 5 piece blog that tore apart the rhetoric of one of his most famous and popular essays.** The name of which was entitled The Singer Solution to World Poverty and was written in 1999.
As a special gift to him, I am going to remind my readers of how idiotic he is.
**So famous and popular, in fact, that I had never heard of it until my English 105 professor assigned an essay on it. …more sarcasm!
Now that I’m living in the dorms at my college I usually head home on Saturday to do my laundry at my parent’s place. Yesterday I came over, started a load of laundry, my mom made me a margarita (it was after 5pm and my mom enjoys that sort of thing, so hush) and my mom, dad, and I sat down on the couch.
I had brought Friday’s copy of The New York Times and I was reading them articles out of it. When I got to page A5 there was an article titled “Famine Ravages Somalia in a World Less Likely to Intervene”. (Here is the link to the online version of the article).
We only made it through the first 4 or 5 paragraphs before we had to stop reading and start talking about the article. For me it was especially frustrating, as I’ve just finished a 5 part blog series on Singer’s Solution to World Poverty, an essay that seemed to be close cousins to this NYT article. The term ‘Neo-Idiots’ was something my dad said when I contradicted him after he said that these particular liberals were becoming “Neo-Liberals” (in the same meaning as the term ‘neo-conservatives” is used). I told him he was wrong, because these liberals don’t know what they want.
(His response “So they’re just being neo-idiots then?” And my response “Yeah, basically.”)
The article starts out by admitting that it isn’t so much that the rest of the world doesn’t want to give aid or intervene on the behalf of starving Somalians, it’s that we can’t get the aid to them!
Remember what I said this in part II of my response to Singer’s article?
When we are talking about pension plans and administrative costs it pisses me off, but when the money is vanishing into third world nations that are controlled by warlords and drug lords and terrorists as much as, or more than, by their own governments… Do we really know where most of that money is going? Do you know who has to be paid off to get food and aid to the poor? Do you know what you may be, unintentionally, funding?
Now read this from the NYT article on Somalia.
Is the world about to watch 750,000 Somalis starve to death? The United Nations’ warnings could not be clearer. A drought-induced famine is steadily creeping across Somalia and tens of thousands of people have already died. The Islamist militant group the Shabab is blocking most aid agencies from accessing the areas it controls, and in the next few months three-quarters of a million people could run out of food, United Nations officials say. *
Hmm…sounds similar. We can’t get the aid through because of, essentially, terrorists…who are running the government in Somalia and have a habit of shooting starving people and looting aid trucks for themselves. And people wonder why we might be hesitant to send aid to this country? No one who needs it is getting the aid anyway.
The NYT article goes on to say that this is similar to what happened in early 1990s when another group stopped aid from reaching the people who were starving because of famine in Somalia.
Of course, things were different in the 1990s NYT says.
But in the 1990s, the world was more willing to intervene. The United Nations rallied behind more than 25,000 American troops, who embarked on a multibillion-dollar mission to beat back the gunmen long enough to get food into the mouths of starving people.
But wait…I thought liberals didn’t want us taking military action against countries (or militant groups) that have done nothing to us? Wouldn’t this be just as bad as storming in Iraq and toppling Husein’s regime? After all, he may have been a horrible despotic tyrant, but it was his country and he had every right to run it as he saw fit. We don’t have the right to tell other countries how to conduct their affairs, even when they are abusing the human rights of the people within their country.
At least that’s what I thought the liberal argument was.
Apparently when it’s famine, instead of violations of basic human rights, we have the right to go storming into the country, guns blazing, to help the people. *eyes roll*
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing the idea. I’m criticizing the fact that liberals don’t seem to be able to understand the concept of “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”. They want it to be okay to storm into some countries and reorganize them as they like, but not all. And I suppose they want to decide which countries are deserving of this intervention.
The idea I like. Let’s storm in, guns blazing, and kill these idiots who are letting their entire country starve for no good reason. Let’s not do any of this namby-pamby “hold them off long enough” shit. Shoot to kill, that’s what my dad has always taught me about gun use, why should this be any different?
(Get a grip, I’ve never shot anyone. My dad simply taught us that if a situation is serious enough to warrant to use of a firearm then you shoot to kill, you don’t shoot to wound.)
And why should we just kill the militants? Because, instead of beating them back and putting a band-aid on a gaping wound in Somalia, we could be feeding them, fixing their infrastructure, creating a democracy, and, hopefully, putting their country in a position where a famine like this will not destroy their ability to feed themselves once a decade.
If we just beat the militants back and allow them to take over again once we’ve distributed aid, then in 10 years or so, when the next drought and famine roll around in Somalia, guess what we’ll be doing again?
That’s right. Beating back more “Islamist Militant groups” to patch up the wounds of the country again.
How is that solution helpful to anyone, except for making our conscience feel a little less weighted, because, hey, at least we didn’t let them starve.
The worst part of the ideals of these particular liberals is what I mentioned in the name of this blog. They want to have their cake (Not have any wars, never send our military overseas to get involved in foreign affairs), eat it too (send troops overseas when they feel it’s right, even when what they advocate will be a band-aid on a gunshot wound), and worse…they want us to bake that cake for them (pay for the aid to go to these countries even when it will have no long-term affect.)
Liberals clearly never heard the story of the Little Red Hen when they were in kindergarten. Someone should send them a copy.
*Emphasis added by yours truly.
Yes, this is the final piece in this series.
I’m breathing a bigger sigh of relief than you are, believe me.
I almost decided to just forget this last part, since there isn’t really that much new to add to my side of the argument, but I guess I can just mock the last remaining paragraphs of Singer’s argument. He deserves it. I had to write a goddamned essay about this article…and I couldn’t use these blogs as part of it either….too partisan.
Anyway, I’m still editing the rough draft of the essay, but ranting over here is nice.
At this point various objections may crop up. Someone may say: “If every citizen living in the affluent nations contributed his or her share I wouldn’t have to make such a drastic sacrifice, because long before such levels were reached, the resources would have been there to save the lives of all those children dying from lack of food or medical care. So why should I give more than my fair share?” Another, related, objection is that the Government ought to increase its overseas aid allocations, since that would spread the burden more equitably across all taxpayers.
Sorry, that was unprofessional.
What I meant to say was, what makes it our government’s job to take care of these countries anymore than it is my job?
Singer, find me the section of the United State’s constitution that says that we must take care of impoverished nations around the world…to the detriment of our own economy and society no less.
The United Nations is batshit crazy and I don’t even think their charter says such a thing.
Never mind the fact that it would be totally unethical and against the constitution (not like our current president gives a rat’s ass about that anyway really…) to raise taxes to fix the problems in some other country. That action is suspect enough when it’s done to help our own country’s economic woes, suspect even more so because it doesn’t work…
Yet the question of how much we ought to give is a matter to be decided in the real world —and that, sadly, is a world in which we know that most people do not, and in the immediate future will not, give substantial amounts to overseas aid agencies. We know, too, that at least in the next year, the United States Government is not going to meet even the very modest United Nations-recommended target of 0.7 percent of gross national product; at the moment it lags far below that, at 0.09 percent, not even half of Japan’s 0.22 percent or a tenth of Denmark’s 0.97 percent. Thus, we know that the money we can give beyond that theoretical “fair share” is still going to save lives that would otherwise be lost. While the idea that no one need do more than his or her fair share is a powerful one, should it prevail if we know that others are not doing their fair share and that children will die preventable deaths unless we do more than our fair share? That would be taking fairness too far.
One of the best things about the fact that this article was written in 1999 is that you can now look back at the countries that he references and see A.) Japan’s population since 1999 has been in a state of stagnation or downright decline…as has their economy. And Denmark’s economy is going through it’s own struggles.
Now, of course, I am not an economist. I am not claiming that large amount of money these countries put toward foreign aid every year is what has caused their problem.
I am saying it problem can’t have helped…
Thus, this ground for limiting how much we ought to give also fails. In the world as it is now, I can see no escape from the conclusion that each one of us with wealth surplus to his or her essential needs should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty so dire as to be life-threatening. That’s right: I’m saying that you shouldn’t buy that new car, take that cruise, redecorate the house or get that pricey new suit. After all, a $1,000 suit could save five children’s lives.
Because if we had them we would have to feel like murderers.
I know I already said this in the fourth part of this series, but Singer is advocating for a world in which he takes jobs away from people who need them here in our own country as well. Or has he forgotten that people build those cars (I thought the auto industries were some of the ones that were “too big to fail”?), staff cruises, build houses, decorate houses, and make clothing.
I guess we aren’t as deserving since we were born in America…
So how does my philosophy break down in dollars and cents? An American household with an income of $50,000 spends around $30,000 annually on necessities, according to the Conference Board, a nonprofit economic research organization. Therefore, for a household bringing in $50,000 a year, donations to help the world’s poor should be as close as possible to $20,000. The $30,000 required for necessities holds for higher incomes as well. So a household making $100,000 could cut a yearly check for $70,000. Again, the formula is simple: whatever money you’re spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away.
That may be your bucket, but you don’t need that bucket, it is a luxury item. Those are big no-no’s. Hand it over.
(can you tell I’ve ceased to be serious and just started to mock Singer?)
Now, evolutionary psychologists tell us that human nature just isn’t sufficiently altruistic to make it plausible that many people will sacrifice so much for strangers. On the facts of human nature, they might be right, but they would be wrong to draw a moral conclusion from those facts. If it is the case that we ought to do things that, predictably, most of us won’t do, then let’s face that fact head-on. Then, if we value the life of a child more than going to fancy restaurants, the next time we dine out we will know that we could have done something better with our money. If that makes living a morally decent life extremely arduous, well, then that is the way things are. If we don’t do it, then we should at least know that we are failing to live a morally decent life —not because it is good to wallow in guilt but because knowing where we should be going is the first step toward heading in that direction.
Maybe it’s not a matter of valuing a meal at a nice restaurant over the life of a child, Singer. Did you ever stop to consider the fact that you might be simplifying this a bit too much?
Maybe I value the efforts of a local entrepreneur. Maybe I value the job security of a college student, working their way through their bachelor’s degree. Maybe I value the economic stability of my own country over the
economic stability (well…let’s face, not the economic stability. You weren’t trying to build a stable economy with this charity.) false loyalty of some impoverished country that you’ve chosen to feed for the time being. When you get bored you’ll move on to another country, another project…and screw the fact that you haven’t actually helped the country accomplish anything.
At least you looked good for your 15 minutes.
When Bob first grasped the dilemma that faced him as he stood by that railway switch, he must have thought how extraordinarily unlucky he was to be placed in a situation in which he must choose between the life of an innocent child and the sacrifice of most of his savings. But he was not unlucky at all. We are all in that situation.
Quatre, French for four and also the name of the fourth (and slightly crazy) Gundam pilot in Gundam Wing, but that’s not important right now…except for the fact that Quatre, even when he was blowing up entire space colonies for no good goddamn reason, he was still more sane than Singer.
Quatre was unprepared for the mental stress caused by the Wing Zero’s neural interface, Zero System; it drove him to the point of insanity and he destroyed an OZ-occupied resource satellite and an evacuated civilian colony.
We ended last time with Singer guilting readers into donating through an overblown comparison to Nazi Germany. (I shouldn’t have to say this, but I will. If that actually worked on any of my readers and you actually donated without researching and finding out if the charity was worthwhile first then shame on you. I would ask you to leave and not come back, but I suffer from the hope that I can teach you something…someday. So stay…read…don’t be a moron.)
Now that you have distinguished yourself morally from people who put their vintage cars ahead of a child’s life,
Wow! Wow! That was…I’m not linking to that article on Poisoning the Well again. If you haven’t read it yet, you can find the link in one of the previous sections. I hope you can see how this comment has no place in a rational philosophical discussion though. He is outright saying, if you did not just donate to charity, you are no better than Bob who sacrificed a child to save his Bugatti. It doesn’t matter if you have a good reason for not donating, such as not being able to find a worthwhile charity whose long term-affects on the livelihoods of the poor you could support, you are still a child killer. You gotta love the size of Singer’s balls, thinking he can get away with bullshit like this…oh wait, he has.
how about treating yourself and your partner to dinner at your favorite restaurant? But wait. The money you will spend at the restaurant could also help save the lives of children overseas! True, you weren’t planning to blow $200 tonight, but if you were to give up dining out just for one month, you would easily save that amount. And what is one month’s dining out, compared to a child’s life? There’s the rub. Since there are a lot of desperately needy children in the world, there will always be another child whose life you could save for another $200. Are you therefore obliged to keep giving until you have nothing left? At what point can you stop?
I don’t know Singer. Since you are using guilt as your main point of control here, I suppose I can stop when I stop feeling guilty about the amount of money I earn at my job. Oh wait, I don’t feel guilty about that now. Jokes on you.
The fact is, most people don’t feel guilty about the amount of money they make. As long as they deserve the amount they are receiving…and I’m well aware that that is not always the case. I’m sure there are many actors and athletes who may feel a smidgen guilty about the size of their paychecks, since I’m fairly certain no one deserves pay checks that large for the jobs they do. More politicians should feel guilty about the size of their paychecks as far as I’m concerned…they certainly aren’t doing the work to deserve the pay.
Hypothetical examples can easily become farcical. Consider Bob. How far past losing the Bugatti should he go? Imagine that Bob had got his foot stuck in the track of the siding, and if he diverted the train, then before it rammed the car it would also amputate his big toe. Should he still throw the switch? What if it would amputate his foot? His entire leg?
Well at least he admits the example was farcical…or could have been farcical if he took it further. I argue that it was farcical from the start, but…whatever.
I already went over why it would have likely been less ethical to switch the train to the second track, so there isn’t really any reason to address this second argument from Singer. If you would like me too, just ask in the comments.
As absurd as the Bugatti scenario gets when pushed to extremes, the point it raises is a serious one: only when the sacrifices become very significant indeed would most people be prepared to say that Bob does nothing wrong when he decides not to throw the switch. Of course, most people could be wrong; we can’t decide moral issues by taking opinion polls.
When pushed to extremes?
Okay, okay, I’ll stop harping on the Bugatti scenario. It just irked me…
When sacrifices become significant? Would that mean the death or injuries of hundreds of passengers on the train? Or hundred or thousands in the city? After all this is a hypothetical situation, I can change it to suit my needs. (Did I say I was going to stop harping on this? I meant the Bugatti part of the scenario. I’ve moved over the my part of the scenario that I outlined in the II part of this response). When I say that the death of that child would be less wrong in that scenario, I’m not deciding that based on an opinion poll (though I doubt an opinion poll would decide the other way, unless the train was full of prison inmates), I’m decided it based on ethical grounds of the number of lives lost. A truly utilitarian way of looking at the situation, which I’m sure Singer couldn’t argue with.
In that case I would demand no sacrifice from Bob, nor from the people on that train. They do not all deserve to die, or be severely injured, to save the life of one child. Sorry, that may seem heartless…but I’m only using the same philosophy as Singer to make that judgment call.
But consider for yourself the level of sacrifice that you would demand of Bob, and then think about how much money you would have to give away in order to make a sacrifice that is roughly equal to that. It’s almost certainly much, much more than $200. For most middle-class Americans, it could easily be more like $200,000.
Once again, Singer fails to define what he means. Does he mean $200,00o a year? (if so, what fantasy world does he live in and how can I move there?) or $200,000 a lifetime? Even $200,000 a lifetime seems drastic, in 2011 or in 1999, in 2011 that’s more than I will spend on my entire college education. Not counting my housing costs, my tuition for all 4 years will be about $40,000. I consider my family to be middle class (currently, we weren’t always) and $200,000 a lifetime? Probably not possible. $200,000 a year? Singer would have to be LSD to think that was possible for a middle class family.
Though I suppose he could be working off the context of “middle class” and “rich” that they IRS have. I don’t know what it was in 1999, but today the cut off for “middle class” is over $100,000 a year and “rich” is over $250,000 a year. If he was working from that idea, which is a completely ridiculous one in the real world, I suppose I could understand his confusion.
Isn’t it counterproductive to ask people to do so much? Don’t we run the risk that many will shrug their shoulders and say that morality, so conceived, is fine for saints but not for them? I accept that we are unlikely to see, in the near or even medium-term future, a world in which it is normal for wealthy Americans to give the bulk of their wealth to strangers. When it comes to praising or blaming people for what they do, we tend to use a standard that is relative to some conception of normal behavior. Comfortably off Americans who give, say, 10 percent of their income to overseas aid organizations are so far ahead of most of their equally comfortable fellow citizens that I wouldn’t go out of my way to chastise them for not doing more. Nevertheless, they should be doing much more, and they are in no position to criticize Bob for failing to make the much greater sacrifice of his Bugatti.
Before I go any further, I have to note that, according the New York Times, Peter Singer only give 20% of his income to charity. He is falling awfully far short of the bar he sets for everyone else isn’t he? He says that “they are in no position to criticize Bob for failing to make the much greater sacrifice of his Bugatti.” but he feels like he is in the perfect position to criticize the rest of us, when he falls so far short of his own ideal? How hypocritical of him.
Now I’ll address another issue I take with his philosophy. His sheer inability to understand his own country’s economy and what his ideals will do to it.
Alright, fine, say that everyone in this country stops going out to eat, stops buying luxury items, stops sending their kids to college, saving for retirement, or doing anything outside of paying for “necessities”. Which apparently come up to $30,000 a year. So our country is doing a great thing for the impoverished countries around the world…sure we may not be helping them in the long run, but we are helping. We are at least giving the starving man a fish, even if we aren’t teaching him how to fish, as the saying goes.
Now what is happening to our economy at home? Well that restauranteur has to shut his restaurant because no one is going out to eat any more, because it’s a “luxury item”, so he has to lay off, on average, 2 cooks, 3 cook’s assistants, 5 waiters, 3 bussers, 2 bartenders and a hostess. So that’s 17 people out of work right there and that’s just one restaurant in one town. The shops selling “luxury clothing” such as that $1000 suit that Singer mentions, has to shut it’s doors, so it stops making suits, laying off dozens of tailors and seamstresses in the process. And on and on and on it goes, right down the line. A stream of unemployed, impoverished people right here in our own country.
Soon the charities that were working overseas see the problem at home and return to their own country to work, feeding and clothing the poor, handing out free medical care for those that have no jobs.
And who is paying for that?
Why the people who still have jobs of course. They are still working, plodding along and donating every single cent of their excess money because it’s the “moral” thing to do. Except, now, instead of supporting foreign countries all that work is going into keeping their own country afloat. Am I the only that sees a problem with this scenario? We do not destroy our own country’s economy in a desperate attempt to shore up the economy of a third world country that needs far more than a stopgap measure of food and medical aid to cure its ills.
For that matter, Mr. President, we don’t destroy our own economy to keep huge banks afloat and keep paying out money into sinking ships with names like Social Security and Medicare either.
Singer doesn’t understand the economy, not here and not overseas. He doesn’t understand how to stop World Poverty because he doesn’t understand how poverty happens. Until he understands that, listening to anything he says on the subject is pure folly.
Obama doesn’t understand the economy either, but I think we already knew that.
Did you know that the term “The third degree” is thought to have originated from a practice that The Masonic Lodges use?
(Yes, those Masonic Lodges. The movie “National Treasure” didn’t invent the Masons you know. They are a real, slightly creepy, group. I lived across the street from a Masonic Temple for a year…)
In Masonic lodges there are three degrees of membership; the first is called Entered Apprentice, the second Fellowcraft, and the third is master mason. When a candidate receives the third degree in a Masonic lodge, he is subjected to some activities that involve an interrogation and it is more physically challenging than the first two degrees. It is this interrogation that was the source of the name of the US police force’s interrogation technique.
Anyway, interesting bit of trivia from The Phrase Finder.
One genuine difference between Bob and those who can afford to donate to overseas aid organizations but don’t is that only Bob can save the child on the tracks, whereas there are hundreds of millions of people who can give $200 to overseas aid organizations. The problem is that most of them aren’t doing it. Does this mean that it is all right for you not to do it?
Suppose that there were more owners of priceless vintage cars —Carol, Dave, Emma, Fred and so on, down to Ziggy— all in exactly the same situation as Bob, with their own siding and their own switch, all sacrificing the child in order to preserve their own cherished car. Would that make it all right for Bob to do the same? To answer this question affirmatively is to endorse follow-the-crowd ethics —the kind of ethics that led many Germans to look away when the Nazi atrocities were being committed. We do not excuse them because others were behaving no better.
Singer once again reverts to Poisoning the Well as his attack…and this time he compares it to Nazi Germany. I’m pretty sure that invokes Godwin’s law. Depending on what message board you are talking to, that may or may not mean he automatically loses the argument. While I see no problem with, on occasion, comparing certain people to Hitler and his cronies…I only do it when what they are actually doing is comparable. Once again Singer is blowing his comparisons way out of proportion.
Now you might say that the comparison of the Nazis was just a good example of “follow-the-crowd ethics”. Well I can think of a lot better comparisons that don’t invoke Hitler and the Gestapo. The choice to use the National Socialist party as his comparison (Really hilarious when you consider that this guy appears to love socialism) was intentional, because, as I said in a conversation with The Conservative New Ager last night before we went to see The Debt, the mention of Hitler has a very visceral reaction of disgust from people. It’s why Godwin’s law was created after all, people like comparing others to Hitler in debates, because that tends to scare off their opponent.
We seem to lack a sound basis for drawing a clear moral line between Bob’s situation and that of any reader of this article with $200 to spare who does not donate it to an overseas aid agency. These readers seem to be acting at least as badly as Bob was acting when he chose to let the runaway train hurtle toward the unsuspecting child. In the light of this conclusion, I trust that many readers will reach for the phone and donate that $200. Perhaps you should do it before reading further.
If you have read parts I and II of my reaction to this essay you will realize that what Singer said in that first sentence is completely untrue. I won’t go over that again.
Then he makes this appeal to an irrational emotional reaction. “Go, donate now. Don’t think logically about it. Don’t research the organization. Just donate. Do it because it will make you feel better, after all I’ve done such a good job of making you feel guilty so far right?”
I’m trying desperately to think of the last person I heard on TV to push that idea of “do this now, it’s the right thing. Don’t think about it, just do it. You have a moral obligation. Don’t bother to think critically about what you are doing with the money, just do it. You’ll feel better afterward, I promise.”
Oh right…that was Obama’s “Jobs speech”. Let’s not talk about that right now.
That’s all for now. Except that I want to tack on a bit of an addendum to what I wrote in the last post. Something that The Conservative New Ager said in a comment, but you may not have read the comments. I apparently missed this line in the essay when I discussing the implausibility of Unger/Singer’s “Bob” scenario.
He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure.
TCNA said that “if something is worth money, there’s an insurance company out there that will insure it–again Singer doesn’t seem to understand how capitalism works–so in reality there would be no economic loss.”
And that’s the truth. If it exacts and it’s worth money, there is a an insurance company that will insure it.
On another side note. I just started reading Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, I might post about it when I finish the book. My parents have also promised to buy me a subscription to Glenn Beck TV for my birthday, which was this past Tuesday. Happy Birthday to me ^_^
In his 1996 book, Living High and Letting Die, the New York University philosopher Peter Unger presented an ingenious series of imaginary examples designed to probe our intuitions about whether it is wrong to live well without giving substantial amounts of money to help people who are hungry, malnourished or dying from easily treatable illnesses like diarrhea. Here’s my paraphrase of one of these examples:
Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. The Bugatti is his pride and joy. In addition to the pleasure he gets from driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its rising market value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement. One day when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a railway siding and goes for a walk up the track. As he does so, he sees that a runaway train, with no one aboard, is running down the railway track. Looking farther down the track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the runaway train. He can’t stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where his Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed —but the train will destroy his Bugatti. Thinking of his joy in owning the car and the financial security it represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch. The child is killed. For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.
Bob’s conduct, most of us will immediately respond, was gravely wrong. Unger agrees. But then he reminds us that we, too, have opportunities to save the lives of children. We can give to organizations like UNICEF or Oxfam America. How much would we have to give one of these organizations to have a high probability of saving the life of a child threatened by easily preventable diseases? (I do not believe that children are more worth saving than adults, but since no one can argue that children have brought their poverty on themselves, focusing on them simplifies the issues.) Unger called up some experts and used the information they provided to offer some plausible estimates that include the cost of raising money, administrative expenses and the cost of delivering aid where it is most needed. By his calculation, $200 in donations would help a sickly 2-year-old transform into a healthy 6-year-old —offering safe passage through childhood’s most dangerous years. To show how practical philosophical argument can be, Unger even tells his readers that they can easily donate funds by using their credit card and calling one of these toll-free numbers: (800) 367-5437 for Unicef; (800) 693-2687 for Oxfam America.
Now you, too, have the information you need to save a child’s life. How should you judge yourself if you don’t do it? Think again about Bob and his Bugatti. Unlike Dora, Bob did not have to look into the eyes of the child he was sacrificing for his own material comfort. The child was a complete stranger to him and too far away to relate to in an intimate, personal way. Unlike Dora, too, he did not mislead the child or initiate the chain of events imperiling him. In all these respects, Bob’s situation resembles that of people able but unwilling to donate to overseas aid and differs from Dora’s situation.
If you still think that it was very wrong of Bob not to throw the switch that would have diverted the train and saved the child’s life, then it is hard to see how you could deny that it is also very wrong not to send money to one of the organizations listed above. Unless, that is, there is some morally important difference between the two situations that I have overlooked.
I don’t think that anyone would claim that Bob’s action were right, but that has a lot more to with why he chose to let the child die. He did it to save his car.
Now I have not read Unger’s book and Singer admits that he paraphrased the argument, so I am going to put the blame for this strange little combination of a Strawman fallacy and the fallacy of Poisoning the Well directly on Singer. Why these two? Because Singer is both corrupting the actual arguments of the people that oppose him, by assuming that their arguments are all about keeping their money for themselves and not helping others, and making them look like monsters who would rather let a child die than sacrifice their material possessions.
First lets address the fact that the hypothetical situation that Unger/Singer puts to us is extraordinarily unlikely to ever happen. Any man who loved his car that much would never park it on an active railroad siding, in fact, as the car was an investment, he likely wouldn’t have driven it much at all. Never mind the fact that if the child was too far away to hear a runaway train coming at him down the track and too far away to hear Bob shouting at him, he is likely to far away for Bob to see him the first place.
Now let’s address, without considering Bob’s action of saving his car instead of the child, whether switching a runaway train to another railway track would have been a smart thing to do.
I am not a railroad engineer, I doubt many of you reading this are. I don’t know what sort of damage I could do to a train by switching a runaway train onto a separate track could do. By saying it’s a runaway train I’m going to assume they mean the brakes are out, so it’s going very fast. So will it tip over if I switch the tracks and cause it to jerk to side suddenly? Is it a passenger train? If it is, then tipping it over could kill or injure hundreds of passengers. What if it’s a train that is carrying hazardous chemicals or waste? If it tips over in that case, the waste or chemicals could explode or seep into the surrounding environment. Depending on how close we are to a city, that could also kill or injure hundreds or thousands of people.
So Singer has simplified things down, but ended up not giving us enough information to actually make an ethical decision. In either of the situations I just laid out, the death of that child, though regrettable and awful, would be the better option. Especially if there is a possibility that the train can be stopped safely further down the track.
Now you might say “Well how does that apply to solving world hunger? Maybe you tore up that comparison, but giving to UNICEF or some other charity to help feed children would still be a good thing right? There couldn’t possibly be a bad outcome from that.”
Well that depends on what you see as a bad outcome I suppose. What do these charities actually do? As far as I know, they feed people, bring them aid. There is nothing wrong with that, in and of itself, except that it’s merely a stopgap measure. The people are still poor and uneducated, the countries are still overpopulated and, in all likelihood, the next generation will be just as large and just as poor and just as hungry. And guess who gets to take care of that generation? That’s right, you’re kids. They get to be shamed and bullied by people like Singer and told they are as bad as murderers if they don’t give up all their money to charity…until all the world’s troubles have been solved.
Ayn Rand saw that too.
Do you care to imagine what it would be like, if you had to live and to work, when you’re tied to all the disasters and all the malingering of the globe? to work – and whenever any men failed anywhere, it’s you who would have to make up for it. To work – with no chance to rise, with your meals and your clothes and your home and your pleasure depending on any swindle, any famine, any pestilence anywhere on earth. To work – with no chance for an extra ration, till the Cambodians have been fed and the Patagonians have been sent through college. To work – on a blank check held by every creature born, by men whom you’ll never see, whose needs you’ll never know, whose ability or laziness or sloppiness or fraud you have no way to learn and no right to question – just to work and work and work – and leave it up to the Ivys and the Geralds of the world to decide whose stomach will consume the effort, the dreams and the days of your life. And this is the moral law to accept? This – a moral ideal?
One of the other issues I see with these charities is that you often have no idea where your money is going or how it is being spent. To be fair, Singer addresses that…though not very well.
Is it the practical uncertainties about whether aid will really reach the people who need it? Nobody who knows the world of overseas aid can doubt that such uncertainties exist. But Unger’s figure of $200 to save a child’s life was reached after he had made conservative assumptions about the proportion of the money donated that will actually reach its target.
So, let me get this straight. It shouldn’t matter where the rest of that $200 goes, just that someone has done the figures and knows that if I donate $200 enough of it will eventually get to a child to save his or her life?
Let me tell you a story about where money has a tendency to go when you give it to charities. This story is true, but, of course not indicative if ALL charities. Only a warning to look closely how your money is being spent when you donate it.
Several years ago my mother and father ran a small business in Arkansas. The police in that state had a program that ran on charity, where they gave Teddy bears to children who were in car accidents. A good program and one that is copied in states all throughout this country in some fashion.
The police hired out to an organization that collected money for the charity and they called up my parent’s business asking for a donation. My father said ‘sure, sounds great. If I donate $100, how much will go towards buying Teddy bears?’ my dad is paranoid about these things, and rightly so. Yes, he passed that paranoia on to me.
He requested a breakdown of how donations were spent. Which, in case you didn’t know, is your right to do per federal law. You can request this report from any charitable organization asking for donations. If they refuse, something fishy is going on and you should not donate and should, in fact, report them to your local Better Business Bureau.
My father found out that about 18% of each donation was spent on Teddy bears and 65% was spent on ‘administrative costs’. In other words, the organization kept $.65 of every dollar you donated as payment for collecting donations.
Of course 65% and 18% only add up to 83% and he called back to find out where the other 17% was going.
He was told it went to the police officer’s pension fund. He was then asked if he wanted to donate. He, of course, said no.
My response would have been: ‘sure, where do you buy the Teddy bears? I’ll buy $100 worth and have them shipped to the police station.’
Why? Because if I want to give money to give Teddy bears to traumatized children that is what I want to do, I don’t want to pay into a pension fund, which my taxes are supposed to be paying for in the first place, and I CERTAINLY don’t want to pay for the administrative costs of a glorified call center.
This is what Singer forgets to mention. That you really don’t know where your money is going when it goes to many charities and that, frankly, worries me a lot.
When we are talking about pension plans and administrative costs it pisses me off, but when the money is vanishing into third world nations that are controlled by warlords and drug lords and terrorists as much as, or more than, by their own governments… Do we really know where most of that money is going? Do you know who has to be paid off to get food and aid to the poor? Do you know what you may be, unintentionally, funding?
Of course, another thing Singer forgets to mention is that most of the “choir” he is preaching to aren’t really donating to help others. They are donating because it makes them feel better, because money is evil and they feel Oh So Guilty about being Born Into Privilege because they live in the United States.
I don’t know about you, but being born in a certain country doesn’t equate to privilege to me. I mean, this is a great country and all, but I work hard to get what I want and I intend to keep it…and when I give it away it’s on my terms…not Singer’s.
And I had to read this piece of garbage for my English 105 class. For a philosophy or even an economics class I can understand, but for an English class? There was no reason to make us read this.
I was asked multiple times while I was reading this essay if I was okay, because the further I read the further my jaw dropped and the wider my mouth opened. I probably looked rather scary to be honest. All I could say when I finished was that I was actually going to douse the book in gasoline and light it on fire when the semester ended. Considering I actually think that book burning is a worse thing than burning a country’s flag, you can see how serious I am. I told the other person in the hotel room with me that I had possibly just read one of the singularly most morally reprehensible things ever…for multiple reasons.
The first being that it actually read like a real life application of the “moral” code that destroyed the Twentieth Century Motor Company in Atlas Shrugged. You can sort of distance yourself from that story when you read it in Ayn Rand’s book, because it’s fictional. When you find someone talking about doing something similar in real life; advocating those same principles and actually believing they will work, it is much harder to distance yourself.
The second issue is that Singer writes this essay as if he is so completely right. That there is no way you could ever argue with his philosophy or logic. He is so self-assured and, I suppose, that a man who has written so many books that are widely recognized and read and a man who has taught in huge colleges and universities, might have cause to feel self-assured about his logic and philosophies.
The problem is…I think that the only people who would believe his writing are those that already support his ideas. He is ‘preaching to the choir’ as they say. The point of any good philosophical book or essay should be to make those of the opposing view actually question their views…not laugh at you…or feel the need to throw up or take a shower after reading it.
I’m 21 years old and on my first reading of this essay I was already picking his logic and philosophy apart. If a 21 year old, Journalism student can do that, clearly you have some issues with either your writing or premises. In Singer’s case…I would say it’s a bit of both, a lot of the latter though.
By all means, before I rip this essay apart with my bare hands and liberal use of my teeth, read it for yourself. Form your own opinion on it first. Then read what I have to say and see if you agree. If you don’t, then let me know. I would love to know what other points of view this essay could be read from.
Okay, this is going to be a long one. Maybe I’ll break it into pieces.
In the Brazilian film “Central Station,” Dora is a retired schoolteacher who makes ends meet by sitting at the station writing letters for illiterate people. Suddenly she has an opportunity to pocket $1,000. All she has to do is persuade a homeless 9-year-old boy to follow her to an address she has been given. (She is told he will be adopted by wealthy foreigners.) She delivers the boy, gets the money, spends some of it on a television set and settles down to enjoy her new acquisition. Her neighbor spoils the fun, however, by telling her that the boy was too old to be adopted —he will be killed and his organs sold for transplantation. Perhaps Dora knew this all along, but after her neighbor’s plain speaking, she spends a troubled night. In the morning Dora resolves to take the boy back.
Suppose Dora had told her neighbor that it is a tough world, other people have nice new TV’s too, and if selling the kid is the only way she can get one, well, he was only a street kid. She would then have become, in the eyes of the audience, a monster. She redeems herself only by being prepared to bear considerable risks to save the boy.
At the end of the movie, in cinemas in the affluent nations of the world, people who would have been quick to condemn Dora if she had not rescued the boy go home to places far more comfortable than her apartment. In fact, the average family in the United States spends almost one-third of its income on things that are no more necessary to them than Dora’s new TV was to her. Going out to nice restaurants, buying new clothes because the old ones are no longer stylish, vacationing at beach resorts —so much of our income is spent on things not essential to the preservation of our lives and health. Donated to one of a number of charitable agencies, that money could mean the difference between life and death for children in need.
All of which raises a question: In the end, what is the ethical distinction between a Brazilian who sells a homeless child to organ peddlers and an American who already has a TV and upgrades to a better one —knowing that the money could be donated to an organization that would use it to save the lives of kids in need?
Singer asks his first question. One with I will answer, with ease I might add.
There is an obvious distinction here. That distinction is how the money that being spent is made. I know for a liberal like Singer, who clearly sees money as evil (A true “Bertram Scudder”) (note I say “a liberal like Singer” so don’t come shouting at me, “I’m a liberal and I DON’T think money is evil!” Clearly you aren’t like Singer then.), would find it difficult to understand the difference between money that is made ethically and money that is obtained by selling a child to have his organ’s harvested on the black market.
Instead of comparing Dora (a woman who took money for doing something she believed was right, only to later discover that she was wrong and then does her best to fix her mistake) to a family using their ethically earned income to buy themselves luxury items. A better comparison could be made between Dora and the CEO of a major pharmaceutical company.This CEO makes hundreds of thousands of dollars off of a drug that his company been developing for years. This drug is supposed to do great things. Only after it starts to be prescribed, people start getting sick or dying because of an unforeseen side affect or a side affect that one of the scientists covered up in tests. The CEO didn’t know he was doing anything unethical by putting the drug on the market, but when he finds out something is wrong he does a total recall of the drug and begins doing his best to make amends for what he, unwittingly, did.
In Singer’s defense, he admits there are differences between the two scenarios…however the difference he sees are definitely not the ones I’m see.
Of course, there are several differences between the two situations that could support different moral judgments about them. For one thing, to be able to consign a child to death when he is standing right in front of you takes a chilling kind of heartlessness; it is much easier to ignore an appeal for money to help children you will never meet. Yet for a utilitarian philosopher like myself —that is, one who judges whether acts are right or wrong by their consequences— if the upshot of the American’s failure to donate the money is that one more kid dies on the streets of a Brazilian city, then it is, in some sense, just as bad as selling the kid to the organ peddlers. But one doesn’t need to embrace my utilitarian ethic to see that, at the very least, there is a troubling incongruity in being so quick to condemn Dora for taking the child to the organ peddlers while, at the same time, not regarding the American consumer’s behavior as raising a serious moral issue.
The American economy, in fact the economy of most of the world, is built on production and consumption. Of course, the more I read about Singer’s background and his philosophies, the more I realize that we will always disagree because he would much more prefer a socialist society where no one really owns anything, no one is actually paid for anything, they only get enough to take care of their basic needs (his argument exactly, later in the essay). Yes, because that has always worked so well. *rolls eyes*
Singer’s essay is not horribly long, but I don’t want to post my response to it in one large post…that would be a little overwhelming. For me and for you.
So I’ll post this tonight and continue my response tomorrow. See you then!