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.