Response to Peter Singer’s Solution for World Poverty: Quatre

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.

Back to Singer’s essay. (Parts I, II and III)

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.

That’s great.

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.

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5 Comments

  1. While reading this I was thinking of all the ways I was going to further tear this guys argument apart…but then you hit all the points I was thinking of…you have learned well Young Grasshopper.

  2. Pingback: Response to Peter Singer’s Solution for World Poverty: fin « The Snark Who Hunts Back

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