April 2, 2001
6:52 AM   Subscribe

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?

Does Peter Singer have the solution to world poverty?
posted by Sean Meade (42 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
a MetaFilter search turns up lots of opinions about Singer.
posted by Sean Meade at 6:53 AM on April 2, 2001

then when nobody buys new TVs or new anythings, what are you going to do about the value of the dollar dropping and falling into non-existence?

capitalism works by person A paying for the products or services that person B provides, and vice versa. the only way you could introduce such ethics into consumerism culture would be by people providing products and service that were highly ethical - not frivolous fashions and thighmasters.

for example, if person A sells a service which helps second/third world children, and person B buys it, and there's some equivalent reverse situation.
posted by kv at 7:08 AM on April 2, 2001

I have a big problem with obscenely expensive luxury items like jewelry, collectors items, yachts, etc... . Clearly, most of us could do more for others. I think the World would be much better off if more folks would send a few bucks toward family planning programs. Especially with Dubya cutting funding. It would be a lot easier to feed all the hungry children if there were a lot less of them to begin with.
posted by quirked at 7:46 AM on April 2, 2001

While I agree with kv that if "unnecessary" spending were completely eliminated and replaced by donations to charity our capitalist system might collapse, I don't think that Singer realistically expects to have that great an impact. If he succeeds in getting even a small percentage of people to reconsider their priorities, then he will have done some good. He is an intelligent man, he knows his audience, and he knows that just inspiring the debate is a step in the right direction. Is it my duty as a capitalist to get the 21" monitor, since I can afford it, or can I suffer with the 19" and sponsor a child? I think that there is plenty of fat to be trimmed without hurting our way of life.
posted by gimli at 7:50 AM on April 2, 2001

he's exactly right, of course.
posted by muppetboy at 8:06 AM on April 2, 2001

While it is difficult to argue with Singer's logic if you share his moral basis, it is questionable to me that saving lives is actually improving the situation on earth as a whole. If one believes that there are already too many people on the planet, then it seems like saving others might not be the right thing to do. Now, you could say that those in the wealthy West have a disproportionate impact on the the earth, so who are we to make that kind of judgement. On the other hand, shouldn't we work on reducing our impact, not increasing the impact of the rest of the world? I'm not pretending to know the Right Thing to do here, just thinking out loud.
posted by tungsten at 8:07 AM on April 2, 2001

Poverty of the type encountered in third world nations, (or more politely, "less-developed nations") exists because the country has some other major problems on its hands. For example, African countries are perhaps the most resource-rich areas in the world, but the best their goverment can do is squander the money on itself and it's supporters.

By supporting such courties via subsidies, we only take away the responsibility off the soulders of those who ought to be responsible for fighting social ills in their countries. In other words, our generosity makes their responsibilities less urgent.
posted by Witold at 8:49 AM on April 2, 2001

bernard lietaer in the future of money talks about high-unemployment as a consequence of money scarcity. if there was only more money around, people would be doing more things for each other. this is made clear if it is understood that all money is, is essentially an agreement. there's nothing stopping anyone from minting a currency amongst themselves, except trust.

his insight is that the currency system in its current incarnation (fiat, central bank monopoly, interest charges) does not serve the needs for a large population of the world. mainly because it fosters competitiveness in the way it is designed. not that it isn't good, but it underserves in the provisioning of 'social capital' and natural resources.

money as it is currently understood doesn't make a lot of sense say when trying to provide public goods like healthcare because the attitude encouraged by the system is to privatize. well you can't really, so you end up with escalating gov't control.

lietaer suggests an alternative. he asks how do you create/design currencies that promote cooperation and take the long-view when allocating resources. having a currency system that provides an outlet for natural human tendencies (altruism) looks like a good way to go. instead of ad hoc measures that always seem to be in failure mode, an 'enlightened' currency system that supplements the one we have right now could offer sustainable solutions. that's the appeal to me anyway.

what's more there is a precedent for community, cooperative, complementary (or whatever you want to call them) currencies. during the global depression of the 1930s many successful community currencies sprang up all over the place (germany, the US, austria) in the wake of hyperinflation and bank runs. btw, the discussion on austria has conspiracy fodder that beats the cyring of lot 49 all to hell. but basically roosevelt, weimar et al outlawed them when they threatened control of gov't sponsored monetary systems.

transaction.net is a good resource for alternative currencies. also see ithaca HOURS, timedollars (site's down now, but here're exerpts) and LETS.
posted by kliuless at 8:50 AM on April 2, 2001

one response to tungsten's good concern is that i think the studies show that reducing infant and child mortality helps a lot to reduce the birth rate over time. parents who rely on those children for 'social security' in their old age don't need to have so many children, expecting the ones they have to live. there would, of course, be a short term 'bloom', but education could help that a little.

and to witold: the problem is, these people who 'should be responsible' have shown that they don't care. they're happy to prosper in their positions. what do we do about that?

and kliuless, can you give us more concrete examples of how such a currency would work? i'm curious.
posted by Sean Meade at 8:53 AM on April 2, 2001

well, for time dollars it's pretty simple. you do an hour of work for someone and you're credited with an hour's service (for like a haircut or whatever) and the other person is debited. what makes it a currency and not barter is that the "timedollar" is fungible. you can go to someone else in the community and ask for piano lessons or something (these are like the examples in the book :) with your credit hour and that other person would be obliged to give it. then that person would be credited and you'd be debited, etc... the point is that money is created on demand so it's never scarce. and becuase it's not a fiat currency, it's non-inflationary, bonus!
posted by kliuless at 9:11 AM on April 2, 2001

Once I again I find myself in agreement with Witold.
posted by a3matrix at 9:39 AM on April 2, 2001

I want the big-screen teevee! I worked hard, I earned the money, and I'm going to buy it so that I (and my family, friends, etc) can enjoy the fruits of my labor. 'Nuff said - no apologies, no guilt.
posted by davidmsc at 9:39 AM on April 2, 2001

I'm not accusing anyone here of holding this opinion, but some of the comments have hinted at the "if you feed them, they'll just have more babies" argument. This rationalization is often used by those who don't want to part with their cash, but it doesn't hold up under close scrutiny. Many of the programs address the problem in its entirety and focus not just on food, but on education and other means to help end the cycle of poverty. Birth rates tend to decrease as the standard of living rises and people, especially women, become better educated. Tungsten's concerns about environmental impact are justified, but one could argue that a large, poorly educated, starving population can have a devastating impact on the environment. This is a politically, economically, and scientifically complex problem which can only be solved if developed nations devote more effort and resources than they currently do.
posted by gimli at 9:41 AM on April 2, 2001

As a sort of sidebar/alternate p.o.v./extension of tungsten's comment, there is VEHMT, the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. Interesting perspective on our duty to the planet.
posted by starvingartist at 9:43 AM on April 2, 2001

This entire POV is based solely on the highly-flawed belief that "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." If we were to operate in this mindset, you could say that every time you drink Coke, you *could* be drinking a generic substitute and giving your money to charity. Want a steak? Nope, you get a bologna sandwich, and the money you earned through hard work goes to the poverty-striken peoples of <insert third-world country> Pretty soon, we're a "rich" nation suffering from malnutrition because all we eat are bologna sandwiches and drink generic cola, while all of the "aid" we've sent to foreign countries has done little but devalue their own monetary system, sinking them further into poverty.

No thanks. I don't even own a TV, but when I do get around to purchasing one, I'm going to buy the most goddamned expensive TV I can find.
posted by Danelope at 9:58 AM on April 2, 2001

Witold is dead-on. People are starving, not because of lack of resources, but because their own evil governments/ruling militias are taking all of their resources.
I give to charity. However, all my dollars are going to those who I can be assured will be helped by my donation.
posted by sonofsamiam at 10:02 AM on April 2, 2001

To go extend even further on what Danelope said (and just to play Devil's advocate) -

What if you just don't give a damn? Where is it written that we must give to those less fortunate than ourselves? I remember learning in psychology class that pure altruism is extremely difficult to explain in terms of psychology - that altruism doesn't really exist outside of human relations. If it's something we've invented to make ourselves feel better, then there must be some individuals who don't feel that need and just don't care about the downtrodden. Is that really such a crime?

No flames, please. This is not a manifesto. I'm merely trying to bring up the other side of this argument, the ugly side that few people like to talk about.
posted by starvingartist at 10:35 AM on April 2, 2001

That's why most people believe in morals. Nobody can force someone to be altruistic. There are people who don't give a damn.
posted by Loudmax at 11:00 AM on April 2, 2001

Danelope, I don't really see your logic. If all we eat are bologna sandwiches and generic soda, how are we any less nourished than if all we eat are steak and coke?

I don't have any problem with you buying the biggest TV you can find. If you don't care, just say you don't care. But don't cover not caring with specious reasoning.

I believe that Mr. Singer's logic is very difficult to repudiate successfully. I think that the reaction to something so profoundly troubling is generally to dismiss it out of hand because the consequences of agreeing with him are unthinkable.

Living in a capitalistic society necessarily entails having big winners (the people with capital) and big losers. I benefit from capitalism, and I have to live with the consequences of knowing that other people lose when I win. The easiest way for me to deal with that is to not think about it. I'm not real thrilled with myself for being that way.
posted by anapestic at 11:17 AM on April 2, 2001

A little while back I wrote an essay on a system whereby you combine the market and capital of a stock exchange but where an individual (or group) is the object of investment. There's a lot of up and down to it, but I think it could help the perception of a charitable donation evaporating into thin air...
posted by owillis at 11:23 AM on April 2, 2001

For a minute, I thought that said Pete Seeger, which would have been pretty cool. If Pete Seeger has the solution for world poverty, I'd like to hear it.
posted by waxpancake at 11:34 AM on April 2, 2001

How does the "timedollar" alternative currency system account for people whose time is worth more (or less) than others'? If it doesn't, how can it possibly ever be really useful? If it does, why use it instead of regular money?
posted by kindall at 12:32 PM on April 2, 2001

I would like to point out the possibility that these "starving countries" are in the positions they are in because of our (first world) efforts to exploit them and preserve the current economic dichotomy for our own betterment. No doubt this would be phrased as "doing what's best for the citizens of this country." Consequently, governments can seem altruistic by lending money to starving nations, while in reality subjugating them further.
posted by donkeymon at 2:20 PM on April 2, 2001

kindall: community currencies that use time as a measure of value generally suggest that one currency unit is equivilent to one hour of 'basic work', whatever that means. Most systems acknowledge that (say) a lawyer will charge more than (say) a baby sitter, and very few systems lay down the law about what users charge for their services.

What tends to happen is that baby sitters get paid better and lawyers charge less. People who 'don't give a damn' tend not to get involved. Why would they?

LETS systems tend to tie their currencies to the national unit of currency - in our LETS one Teifi = one pound Sterling.

why use it instead of regular money?
Community currencies are interest free; the supply is controlled by the users; the wealth created circulates locally; a 'sense of community' is created; McDonalds' doesn't accept them, but your locally owned café just might.

Last year I earned about £1500 in the LETS' economy, maybe 10% of my total income. Works for me.
posted by ceiriog at 2:40 PM on April 2, 2001

Danelope, I don't really see your logic. If all we eat are bologna sandwiches and generic soda, how are we any less
nourished than if all we eat are steak and coke?

That part was primarily a joke, although I'd hope that steak has a little more nutritional value to it than bologna.

My point is: I've done plenty of charity work in my time (be it through school or church) but the work I've done has allowed me to witness firsthand the impact it was having. I, personally, am tired of America having to play the part of global savior, especially when the results of said charity are counterproductive to the intent.

America has enormous stockpiles of grain that sit in silos and rot because we simply cannot give it away. If we were to dump all of our surplus onto "third-world" countries, it would serve to glut their own (albeit struggling) economy and bring production in those countries to a halt. Who will pay for locally-grown grain if Uncle Sam is giving it away for free? No one. In the end, unfettered charity can cause destitution.

As I said before, this once again goes back to the fallacy of "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." By buying a television, am I personally responsible for condemning a child to death? How many children are we each responsible for murdering in the course of our lives? As someone who has, at times, had to choose between putting gas in the car (so I could go to school) or eating food, I understand how a small sum of money can make a great deal of difference, but when I was in those situations, I wasn't blaming my neighbors for driving expensive cars or dining out.

Rather, I am greater appreciative of the fact that I live in America, and I am moderately "well-off" compared to the rest of the world, and I object to the notion that we should all feel compelled to live ascetically.
posted by Danelope at 6:45 PM on April 2, 2001

We know, too, that at least in the next year, the United States Government is not going to meet even the very modest Umited 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.

This is one of those statistics that has always bugged me. While I have NO idea what the real numbers are, I can GUARANTEE that the United States (NOT just the US government) gives away way more than just 0.09 percent of its GNP to other countries, since a lot of those donations are from private or non-profit organizations. Obviously the government doesn't give away as much, mostly due to the fact that our government taxes us so much less severely than in those other countries.
posted by ookamaka at 9:56 PM on April 2, 2001

While I have NO idea what the real numbers are, I can GUARANTEE that the United States (NOT just the US government) gives away way more than just 0.09 percent of its GNP to other countries

Well, 0.09 percent of ~10 trillion dollars (the US 2000 GDP) is 9 billion dollars, so does that seem reasonable or unreasonable? (I have no clue what amount of money goes to aid other countries.)
posted by daveadams at 8:01 AM on April 3, 2001

Ok, I've been mulling this over in my head for awhile, and I think I know why it bugs me what Singer says.

First, he's arguing as a utilitarian without defining his key question, which is "what is the greatest good for the greatest number?" This becomes important if you consider that more lives than the current generation might be at stake. Continuing a cycle of dependence could, it's true, save the lives of some people this generation but not help in the long term functioning of society in the target area. Thus, it's conceivable that more lives over time could be lost by feeding hungry people now.

As a utilitarian I take a more long range view, not saying that aid is bad, but questioning my culpability in other people's deaths. If I am supposedly under obligation for threatened people around the world, aren't there other people closer to them that are immeasurably more culpable for their suffering? Aren't the warlords who use food as a weapon guilty? This doesn't mean I have no obligation to these people, but I have a real problem with the one:one ratio of money I make beyond necessities that I'm supposed to give away, but it does mean that I'm less obligated than a wealthy person in their own country.

Beyond that, the greatest good for the greatest number is not solely limited to a quantitative view. Let's say instead I buy a bicycle. I already own a car, so I don't need it for transportation. I buy it solely motivated by my own happiness. Doesn't that increase the level of happiness in the world? Doesn't that figure into the happiness level overall? Taken to its logical extreme, Singer's argument would mean that no happiness is ever worth spending any money on as long as suffering in the world exists. Is this the type of life any human wants to live?
posted by norm at 8:45 AM on April 3, 2001

my god, i can't believe the things i'm reading here.

i just hope there is such a thing as reincarnation and you come back as humans born in third world countries. then you can try to remember back to that nice past life with that nice big TV or bike or whatever.
posted by kv at 11:00 AM on April 3, 2001

i think singer raises a very simple and straightforward ethical dilemma. the length and abstractness of the rationalizations posted in response is more surprising than i'd expected.
posted by muppetboy at 11:15 AM on April 3, 2001

i just hope there is such a thing as reincarnation and you come back as humans born in third world countries. then you can try to remember back to that nice past life with that nice big TV or bike or whatever.

I sure as hell wouldn't wait around for death or a handout. I'd be working my ass off to better my life. Actually, most of my ancestors (yours too, I wager...) were in such poverty, couldn't do better where they were, and emigrated.
i think singer raises a very simple and straightforward ethical dilemma. the length and abstractness of the rationalizations posted in response is more surprising than i'd expected.

Is that an argument? Funny, must have missed it.
posted by norm at 11:31 AM on April 3, 2001

Singer begins with the assumption that "Saving Lives" is an absolute good in all cases. I would argue that wherever there is birth, there is death and that arbitrarily postponing death for some (with first world advantages, or through the receipt of third-world aid) presumes that we, the givers of "monetary salvation", know who is deserving.

Our ecosystem couldn't sustain a world population that is well fed and nor can it sustain first world exploitation and over-consumption.

How do we find a system that promotes both justice and sustainability without promoting arbitrary absolutes like "saving lives whenever possible."?
posted by amoeba at 11:48 AM on April 3, 2001

good points, norm, as usual.

there are certainly more culpable people than us. theoretically, if we gave up the culpability and the responsibility arguments (which i'm not totally willing to give up), what should the role be of the fact that we can do good in this situation?

your happiness argument, particularly, is interesting to me.
posted by Sean Meade at 11:52 AM on April 3, 2001

Well, as I tried to point out, I'm not arguing that our responsibility is zero, just that I can't countenance the "every dollar not spent on necessities must go to someone else" approach. It isn't feasible, it's unrealistic, and as I was saying, ultimately it answers the fundamental question of quality of life versus quantity of life for the latter at the (possibly total) expense of the former. I'm not prepared to live the life of an ascetic; it's not that I deserve consumer items but I doubt some of the underpinnings of what Singer says.

For one, I disagree with his basic analogy of the kid on the track; there's no timebound decision that must be made, and we're already guilty of the 'crime', seeing as each one of us has bought frivolous things, anyways, so I don't redeem myself by following his example anyway. For two, I'm not the only one that can act. Therefore, I have no personal obligation to save anyone, from the way I see it. For three, I doubt seriously that my contribution will save anyone from death. I believe that even if I pick the best damn charity out there, they will reach the village and give out the food to the people there. I can't see them going to said village and saying, "you, you, and you get food, but that's all the money we have..." The correlation of my marginal contribution to one child's life is ridiculous; only in concert with other people would any impact be discernible.

Maybe societally we do have an obligation, but that just raises more questions, like how best to fulfill a societal obligation. With government? So, I'm ambivalent at best; recognizing that Singer has a point about how we lead our worthless lives but also wondering when qualitative utility is considered in his worldview, or what to do about what I do agree with.
posted by norm at 1:59 PM on April 3, 2001

norm, what planet are you on?

third world countries. there's no opportunity to work one's ass off and move overseas.

this series of arguments isn't rational it's just ridiculous. you guys are nuts.
posted by kv at 10:00 PM on April 3, 2001

People who try and argue that perhaps coughing up the entirety of their discretionary incomes are irrational, nuts, or simply rationalizing the situation?

And then they get attacked by people who apparently spend their discretionary income on internet connections, computers, and software?

posted by Skot at 8:36 AM on April 4, 2001

Our ecosystem couldn't sustain a world population that is well fed...

Bullshit. There's more than sufficient food available - it's just poorly distributed. Also, the developing world is seriously lacking in GNC stores, so they miss out on some vitamins and such. But you'd feel like an idiot shipping Flintstones Chewable vitamins to Africa, wouldn't you?

Hell, if we really wanted them to eat well, we could ship them all of the stray dogs and cats that we execute.

Overpopulation isn't a problem yet. If you think it is, then you should probably move.
posted by Jart at 11:01 AM on April 4, 2001

yeah, sure, Skot, the suggestion here really is that you give up your entire income.
posted by kv at 4:11 PM on April 4, 2001

Not income, kv, discretionary income. And that's not a stretch.

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.

Cross apply earlier arguments, reiterate skepticism of premises, insinuate your hypocrisy, etc.
posted by norm at 6:51 PM on April 4, 2001

nobody is saying that people should do that. i leave one word out of my post and you get back on that high horse. yada yada yada i earned the money i'm not giving it all away yada yada yada. not much use talking about things with people who dont care.
posted by kv at 7:25 PM on April 4, 2001

Forgot to set out the quote by italics. That was from Singer. The article, remember? I'm not terribly impressed by your "arguments," kv. Try presenting some.
posted by norm at 9:13 PM on April 4, 2001

2nd comment on this page.
posted by kv at 8:38 PM on April 5, 2001

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