Sunday, February 19, 2017

Limits to charity

Charity Is Not How We Solve Poverty | Foundation for Economic Education - Jason Sorens:

February 19, 2017 - "In a famous 1972 article, 'Famine, Affluence, and Morality,' philosopher Peter Singer compared global poverty to a child drowning in a pond: ': '[I]f it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it. An application of this principle would be as follows: if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.'

"If we ought to prevent something very bad from happening whenever we can do so without sacrificing anything morally significant, then we also ought to spend much of our lives and wealth on rescuing people from starvation and disease.... Instead of buying a Starbucks coffee once a week, you could save that money – about $200 over the course of a year – and give it to a charity that saves lives. It’s morally wrong to buy Starbucks coffee when there are people dying around the world. Letting someone die so that you can enjoy Starbucks is like letting a child drown rather than getting your suit muddy....

"Singer’s argument faces two main difficulties. First, he thinks it’s obvious that consuming luxuries isn’t morally significant. But is that right?... Second, he thinks saving poor people’s lives is about as simple as wading into a pond and dragging a drowning child out of danger. But in fact it might be a lot more complicated.

"Let’s think about the first point. Global poverty is a really big problem. There are millions of people suffering from extreme poverty and a very high likelihood of early death. If it were always wrong to consume a luxury whenever there were someone whose life could be saved instead, we would in fact be morally obligated never to consume any luxury, and to spend essentially our whole surplus wealth and time on saving people. It’s as if there were millions of ponds with millions of children drowning in them. To live up to a moral duty to save every life, we’d have to spend our entire lives going from pond to pond.

"That kind of life might not be worth living. You’d be turning yourself into a virtual slave of the people you save. Your life would have no value to you.... It isn’t clear at what point it becomes morally permissible for us to focus on our own desires rather than spending our resources on saving others, but it’s definitely well before the point of 'marginal utility' (when you become as bad off as someone in extreme poverty). The point isn’t that you don’t have a duty to save people – you do – but there are limits, real though difficult to nail down precisely, to the duty.

"The second point is that saving people isn’t simple. Giving money to a charity that claims to help people may not do very much good and may even do net harm. Extreme poverty in the world today is generally the fault of some human organization or institution, usually a government but often rebel groups, gangs, and other purveyors of violence.... If giving to a charity empowers some vicious gang or government that keeps people poor, you’ve just made poor people’s lives worse....

"Extreme poverty is falling around the world, mostly because governments have chosen to let their people join the global marketplace. The biggest reductions in poverty have happened in China, where post-1980 market reforms have raised 680 million people out of poverty. One of the most important things we can do to better the lives of the poor is to fight for their access to property rights and to global markets."

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1 comment:

  1. The main thing Singer seems not to understand is that the money that people have spent the effort and irreplaceable time of their lives earning is that the money and effort in question are THEIRS, and not his. I don't give a damn how he thinks other people should (non-coercively) use the time and energy of their lives. And it doesn't matter what I or you think, either. They earned it, and anything they choose to spend it on (that doesn't contravene the ZAP) is moral and ethical. What isn't moral - or ethical, either, if it involves using force to make them spend it the way Singer and his fellow holier-than-thou philosophers want - is not minding one's own business and browbeating others to live their lives in some way that you just know they should. All of the utilitarian arguments FEE makes are fine, but at the root of it all is the fact that none of us (and especially not Peter Singer) has any right to tell anybody else how to spend the time and effort of their lives. They're THEIR property, after all.