Sunday, July 28, 2013

In favor of charity

Brian Leiter links to this piece in the New York Times and encourages "philosophers who seem to think charitable giving is an ethical imperative" to contemplate it. The author, Peter Buffett, makes some odd complaints about charity. Here's one:
Often the results of our decisions had unintended consequences; distributing condoms to stop the spread of AIDS in a brothel area ended up creating a higher price for unprotected sex.
How is this bad? If unprotected sex with prostitutes costs more than it used to then, other things being equal, there will be less of it than before. That's a good thing. The problem, or problems (the spread of AIDS and the existence of prostitution), isn't completely solved, but progress has been made. I suppose raising the price of unprotected sex incentivizes it for prostitutes, but if the price is raised by distributing condoms (thereby making unprotected sex rarer) then this distribution is not going to lead to more unprotected sex than before. At worst it will make no difference at all, but that isn't what Buffett describes happening.

But that isn't his main point. Here is something closer to that:
Money should be spent trying out concepts that shatter current structures and systems that have turned much of the world into one vast market. Is progress really Wi-Fi on every street corner? No. It’s when no 13-year-old girl on the planet gets sold for sex. But as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine.
The first sentence of this paragraph has a paradoxical sound to it. Too much commercialism? Let's spend money on fixing that! Maybe that would produce good results, but I doubt we'll find a better alternative to those currently available any time soon. There are already ideas other than neoliberalism and universal commodification out there. They need more political support, and I'm sure their supporters would welcome money from people like Buffett to spend on promoting them. (This is what Leiter seems to want, and I agree with him.) Buffett's next two sentences are false. Wi-Fi on every street corner (again, other things equal) is progress. I agree that the forced prostitution of children is worse than a lack of Wi-Fi. So would everyone. That's why we need to get our priorities straight. But progress in a relatively unimportant area is still progress. Increasing access to technology, education, or safer living conditions is not going to cause people to have worse lives (as measured by such things as how many of them are forced into prostitution).

In short, charitable giving done intelligently is far more likely to do good than harm, and almost certainly is an ethical imperative for most of the people who read Leiter's blog.

More (and better) from Neil Sinhababu at NewAPPS.

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