Thursday, August 1, 2013

Sen on development and patience

Another post without much of a point, I'm afraid, except to recommend this interview with Amartya Sen. Some interesting passages and then a little on charity and politics:
The consciences of the Indian middle classes can be stirred, and, when they are, political action follows.
But he admits "intellectual wonder" at how it is that more people can't see that economic growth without investment in human development is unsustainable – and unethical. What underpins the book is a deep faith in human reason, the roots of which he traces to India's long argumentative tradition going as far back as the Buddha. If enough evidence and careful analysis is brought to bear on this subject then one can win the argument, and it is this faith that has sustained him through more than five decades of writing on human development. It was his work which led to the development of the much cited UN's Human Development Index.
Influential he has certainly been, but he acknowledges he still hasn't won the argument. To his dismay, there are plenty of examples where people seem set on ignoring the kind of evidence he stacks up; in passing he asks: "How can anyone believe austerity with high levels of unemployment is intelligent policy for the UK?"
Some argue that Sen is the last heir to a distinguished Bengali intellectual tradition that owed as much to poets as it did to scientists, politicians and philosophers. Sen is the true inheritor of Rabindranath Tagore, the great poet and thinker of the early decades of the 20th century. A family friend, he named Sen as a baby; the only photograph in Sen's Cambridge study is that of the striking Tagore with his flowing white beard.
But on one issue Sen admits he now parts company with Tagore, and instead he quotes Kazi Nazrul Islam, Bengal's other great poet who became an iconic figure for the nation of Bangladesh. Tagore was too patient; Nazrul was the rebel urging action. And he repeats a quote he uses in the book: "Patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue." 
Perhaps the truth is that despair is sometimes disguised as patience, but it's understandable that a chapter of his new book (co-written with Jean Drèze) should be called "The Need for Impatience." 

Now for some more on economics and charity, politics, etc. I linked earlier to a post at NewAPPS about Peter Buffett on charity. Now he has joined in the discussion over there. It's worth reading, although my side (against Buffett) seems to have more or less lost. The winning side is led by Dan Kervick, who writes:
A system in which liberals tolerate massive inequality, exploitation and structural dysfunction on the one hand, and then lobby rich people to "give back" in various ways - creative and sometimes effecting though those give-backs might be - is an embrace of injustice and the prerogatives of power, not a challenge to it. Charity-state liberalism and the cult of philanthropy are neoliberal capitalism's way of defending itself against structural change while buying indulgences for its sins.
This might be true, but can't one support charitable organizations and their work, and encourage the rich to do so too, without tolerating massive inequality, etc.? There is a kind of libertarian or "nice Republican" position that does indeed tolerate massive inequality (and the rest) but regards "giving back" as a moral duty. This is pretty much the thinking of old-fashioned British Tories from the days when the Church of England was called the Conservative Party at prayer. It sometimes seems to show up in the ideas of some people in the Shepherd Poverty Program, with which I'm involved. Noblesse oblige would be one way to put it. But that isn't the view of most liberals. People like Obama are against massive inequality. They only tolerate it in the sense that they fail to eradicate it. But so does everybody else. It seems to me reasonable to do what one can politically to reduce inequality, exploitation, and structural dysfunction, while simultaneously supporting non-political means to make people's lives better. This might in some ways suit neoliberal capitalism, but what's the alternative? The comment about a bunch of white people getting angry about capitalism comes to mind. We can refuse to "embrace injustice" and let things get so bad that the inevitable revolution comes and fixes everything, but I suspect we'll be waiting a long time. And it won't be people like me who suffer most in the meantime. (I doubt I have captured what Buffett and his supporters really have in mind, but I honestly don't know what it is if it isn't this kind of hard-hearted wishful thinking.)

As I write the most recent comment there is from Mike Otsuka. He says:
Suppose that it were impossible to do any good, via charitable donations, beyond of the borders of one's country. It's only possible to assist those in one's own country. In that case, I think people who are outraged by the conditions of the domestic poor would not be so keen to embrace philanthropic giving as a means to address their plight. Rather than encouraging the rich to give a lot to charities that will provide assistance to the homeless, or resources for underfunded schools in poorer neighbourhoods, or better health care for the poor, energies would be directed towards getting the government to address these problems. And I don't think this is because they necessarily think such political action would be more effective than charitable giving. Rather, it's because they regard domestic poverty as a systemic, institutional injustice for which we're collectively responsible and which should be addressed collectively. A focus on philanthropy would be regarded with suspicion as a refuge for those who think of poverty, not in these terms, but rather as something that engages a duty of charity: noblesse oblige, George Herbert Walker Bush's Thousand Points of Light, David Cameron's Big Society.
I think he's right that a lot of what bothers people about philanthropy at the global level is what would bother people about a focus on philanthropy domestically in this kind of situation. But isn't the dichotomy here false? Why not embrace philanthropy as a means to address the plight of the poor while also working for a larger-scale political solution? Are you really going to turn away the hungry at the door? And why contrast energies being directed towards getting the government to address problems with encouraging the rich to give a lot to charities? Can't we do both? Is our collective energy that limited? And why switch between talk about "a focus on philanthropy" and just "philanthropy"? It's true that poverty is a systematic institutional injustice for which we're collectively responsible and which should be addressed collectively. But this doesn't mean that we shouldn't help people out in the meantime, and encourage those who benefit from the system to see that they have a duty to help too. It doesn't take long, and its effects are far more certain than those of political agitation. Anyone who refuses to help on the grounds that it will be better in the long run if suffering is allowed to get worse now should be first up against the wall come the revolution. (Well, maybe not. But nothing but swearing comes to mind.) Not that anyone is saying this, but they aren't clearly saying anything else.


  1. This came up when I was discussing Rawls' Difference Principle in a summer intro to philosophy class yesterday. From that perspective, it seems that one could say that if philanthropy, charity, volunteerism, etc., are getting the job done, then that's fine, but if unjust inequalities persist--or if some people hoard--then justice requires other measures (e.g. taxation that funds relevant programs). I present the idea, sometimes, like this: we get to where we are partly by our efforts, but also partly through good fortune and social support. So we can't claim all the credit (or hoard all the spoils). So you can either give back out of the goodness or your heart (and pick your cause and get a fair tax break), or you can be taxed. Put in abstract terms, many students seem not too opposed to the thought. Maybe part of the problem with Rawls is simply that it's abstract, so doesn't take us too far with "real world" problems. The devil is always in the details (such and such program didn't work, government programs tend to be less efficient (is that true? I don't know), and so forth).

  2. Yes, my view is that we tried to solve our problems through charity and it didn't work. The welfare state (such as it is) was not created because of some ideology but in response to a clear need. But when people have needs that aren't met by the state, the only options seem to be to do nothing directly for them or to help them. And in some cases only the latter seems OK.

    There's also the question of how we got where we are. Luck and privilege certainly play a part in that. So maybe the rich ought to help the poor.

    And then there's the question of property rights. It's hard to take seriously the idea that property rights are absolute (and so that taxing the rich to help the poor is unjust) when land and natural resources are such a big part of property, and these have largely been taken by force.

    The details are always relevant, yes, and I don't think there is a consistent pattern of government programs always being more or less efficient than others. This can be a fun exercise regarding what works and what doesn't (not all relevant to political philosophy necessarily though): But I think theories like Rawls' are worth getting into, if only because they can show that Nozick-type theories are not as obviously right as some people seem to think.

  3. This brought to mind two very different passages from two very different philosophers. First, Bernard Williams, discussing humanitarian intervention in international affairs:

    "I take it that the moral principle of rescue in everyday life goes something like this:
    (1) If X is in peril and
    (2) Y is saliently related to X's peril and
    (3) Y can hope to offer effective aid to X
    (4) at a cost to Y, which is not unreasonably high, Y ought to help X.


    A single person Y is unlikely as an individual to be able to help at reasonable cost to himself; or, at any rate, he is unlikely to think that he is. A collection of people may be able to help at reasonable cost. But then there is a difficulty with salience, which takes the form of a co-ordination problem: who dares, or will take the responsibility, to take the lead? This seems to be the most general explanation of the notorious failure of rescue in modern urban circumstances; and when the situation does favour a spontaneous solution to the co-ordination problem (in particular, when there is appropriate common knowledge), rescue may emerge.

    However, there is the further fact that in a modern functioning state there are usually agents who are institutionally salient, in the form of the police, and private citizens predictably think that the police must be at hand, someone else must have called them, and so forth.


    If the question of salience lies primarily in power, then it may become insoluble in terms of the rescue paradigm. A uniquely powerful state stands at the same distance from all disasters. Consider Michael Walzer's list of possible cases for intervention: civil war, political tyranny, ethnic or religious persecution. We are confronted with a catalogue of constant and recurrent disasters which clearly has parted company with the model of the moral principle of rescue, where the passing citizen finds himself unusually saliently related to an unexpected emergency. Continual disasters are the business of the rescue services, and since many of the situations are of the hostility type, it is a matter of a police force as well."

    ("Humanitarianism and the Right to Intervene", in In the Beginning Was the Deed, pp. 146–147, 149.)

    I think this applies mutatis mutandis to poverty, just as well as it applies to crimes against humanity. Poverty is of a piece with Walzer's "catalogue of constant and recurrent disasters".

    For instance, I may be morally responsible for putting out a particular fire and rescuing its victims, if I cannot for some exceptional reason call the fire brigade, or it cannot for some exceptional reason come to the rescue. But the ordinary, default onus of responsibility for putting out (major) fires is nevertheless with the local fire brigade.

    There was a simpler, idyllic time when volunteer fire brigades played a major role in firefighting, but they have already been a disappearing breed for a long time, completely analogously with the diminishing role of private charity in reducing poverty. Because "the question of salience lies primarily in power", it is "insoluble in terms of the rescue paradigm"; and "[c]ontinual disasters are the business of the rescue services."

  4. Second, G. A. Cohen, on a thought experiment in which none of ten people leave the room at the cost of leaving the nine others trapped, even when it would be personally very much advisable for any one of the ten to do so (a metaphor in Cohen's paper for upward social mobility in conditions of capitalism):

    "Though each is individually free to leave, he suffers with the rest from what I shall call collective unfreedom.

    In defense of this description, let us reconsider the question why the people do not try to leave. None of the reasons suggested earlier – lack of desire, laziness, diffidence – go beyond what a person wants and fears for himself alone. But the annals of human motivation show that sometimes people care about the fate of others, and they sometimes have that concern when they share a common oppression. Suppose, then, not so wildly, that there is a sentiment of solidarity in that room. A fourth possible explanation of the absence of attempt to leave now suggests itself. It is that no one will be satisfied with a personal escape which is not part of a general liberation.

    (Footnote: "In a stimulating commentary on the argument of Sections VII and VIII, Jon Elster notes that '[...] whatever is desirable if it happens to all members simultaneously is not necessarily desirable if it happens to one member separately and exclusively' [...]. Elster shows that such structures pervade social life.")


    Finally, there is the fact that not all workers would like to be petty or transpetty bourgeois. Eugene Debs said, 'I do not want to rise above the working class, I want to rise with them,' thereby evincing an attitude like the one lately attributed to the people in the locked room. It is sometimes true of the worker that, in Brecht's words,

    He wants no servants under him
    And no boss over his head.

    Those lines envisage a better liberation: not just from the working class, but from class society."

    ("The Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom", pp. 11–12, 13.)

    If "no one will be satisfied with a personal escape which is not part of a general liberation", or if "whatever is desirable if it happens to all members simultaneously is not necessarily desirable if it happens to one member separately and exclusively", then it may be that the patchy escapes from poverty which private charity facilitates are "not necessarily desirable".

  5. Third, an additional point of my own. Charities have traditionally played favourites, in keeping with the stereotypical and idealised image they have of the deserving recipient of charity.

    Often charity is compared favourably with state action, in tones of something like Millian liberalism: it lets the charitable direct their resources to exactly those purposes which they personally think best, and away from other purposes. But in one important sense, state action is morally superior to charity precisely because it is so much more anonymous, cold and indiscriminate.

    In the pre-welfare-state past, when charity was all there was, some subgroups of the unfortunate suffered terribly, not because charities lacked the resources needed, but because they did not fit the socially prevalent stereotype of the morally deserving recipient. Gypsies and travellers froze to death in winter, while the native born were offered shelter whenever needed. The developmentally handicapped were shackled to cellar walls to keep them away from polite society, and the fate of the mentally ill depended not on their own individual needs, but on how embarrassingly or indecorously they behaved. If a whore got VD, it was the wages of sin, so help was withheld.

    Not until the state became involved on a large scale did anything like charity extend all the way to the outcasts and pariahs of society, precisely thanks to the cold and impersonal attitude of state-employed social workers, who did not view charity as a moral reward for conformist behaviour or for membership of the in-group. We cannot simultaneously extend the benefits of Millian liberalism both to charitable givers (in giving them a direct say in the use of their money) and to the recipients of their charity (in giving them a right to charity even when they are stigmatised and ostracised). And I for one would prefer the recipients to win and the givers lose.

    This is not an attack on charity. Of course it's far, far better than nothing. But it is an argument for seeing charity as an unfortunate second-best.

  6. Thanks, Tommi. I agree with all this.

    I'm amazed at how many independent charitable organizations there are in the United States whose efforts would surely be more successful if they were more coordinated, and which ought not to have to exist in such a wealthy country. Charity here is definitely an unfortunate second-best.

    The same is true for charity aimed at people in other countries, although it's less surprising that developing nations don't have better welfare provisions.

    What I disagree with is any suggestion that charity is worse than nothing. Some of the comments that have recently been made on the subject suggested to me that people might be saying this (Brian Leiter's calling his blog post "Against charity," for instance). But it's not clear to me exactly what is being said, nor whether everyone is really talking about the same thing. Leiter's title might have been chosen more to be provocative or for the sake of brevity than because it reflects his actual views accurately. Or maybe not.

    Here's my comment at NewAPPS for those who haven't seen it:

    My sympathies were initially very much with Neil Sinhababu, but I realize now that I'm unclear exactly what the disagreement is about. In comment #5 above Dan Kervick writes of Peter Buffett that: "All he seems to be saying is that he wants to re-direct some of his giving away from the mere amelioration of the consequences of ugly systems, and is ambitious to do something about the underlying ugliness." In comment #4 Neil Sinhababu says that: "I make some suggestions about how to get [systemic change] in this post -- give money to lobbying groups that support the interests of the poorest people in the world." So it seems that both sides support a combination of charitable giving to ameliorate the bad consequences of the system we have and political action to change the system itself.

    At #22 Mike Otsuka refers to "a focus on philanthropy," which adds to my sense that what is at issue is really a question of priorities. No one is really against charity, and everyone agrees that we should pursue both such measures as giving people mosquito nets and political/economic change. Is that right? If it is then both sides seem perfectly reasonable and I don't think it matters much who is right. Let some people work primarily for political change and others focus primarily on the alleviation of immediate suffering.

    On the other hand, sometimes in this debate people have talked specifically about the philanthropy of the very rich, and about being against philanthropy, perhaps meaning all philanthropy, philanthropy as such. So it's unclear to me whether the "anti-charity" side is against a) all charity, b) regarding charity as more important than political change, c) charitable giving by the likes of Bill Gates, or d) regarding charitable giving by the likes of Bill Gates as more important (or simply better) than political change. Being against d means being against the kind of noblesse oblige attitude that Mike Otsuka describes. That seems reasonable. Being against all philanthropy seems highly unreasonable, but it is a position that people might try to defend.

    It would help me if everyone were clearer about what exactly they are opposing or defending, but perhaps I'm the only one confused. (I wouldn't be amazed if some people on the "anti-charity" side opposed d while some on the "pro-charity" side were defending a, but it's hard to tell.)