Thursday, December 5, 2013

Drowning children

This article on Peter Singer and choosing how best to help others reminds me that I've been meaning to write something about Singer on the obligation to give until giving more would make us worse off than those we are trying to help. I promised something on G. A. Cohen, but find that I have nothing to say. His paper ("If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're so Rich?") is good, but has no conclusion. So I'll talk about Singer instead. I doubt I'll say anything groundbreaking, but here's what struck me most on re-reading his essay on "Famine, Affluence, and Morality."

One objection to providing food aid that he discusses is the fear that it will only temporarily help people avoid starvation, and that they will just starve a year or two later anyway, living miserable lives in the meantime. Singer says that there is very good evidence for this, so he takes it seriously. Here's his response:
It would then follow from the position reached earlier that one ought to be doing all one can to promote population control (unless one held that all forms of population control were wrong in themselves, or would have significantly bad consequences). Since there are organizations working specifically for population control, one would then support them rather than more orthodox methods of preventing famine.
This makes sense, but there is also something odd about it, it seems to me. I can imagine someone giving to, or working for, an organization that distributes contraceptives or information about birth control in poor countries. But can I imagine an affluent person giving so much to such a charity that they become poor themselves? That sounds fanatical (and vaguely racist, given where the poor countries are, and the seeming fanaticism required to want so badly to limit births in these countries). Of course Singer isn't promoting racism, but he's promoting a view that I can only imagine being held by a racist, i.e. a view that seems at least slightly crazy. It makes sense to care about people who are suffering, but I'm not sure that it makes sense to care about suffering itself. What would be the appropriate attitude to take toward pain or suffering (rather than the person or animal suffering from pain or other hardship)? Disapproval? Dislike? It's not clear to me that I can have an attitude toward pain, hardship, or death. There has to be a victim, and then my thoughts and feelings are about that victim, not the suffering itself. It is their suffering qua theirs (or someone's, at any rate) that I care about. So if they don't exist (because they haven't been born yet) then I can't really care about their possible future suffering. At least not in the same way that I care about actual suffering that is going on now. If a child is drowning then it makes sense to go to great lengths to save him. But to go to the same lengths to prevent a child who is probably going to drown from being born? Scarcely intelligible, it seems to me. Of course it is possible to care about population growth, but there is a difference that seems important to me, however dimly I might be seeing it, that Singer appears to ignore.  

Secondly, he writes as if each of us is completely independent and can spend our money as we choose. I suppose in a way that's true, but it's one thing for an affluent person with no dependents to give till it hurts, another for someone with an elderly parent or young children to care for to sacrifice some of that care for the sake of others. I don't mean that having dependents is an excuse to do nothing for victims of famine, etc., but it complicates things in ways that, again, Singer seems to overlook. In fact I don't think 'complicates' is quite the word, since we all have networks of responsibilities that don't lend themselves to utilitarian calculation. I owe something to my parents and children, and to my wife. I have a responsibility to my neighbours not to let my property fall into too much disrepair. My job requires me to wear respectable clothes. My mental health requires that I not deny myself every pleasure. And so on. Exactly how often must I mow my lawn? How much should I spend on work clothes? If I give away so much money that my children can go to college but not as good a college as I would otherwise have been able to afford is that all right? Even if we think of happiness or pleasure as something measurable and quantifiable I'm not sure that the relevant calculations could ever be done. It would be like trying to predict the weather. And I don't believe that happiness is quantifiable anyway.

Should I do more to help people in need? No doubt. But I don't need Singer's argument to tell me that. Still, it might provide a useful nudge in the right direction.