I endorse you save the drowning baby

How We’re Failing

The ethics class I’m taking this summer is currently unpacking Peter Singer’s “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Singer argues that foreign aid in rich countries should be much, much higher than it currently is. His argument goes like this:

1. The suffering and death which is pursuant to poverty is bad.

2. “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” This is standard utilitarianism: you weight different possible actions according to their effects on net happiness, and perform the action with the best effects. Singer limits his articulation of this principle to simply preventing bad things, presumably because a narrower claim is easier to defend than a broader claim. He illustrates (2) 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.”

Singer then claims that there is no important moral distinction between saving the drowning child vs. providing life-saving aid to the thousands of poor toddlers who die every day from preventable causes such as malnutrition, malaria, and diarrhea. If we’re obligated to save the kid in the pond, then we’re obligated to save the kid in Bengal who’ll starve to death without our five-dollar donation to UNICEF. And we ought to continue donating until our own needs outweigh those of the poor, i.e. until we’re equally destitute and starving–or at least until we’ve exhausted our luxury-budget.

The moral thrust of this argument seems exactly right to me. This is the first time I’ve read Singer, but not the first time I’ve noticed that I live in a society which very literally prizes iPads over human lives abroad and leaves the mentally ill to fend for themselves on the streets at home. What I like about Singer’s argument is its unwillingness to court convenient excuses: people are suffering and dying, and we can and therefore should help them.

Poverty Is Not an Accident

That said, I want to dispute two aspects of his position. While I wholeheartedly endorse Singer’s condemnation of rich apathy, I see problems in 1) Singer’s specific suggestions about how to mitigate poverty and 2) the utilitarian framing of ethical truth.

The first issue is fairly straightforward. Basically, it seems to me that Singer is wrong to portray the causes of poverty as a lack–as if poor countries were just left behind the development race, and their poverty is explicable entirely in terms of what hasn’t happened.

This is not the case. Poor countries are poor because of interference from rich countries. The most obvious example of this is historical and current imperialism: poverty and mis-governance in the Philippines and many African countries is a result of colonization by Spain and the United States and by European powers, respectively. The current civil war in Iraq (which presumably harms most those with the least resources) is an effect of the US invasion. Military imperialism perpetrated by powerful countries upon poor countries is an obvious cause of contemporary world poverty.


Perhaps less obvious is the effect of first-world economic policies which pay lip-service to justice while effectively serving selfish interests. Examples:

1. The US-backed IMF and World Bank, which are notorious for essentially loan-sharking poor countries into cutting social services and privatizing their assets (so that owners, rather than citizens, control them).

2. While trumpeting laissez-faire dogma as a development panacea, US lawmakers in practice provide substantial subsidies to domestic firms, effectively giving welfare to business interests.

So in addition to being caused by the obvious imperialism of western military action, world poverty is also nurtured by the rigged-game of international economics. It has also been argued that capitalism necessarily polarizes wealth (and therefore agency); even if access to material goods increases for everyone, relative poverty (which matters to human happiness) increases, both globally and within nations.

I’m oversimplifying some of this, of course, but my point is that despite the complexity of both US strategy and the causes of poverty, it is simply not plausible to suggest that world poverty has nothing to do with American (et al’s) riches. Americans are not only capable of assisting the world’s poor, but also bear much of the responsibility for creating that poverty in the first place. Singer’s description in “Famine” distorts this fact. The relevant ethical question is not, “Should we help those in need?” but rather, “Should we help those whose needs we caused?”

Moreover, if I am correct in my assertion that poverty is created by rich countries, then “helping” consists not of aid abroad but of reform, or revolution, at home. Poverty is a symptom of a deeper economy of power; if we want to fight poverty in fact as well as word, we cannot be satisfied with symptom-oriented solutions. If children keep drowning in ponds, you don’t endlessly drag them out: you find a way to prevent them from needing to be saved in the first place.

Standard In the Sky vs. Starting On the Ground

Now I’ll discuss my problem with the utilitarian framing of ethical truth. It seems to me to be both unjustified and unhelpful to think about ethics in terms of universal law–that is, we should not be asking, “What is the rule that applies to all people, at all times, in all situations?” This is unjustified because, unless Singer et al want to appeal to Forms or God, it just doesn’t make sense to talk as though there are ethical facts waiting to be empirically discovered in the same way that, say, the speed of light or the age of the Earth was discovered. Ethical truth is not descriptive; it’s declarative, in the sense that you have to choose what matters to you and what to do about it. This is why, e.g., John Stuart Mill, in Utilitarianism, jumps back and forth between claiming that utilitarianism is the best fit for our pre-existing ethical intuitions and claiming that utilitarianism is true regardless of whether our ethical intuitions accept it. He wants to be able to say that utilitarianism is descriptively true, but has no basis for doing so besides other people’s (equally ungrounded) opinions.*

The issue of ethics qua choice brings my to my second point: universal, unsituated, depersonalized ethical thinking is unhelpful to successfully performing ethical action, because such thinking defines an ideal of perfect ethical behavior and then describes actual human behavior in terms of how badly we fail to achieve that ideal. It sets a standard in the sky, rather than a starting-point on the ground.

Contrast this to the approach taken by mediation. Participants start by identifying what already matters to them, what they value. Then, with the help of a professional mediator, they look for commonalities between their values and actionable ways of promoting those values. The mediator serves an explicit process, which in turn serves the agency of the participants, which in turn serves their values. Far from presuming to judge Right and Wrong from an omniscient vantage point, the mediator defers to the value-judgments of the parties most affected.

So an ethics rooted in the practical question of how to actualize values we already hold seems to me to be superior to an ethics rooted in theory about objectively perfect action, both in terms of conceptual coherence and pragmatic utility. De gustibus non est disputandum-as with taste, so with values. Despite this criticism, however, and despite Singer’s misunderstanding of what a realistic solution to world poverty would look like, I repeat my endorsement of his main ethical point: people are suffering and dying. We must not stand by and do nothing.

*(Allow me to briefly speculate that the proclivity of modern Western philosophers for objective, universally-valid ethical truth is a consequence of 1-the legacy of Christianity, which [often] conceives of ethical truth in terms of God’s objective, universally-valid law, and 2-privilege, which allows the privileged to think of themselves as unsituated and thus allows a bunch of Western, educated, white guys to conceive of themselves as undifferentiated, universal human beings free from bias or perspective.)

Addendum: check out Singer’s impressively uncompelling TED talk, in which it is even more clear that he sees no causal connection whatsoever between wealth an poverty.


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