Singer is the most outspoken proponent of arguments like this, but several other philosophers have modified this analogy over the years in an attempt to probe just how altruistic or selfish we are when it comes to helping those in need around the world. This week's thought experiment provides yet another path of exploration down this line of thinking.
"Right," said Roger, the self-appointed captain of the lifeboat. "There are twelve of us on this vessel, which is great, because it can hold up to twenty. And we have plenty of rations to last until someone comes to get us, which won't be longer than twenty-four hours. So, I think this means we can safely allow ourselves an extra chocolate biscuit and a shot of rum each. Any objections?"
"Much as I'd doubtless enjoy the extra biscuit," said Mr. Mates, "shouldn't our main priority right now be to get the boat over there and pick up the poor drowning woman who has been shouting at us for the last half hour?" A few people looked down into the hull of the boat, embarrassed, while others shook their heads in disbelief.
"I thought we had agreed," said Roger. "It's not our fault she's drowning, and if we pick her up, we won't be able to enjoy our extra rations. Why should we disrupt our cosy set-up here?" There were grunts of agreement.
"Because we could save her, and if we don't she'll die. Isn't that reason enough?"
"Life's a bitch," replied Roger. "If she dies, it's not because we killed her. Anyone for a digestive?"
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 61.
Well that's a bit harsh. And I don't mean Captain Roger's words, but the implication behind them that it is we who are Roger. Yet this is what Singer basically said in 2009, when he expanded his 1972 essay into the book The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. In it, Singer presents the following philosophical argument (p. 15):
1.) First Premise: Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad.
2.) Second Premise: If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.
3.) Third premise: By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.
4.) Conclusion: Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong.
Singer says that, "many of his readers enjoy at least one luxury that is less valuable than a child's life. He says his readers ought to sacrifice such a luxury (e.g. bottled waters) and send proceeds to charity, if they can find a reliable charity. ... He endorses GiveWell, a charity evaluator, as a way to identify the most reliable, effective charities."
But in a much-shared article from the New Republic last year, called Stop Trying to Save the World: Big Ideas are Destroying International Development, a long-time aid worker casts doubt on Singer's third premise and tells how organisations game these charity evaluations all the time by hiding overhead costs in the day-to-day work of already overstretched staff, making the whole operation even more inefficient. When I was in the Peace Corps, a book about how the international aid world was failing made the rounds among many of the volunteers in our country, but when I tried to find it online today for this post, I couldn't because any such search on this topic turns up dozens and dozens of similar books detailing failures in this arena.
In just one of these books, Dead Aid, the Zambian economist and author Dambisa Moyo argues we should, stop giving aid to Africa; it's just not working. Specifically, she says:
"As early as the sixties, Peter Bauer, the development economist, was describing development aid as 'a tax on poor people in rich countries that benefits rich people in poor countries'. ... My own family suffers the consequences of development aid every day. What are those consequences? First and foremost the widespread corruption. The people in power plunder the treasury and the treasury is filled with development aid money. The corruption has contaminated the whole of society. Aid leads to bureaucracy and inflation, to laziness and inertia. Aid hurts exports. Thanks to foreign aid the people in power can afford not to care about their people. But the worst part of it is: aid undermines growth. The economies of those countries that are the most dependent on foreign aid have shrunk by an average of 0.2 percent per year ever since the seventies."
In Ukraine, my wife and I witnessed this first hand on a much smaller scale, and were even chastised by U.S. government officials when we cautiously asked if money could be steered away from a known corrupt local. There is no doubt that good people exist who are doing good aid work, but it turns out it's really hard to know who they are. And that's not even trying to factor in unintended consequences of good acts.
Earlier this year, Singer published yet another book on this subject: The Most Good You Can Do. When University of Chicago Law School professor Eric Posner reviewed the book for Slate Magazine, he concluded:
"So what’s an effective altruist to do? The utilitarian imperative to search out and help the people with the highest marginal utility of money around the world is in conflict with our limited knowledge about foreign cultures, which makes it difficult for us to figure out what the worst-off people really need. For this reason, donations to Little League and other local institutions you are familiar with may not be a bad idea. The most good you can do may turn out to be—not much."
For all his talk, Singer only settles on recommending a standard of giving of "at least 1% of net income", which truly isn't very much. So sifting through these arguments back and forth, we find that things aren't so clear as rowing a boat over to pluck a drowning woman from the sea. This week's thought experiment is therefore a very weak analogy. Our path forward in trying to find solutions to a very complex problem should, as is often the case, take a clue from evolution by tinkering around the edges with small scale trial and error processes as we work towards the admittedly obvious goal of increasing human flourishing everywhere.
In the FAQs for Bridging the Is-Ought Divide, I wrote a little bit about this that I think still stands. I said:
Q. Does this concern for all of life mean we can’t enjoy many of the things that make us human? Singer already tells us we should morally give all our spare money to other poor people across the globe. Do we have to do the same for birds and flies and plants and bacteria now too?
A. Singer stated that we should have “equal concern for all human beings” but that lead him to conclusions about charity and largesse that were out of touch with our actual moral urges. While all human beings originally have equal standing for claims, especially from the point of view of the veil of ignorance, the actual force of their claims on us is variable depending on many things such as our ability to satisfy their claims, their reputation from prior actions, or their possibility of reciprocating aid over repeated interactions in the future. Moral concerns are a force that behaves somewhat like gravity with stronger pulls by larger bodies at close distances often overshadowing the background tugs of fainter objects far away. As long as we remain sensitive to the possibility that the collection of those tugs from fainter objects may occasionally outweigh those from more obvious sources, then there is no reason we can’t enjoy many of the localized concerns that make us human.
But what do you think? Do you agree with the argument that only giving 1% is enough to make us human?