Peter Singer & Rational Irrationality

The push is on.  Peter Singer’s new book on how selfish you are has hit the shelves. The reviews are in.  The follow-up articles have followed. The book tour–complete with carbon off-sets–has begun. But as Big Vlad always said, Cui bono? 

Singer writes: 

In my new book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, I draw a parallel with a situation in which you come across a small child who has fallen into a pond and is in danger of drowning. You know that you can easily and safely rescue him, but you are wearing an expensive pair of shoes that will be ruined if you do. We all think it would be seriously wrong to walk on past the pond — in fact, most people think it would be monstrous. Yet most people don’t think it wrong to buy expensive shoes that they don’t need rather than give the money to an organization that would put it toward interventions that could save a child’s life. Although the parallel between the two situations is not exact, even after exploring the differences, I do not think we can justify our sharply differing moral judgments. We should conclude that when we can save the life of an innocent human being at a modest cost to ourselves, we should do so.

William Easterly says, in fact no, the two situations are not exact: 

The most important is that you know exactly what to do to save the child, whereas it is not at all clear that you (or anyone else) knows exactly what to do to save the lives of poor children or how to get them out of extreme poverty.

And also: 

Another difference is that you are the one acting directly to save the drowning child, whereas there are multiple intermediaries between you and the poor child — an international charity, an official aid agency, a government, a local aid worker.

The isolated drowning child elicits an intuition based on compassion, or more precisely, a feeling that we ought to prevent an immediate, proximate harm.  As Easterly notes, we can effectively act on that intuition: we probably know how to pull the child out of the water and we happen to be on the scene to do it.  But the differences Easterly identifies–the information problem and the unreliable intermediary problem–sets the stage for spectacular displays of rational irrationality.

For in the the case of aiding the distant poor, it seems we have the same intuition.  It would be wrong not to prevent the harm.  But now here’s the dirty rub.  Historically people have long satisfied that intuition, not by aiding those worse off, but by purchasing the goods on sale in the marketplace of ineffective philanthropy.  They purchase the good, most likely a donation to a charity of their choice, and then blissfully ignore how effectively that donation is used. Live Aid is a case in point.  (See, Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo.) An addendum could be added to Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter.  He could entitle the chapter, “The Myth of the Rational Donation.” 

Which brings me back to Peter Singer.  All of his policy recommendations betray his rather orthodox left-wing views and a weak understanding of economics.  The kind of redistribution he advocates has been standard fare from Oxford philosophers for 40 years. And a true utilitarian, one who was actually concerned with improving the well-being of the worst-off, would advocate wealth-creating initiatives and policy changes.  As Will Wilkinson points out, one place to start would be labor mobility

Let me add one more difference between the drowning child and aiding the distant poor.  There are incentive effects. “Swim at your own risk” signs are in place on the shore for a reason. They warn you of potential dangers, but they also remind you that the responsibility to take precautions is yours.  Once we signal that it’s no longer your fault that you find yourself drowning, that we will save you, no matter how far out you are, no matter which rip-tide you find yourself in, no matter what we’re doing now–that message signals to all swimmers that it’s okay to take more risk than they otherwise would if they had to carry that weight themselves.  As with charitable aid, so with life guards: we need the equivalent of a swim-at-your-own-risk policy, where it’s reasonable.  

So who benefits from Singer’s moral indignation? Well, Peter Singer. He has built a whole career out of rationally satisfying his irrational leftward bias.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Peter Singer & Rational Irrationality

  1. pez

    http://www.southparkstudios.com/guide/109/
    click to play the episode.

    pretty much says it all…I love the Stavin Marvin!

  2. The Drunken Priest

    That’s hilarious!

  3. Thomas Hogg

    Peter Singer’s example of saving the child in the pond as the principal basis of his argument for foreign aid is wrong headed because it confuses the critical with the chronic
    Immediate danger (eg caused by an earthquake or tsunami) requires us to respond with urgent aid to fix a critical problem, but an ongoing problem such as chronic poverty requires us find what are its causes and what are the best ways to remove or overcome those causes ( something that Paul Collier has done for Africa but which Singer seems incapable of understanding; as Easterly says Singer has only a weak grasp of economics and in fact seems to disdain it )
    The different approaches to critical vs chronic can be illustrated with reference to Singer ‘s example of the girl drowning in the pond
    If we first came upon her drowning then ethically as Singer says we should wade in to save her, even if it damages our new shoes. But what if every night we find the same girl drowning in the same pond? Do we continue to wade in every night or do we (exasperatedly) eventually seek a more permanent solution such as demanding that either the local government fence the pond and/or the girl’s parents look after her better?
    The same approach needs to be applied to solve the chronic problem of continuing poverty of a region. As Collier has shown aid has only a part role to play in a range of necessary policy actions (and even then only if it is properly targeted and suitably timed)

  4. Tom

    Having heard Peter Singer lecture for 6 hours on this exact topic, I would like to point out that he is would welcome efforts at tackling the root causes of poverty and addressing the barriers that prevent ‘normal’ economic models (‘wealth-creating initiatives’, as the blog calls them) from functioning properly in situations of extreme poverty. Hes not “aid or nothing”. He urges others to use their money and expertise to tackle the deeper issues head-on.

    Singer strongly argued that aid was definitely not the sole solution – but for the sake of the ethical argument he opted to calculate a basic, conservative cost of saving an individual human life in a developing country (discussing quality-adjusted life-years), taking into account the usual objections such as corruption, administrative fees, etc., and basing it on recent actual data. This is the most direct fit to the Drowning Child thought experiment.

    In Western countries most people do not give any/much money to charitable organisations (including campaigning groups for better legislation, fairer trade rules, etc.) and almost all governments fail to meet their own targets for overseas aid. Singer tries to fit the applied aspects of his book to this reality, and therefore argues that the individual’s responsibility is to give a large proportion of his/her income to a charity of choice, circumventing the need for government, and taking upon themselves to select a charity with which they are comfortable (and Singer gives many pointers to finding out more about which charities are reliable). This income giving is a minimum: a cost-benefit analysis of changing careers, devoting one’s own time to charitable activities, and so on, are also advocated with utilitarian zeal.

    Despite this blog, I don’t think Singer’s argument comes down to a left-wing/right-wing disagreement. The thought experiment of the Drowing Child argues for a moral equivalence regardless of proximity, for negative as well as positive obligations. There has yet to be a single moral philosopher who comes up with a convincing argument against that equivalence, so their last refuge is “it’s a bit too extreme”, a cultural rather than philosophical objection.

    If one accepts Singer’s premise, the practical outworkings of it inevitably involve politics and economics and competing ideologies.

    Sure, Singer holds left-wing views of a sort. The blogger clearly holds an opposed ideology but makes not attempt to give it the rational justification s/he demands of Singer. “A true utilitarian” would not hold any political ideology, but be pragmatic – and I think Singer’s book and lectures were just that. I suspect that Hayek could mesh with Singer to produce some curious economics about how the market will lift dying children out of their plight if only we would spend more of our money on material goods. But as capitalism is currently practiced, it hasn’t really worked. Time for some pragmatism.

    And, incidentally, Easterly is also a professor making a career out of moral indignation who likewise puts his money where his mouth is.

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