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Peter Singer and The Life You Can Save

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Jun 30th 2011 at 1:39:48 PM

Technically, this is about a book, but I figured On-Topic Conversations was a better fit for it than Literature, because its aim is to inspire real-world action. If you haven't read The Life You Can Save by Prof. Peter Singer, I highly recommend that you do, or that you check out its website.

Singer basically starts with this premise: nearly all of us would consider it immoral not to save a drowning child because we don't want to ruin a new pair of shoes. But why do most of us accept so unquestioningly that it's okay not to save the life of a starving child in the Third World with a charitable donation because we'd rather keep the money for ourselves? Why is it unacceptable to refuse to ruin the shoes to save a life, but perfectly acceptable to buy the shoes in the first place when you know the money could be used to save lives?

He goes through many variations of this analogy, but in the end it boils down to this: either you're a good person even if you let the kid drown for fear of your shoes getting wet, or you're a bad person for not donating to life-saving charities. We in fact seem to expect people to risk their lives to save others - by pushing them out of the way of a car or bus, for example - yet we don't expect them to make a much smaller monetary sacrifice to save a life.

Singer explores a lot of psychological factors that make it more acceptable for us to allow a child to starve in Africa than to allow a kid to drown before our eyes: we can't see the starving children in Africa, we can't relate to them as well as we can to children in our own community, we don't know for certain that we will save their lives if we donate, we think charity is futile because the problem is so big, we undergo the "bystander effect" because other people could help too, and we rail against doing "more than our fair share" of the giving. All of those are reasons, Singer says, but not excuses.

The rest of the book is filled with inspirational tales of people who overcame these evolutionary setbacks, and clever ideas to get people to give more. Then came the big revelation: if every one of the prosperous billion people in the world gave an amount that would hardly dent their standard of living at all to the billion or so living in extreme poverty, starvation and death by preventable diseases would be nearly eradicated in just a decade or two. Even if that's overly optimistic, if we got started now, this is something nearly all of us tropers could live to see, and quite a few of our parents, too.

So why not get started? For most of us, it wouldn't require much of a sacrifice at all. In fact, the worst thing we'd have to do is face the embarrassment of spreading this idea to others in Real Life. I wanted to use this thread to spread the word a bit, but we could discuss things like ideas and challenges and inspirational stories and things, too.

"War doesn't prove who's right, only who's left." "Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future."
DrunkGirlfriend from Castle Geekhaven
Jun 30th 2011 at 2:06:33 PM

It's a good enough idea, but not exactly feasible for some of us. For example, Drunkscriblerian and I have roughly $10 to live off of for the next week, and I'm not sure how we're going to do it.

"I don't know how I do it. I'm like the Mr. Bean of sex." -Drunkscriblerian
Jinren from beyond the Wall
Jun 30th 2011 at 2:10:16 PM

(removed: ehh, too much vitriol)

edited 30th Jun '11 2:12:14 PM by Jinren

TheDeadMansLife Lover of masks.
Lover of masks.
Jun 30th 2011 at 2:17:20 PM

Drowning is a little different from starving. I wouldn't donate.

Jun 30th 2011 at 2:31:19 PM

@DG: I recognize that this would be hard for some people, but the argument was not really directed at people struggling to make ends meet. There are plenty of people, though, who spend pretty wastefully without much increasing their own happiness who could donate and improve their own life as well as the lives of those they help.

I don't really see how drowning is different than starving; they're both dying - one you can save by jumping into the water and possibly putting yourself in danger. The other you can save with about $200.

"War doesn't prove who's right, only who's left." "Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future."
TheDeadMansLife Lover of masks.
Lover of masks.
Jun 30th 2011 at 2:37:04 PM

Drowning. Pretty rare. You need only to help them once and that's it.

Starving. Pretty common. You need to continuously donate to save the person.

If I had to jump in to save the same drowning person more than once in a half-year I would probably let em drown.

Jun 30th 2011 at 2:46:14 PM

How much time should be dedicated to helping people though? One of the problems is getting aid out there, especially how the largese from various different charities that you might donate to would not actually help the "starving child". There is also the arguement that the logistics involved to get Africa "out of poverty" would fuck up the entire place even more. Imagine trying to transport thousands of tonnes of food to people via helicopter, consider how tricky it is now and also think of quite how many it would require to feed everyone. Plus what are the chances that the entire thing just gets raided and set upon by warlords?

Yes I know I sound paranoid or what have you, but it just seems too hopeful. Nothing like this EVER works.

Myrmidon The Ant King from In Antartica
The Ant King
Jun 30th 2011 at 2:47:11 PM

Recognizing, for example, that nonhuman organisms such as cows have inherent ethical worth and that meat is one of the central contributors to the ecological catastrophe through the methane released from livestock, the pollution that comes from transporting them, the rise in planetary temperatures that takes place as a result of clearing forests and jungles for grazing land, etc., I now resolve to no longer eat meat. Yet now I face the ecological problems that arise as a result of the “monoculture” and the problems it generates in the clearing of ecologically complex fauna so as to only grow corn and other grains.

I now take up a banner against monoculture, seeking to diversify the plants that are grown, yet in doing this I don’t produce enough food to sustain the massive world population. Do we allow these people to die through starvation or destroy the environment and cause death as well through the promotion of monoculture? Recognizing that petroleum and coal are extremely dirty pollutants, I now resolve to support natural gas, yet in doing so I destroy local ecologies through fracking. Increasingly it seems that the cell phone has become a necessity of life, yet it drives away the bees that we rely on for the pollination of food for ourselves and other organisms.

Living in the modern world means accepting the fact that you're a hypocrite no matter what you do.

edited 30th Jun '11 2:47:24 PM by Myrmidon

Kill all math nerds
MilosStefanovic Decemberist from White City, Ruritania
Jun 30th 2011 at 2:47:37 PM

This is how I interpret it. Saving a drowning kid is something that must be done urgently, with no further thoughts, and the dilemma is quite simple. It goes by the lines of "Either somebody acts now, or the child dies."

Donating to charity gives a lot more room for thinking about the problem. The money I give for a child in Africa is meaningless. Everybody says that if all donations are gathered in one place, the sum is large and meaningful. But my donation isn't going to magically force people from all around the world to donate. In the end, it is meaningless. It can buy a kid a meal for one day, but the only thing it does is prolonging it's life for one day. They cannot be saved by one handful or rice and one magical donation. I also don't trust charities - I'd help a man in need if I saw him in person, but never through a mediator. I'm not exactly well-off, and i don't want my money to go to some rich, thieving, bastard.

The sin of silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.
TheBatPencil from Glasgow, Scotland Relationship Status: I'm just a hunk-a, hunk-a burnin' love
Jun 30th 2011 at 2:50:32 PM

It's not just giving money - it's getting the money there, it's getting the food there, it's getting the vaccines and medical supplies there, it's stopping the corruption and exploitation that prevents these things getting where they need to go and that prevents farmers from being able to afford their own crops to eat etc.

At the end of the day, not enough people want to face the fact that we don't prevent these things because we benefit from it in order to force change.

And let us pray that come it may (As come it will for a' that)
Jun 30th 2011 at 2:50:32 PM

Usually charities who help starving kids don't do it by shipping in tons of food from the west; they do it by helping farmers there use better methods, get better tools, and become self-supporting, as well as by working with the oppressed to fight for better rights and institutions so they can keep more of their yield. Things like that. It costs more than dumping a bunch of food there, but it actually helps improve their economy instead of royally screwing it up.

In a sense, what you're doing when you donate to a (competent) charity organization is not saving individual starving children per se, but creating an environment where children are less likely to starve. And the point of all this is not to make people feel terrible or try to guilt them into giving as much as they possibly can - you don't have to become a superhero running after kids to save them in care they should drown. The point is to speed up the end of poverty, which can be done without sacrificing very much material comfort. We want most people to give a little bit, not for a few people to become martyrs of self-denial.

edited 30th Jun '11 2:53:21 PM by OnTheOtherHandle

"War doesn't prove who's right, only who's left." "Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future."
DynamicRanger Assurance Agent from USA
Assurance Agent
Jun 30th 2011 at 2:52:51 PM

Please excuse the long post and mild self-promotion.

I wrote a paper for a social philosophy class in college (good enough to be reprinted in future course packets) based in part on an essay by Singer that states the argument from The Life You Can Save in shorter form. In it, I argued that given the lack of technological and capital development in those parts of the world where people face starvation, small contributions from people in the affluent West can powerfully affect social development there.

If liberals (in a generally non-partisan sense, i.e. people who want to advance Enlightenment-inspired human freedom from coercion, including financial power) want to create a freer world they face the titanic powers at play in the West, corporations and the governments they influence. In the developing world, those same powers exert influence in far more thuggish ways that, despite their force, are comparatively unsophisticated compared to the entrenched assumptions of Western culture.

So, I argued, a liberal revolution is basically hopeless in the industrialized West: efforts to change society couldn't be democratic, because too many people like the system that brings them American Idol, self-esteem-boosting status icons and Big Macs, whether or not that way of doing things condemns much of the distant and unseen world to poverty, disease and oppression. Instead, I suggested we should donate to efforts to develop autonomous infrastructure (programs like One Laptop Per Child in the present, with the hopes of vaster and more varied examples in the future). Getting more of the world online would help to alleviate the "distant suffering" problem and, if those infrastructural efforts really pan out, maybe those communities in the developing world would avoid some of the traps that have been laid by our long, often short-sighted industrial development. Through the new, robust communication infrastructure, the American Idol fans and Big Mac-eaters could see the benefits of living in sustainable communities and may be more inclined to demand reforms at home. The idea is basically to outsource revolution, and I titled the essay accordingly.

Looking back at the idea, I'm struck by an enormous problem (many, of course, but one in particular): communication on the internet breeds jerks. What would prevent the hordes of racists, sexists and bigots from drowning out the lines of communication between the slightly-more-developed-than-it-was world and the affluent West? This idea is key to Singer's argument in practice—the ignorability of the people he proposes we help makes his simple moral argument necessary in the first place. Troll-type personalities are rampant IRL, and anonymity online gives them some of the loudest voices outside of a corporate media context. Consider the way the term "hippie" is deployed by young people: any notion that isn't rooted in the dog-eat-dog social "theory of everything" (game theory and its offshoots), that is, any way of seeing the world that recognizes human dignity and compassion, is immediately slapped down as impractical, "Kumayah!", PETA/Greenpeace, anti-rational crap.

However, trolls shouldn't stop anyone from doing the right thing. I still believe in the practical suggestion I made in my paper: help however you can, but try to make your donations count—contribute to charitable efforts that will have lasting, exponential impact like infrastructural development (especially telecom, water, and medical care). With a hard-nosed, hippie-hating, hipster mathematician to make the case on You Tube, it might actually catch on with those young people that have some chance of finding gainful employment with big companies.

Jun 30th 2011 at 2:53:22 PM

Africa is not rich enough in terms of soil to feed itself. At least nations that really NEED feeding aren't, mainly because the various armies that are fighting in them are only marginally increasing the soil quality.

And the problem is not just restricted to that, there is also the fact that it take hundreds upon hundreds of pounds to build a village. It takes someone with a jeep and some grenades much MUCH less to blow it up.

DrunkGirlfriend from Castle Geekhaven
Jun 30th 2011 at 2:53:45 PM

@OTOH: I think that it's also got something to do with it getting hammered into people quite anviliciously. From childhood (You need to eat your peas, because starving children in Africa would be glad to have your peas) to adulthood (Stop complaining about not getting paid enough. You're making more than most people in Africa), and I think people are getting sick of the massive guilt trip that they get if they donate or not.

Then again, I've always been at or below the poverty line, and it comes across as incredibly disingenuous that people talk about the poor starving children in Foreign Country B, and completely ignore the starving children we have in our own communities.

For example, I don't know how many times I've talked to the panhandlers while waiting to cross the street while looking for a job. Most people automatically assume that they're a walking scam, but when you're standing next to them and smelling their stink, you know they're for real. Yet most everyone glides past in their car, not giving them a second glance. Our homeless shelters are overcrowded and our welfare is running out of funds too.

"I don't know how I do it. I'm like the Mr. Bean of sex." -Drunkscriblerian
Jun 30th 2011 at 2:57:26 PM

The reason for the panhandling thing is partially because if you DID have it happen to you you don't want to look like a sucker.

TheDeadMansLife Lover of masks.
Lover of masks.
Jun 30th 2011 at 2:57:45 PM

The condescending attitude tends to make people label and move on.

Moving on. I don't see any reason to save those children.

DynamicRanger Assurance Agent from USA
Assurance Agent
Jun 30th 2011 at 3:01:36 PM

To Myrmidon's point: I think the quote supplies a crucial aspect of the hypocrisy of modern living: population. While we may not be facing an impending Malthusian catastrophe (I don't know, I can never get a straight answer on the topic) we are definitely beyond the earth's sustainable capacity. Perhaps human civilization can only be hypocritical, unjust and largely undemocratic if it has 7 billion members. We may be living on borrowed time; existing resources allow civilization to improve most people's lives above a pre-civil state-of-nature, but in the long-run, civilization as we've practiced it is not worth the temporarily boost in well-being.

Jun 30th 2011 at 3:03:03 PM

@DG: That kind of crap is not actually intended to encourage people to give. It's not actually intended to encourage anything positive. You not eating your peas won't hurt African kids any more than they are already hurt, and you being dissatisfied with your wage might actually help them - if you were to ask for, and get, a raise, you'd be in a better position to give, after all. It's like religions preaching hellfire and damnation without actually giving a positive consequence of converting, only negative consequences of not converting. I can see how that turns people off, but the whole argument here is that people in Africa don't just exist so people down on their luck here can feel better, the point is that collective action can make it so that there aren't any starving kids in Africa anymore and you can damn well waste your peas if you want.

"War doesn't prove who's right, only who's left." "Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future."
MilosStefanovic Decemberist from White City, Ruritania
Jun 30th 2011 at 3:03:37 PM

To be honest, I think that there is practically no hope for those people. Their problems are created by the oh-so-goody-goody Western countries themselves, which encourage wars to happen since, well, those guns need to be sold somewhere. And that same West, which looks out only for its own interests, is practically the only source of hope for them. If the Western governments really want to save those people, which they don't, they should just leave them the hell alone. That will never happen, unfortunately. They cannot be saved.

The sin of silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.
Jun 30th 2011 at 3:06:13 PM

Who said anything about Western governments, though? They clearly don't want to help, since foreign aid is paltry and usually only goes to politically and miliratrily valuable countries.

But Western citizens could recognize the excellent point that we are responsible for some (most?) of the Third World's poverty, and that charity then becomes compensation, and a much stronger moral imperative than simple optional generosity.

edited 30th Jun '11 3:06:28 PM by OnTheOtherHandle

"War doesn't prove who's right, only who's left." "Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future."
DrunkGirlfriend from Castle Geekhaven
Jun 30th 2011 at 3:07:25 PM

@OTOH: I know, it's just that the argument has been done badly too many times, much like people perceive panhandlers to be scam artists automatically. It hurts the ones that are legit, and stains the actual argument that these people really do need help. The whole "This child can be saved for only a dollar a day" ads and shit don't do anything except make people feel guilty, and then angry.

That's why when someone does actually want to do good (like Peter Singer), it gets shot down without thought.

"I don't know how I do it. I'm like the Mr. Bean of sex." -Drunkscriblerian
Jun 30th 2011 at 3:08:45 PM

The problem is that that STILL looks like guilt tripping. "We should accept that we are to blame for their problems" is bullshit because as you mentioned its the governments, not the people who are doing this.

I mean I see those ads and the only thing I think is "fucking hell I have just got in from working at a fucking charity shop, what do you WANT!"

edited 30th Jun '11 3:09:47 PM by JosefBugman

TheDeadMansLife Lover of masks.
Lover of masks.
Jun 30th 2011 at 3:09:41 PM

Why do we have to care that we caused their poverty? Why do we have to compensate for their failure to win?

Jun 30th 2011 at 3:11:01 PM

@JB: It's not just governments; there's also corporations. The stuff we buy often involves some unethical dealings and human suffering down the line. If we had a choice, we would probably choose not to buy them, but too often we don't. So since due to bad regulation and unethical corporations we have to contribute to some poverty and hunger, why not, if we can, choose to help mitigate it?

edited 30th Jun '11 3:11:35 PM by OnTheOtherHandle

"War doesn't prove who's right, only who's left." "Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future."
Jun 30th 2011 at 3:13:44 PM

Because you never see ANYTTHING that your money is doing, and if you did you'd feel guilty about it. You may as well, as pointed out by Mitchell and Webb, be pissing money away into a black hole because now matter how much you give it seems to do NOTHING.

The problem isn't just that people are exploited, its also that people are honestly more bothered about stuff that actuall affects them. When clothes prices go up because someone in Calcutta finally organises a Union effort people will complain about it.

edited 30th Jun '11 3:14:51 PM by JosefBugman

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