First Things First

If I could have chosen a combination of people that I'd like to see on Bloggingheads, it might well have been Tyler Cowen and Peter Singer. And look:

(Or go here.)

The dialogue gets really interesting at about 22:00, when Cowen stops asking Singer questions the latter is not terribly qualified to answer. Stay away, however, if you're not a friend of the abstract and the hypothetical.

The interview is in promotion of Singer's new book The Life You Can Save, which I haven't read yet. Here's what appears to be the very basic argument:
[Y]ou 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 [third world] 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.
Bill Easterly comments:
Unfortunately, there are several differences between these two situations. 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. 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.
He then relates a few anecdotes about aid projects that did no work out too well. But that is akin to dodging the much more fundamental issue: There is no good argument to be made that you should weigh the value of a person's life based on your proximity to that person, whether we are talking about geographical or (perceived) social proximity. At the same time, everybody does this. Each of these facts is worth pointing out again and again, and it's even better to point them out in conjunction.

: Will Wilkinson's take (with largely good comments), the book's preface and first chapter

1 comment:

John Althouse Cohen said...

I basically agree with you and Singer that geographic proximity shouldn't be morally significant, at least on principle. But I think when you try to impose Singer's theory on real-world human behavior, it's a lot more complicated than he seems to think. I plan to do a blog post elaborating on this, and I'll link back here...