The Life You Can Save (chapter 2)

singer1Now we get to the argument why it’s not just nice to give, but we ought to, it’s a moral obligation.  What I find particularly interesting about the chapter is the way Singer starts off with Bob and the Bugatti and switches half-way through to the deductive argument he made back in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” in 1972.  Bob and the Bugatti is a thought experiment due to Peter Unger, which Singer also focused on in a New York Times Magazine article in 1999. (Do read Unger, if you’re interested in a vigorous philosophical work-out.)

Bob’s got all his retirement savings wrapped up in his old and valuable Bugatti and he’s close to retiring. Fool that he is, he’s left it sitting at the end of a railway siding. He goes for a walk up the tracks and in the distance he can see an empty runaway train coming down the other track.  (It’s typical of thought experiments like this that they’re full of implausible details.  Do not ask how he knows that train is empty!)  The train is heading for a small child he can see up ahead, dawdling around on the tracks.  Wonder of wonders, he sees a a switch he can pull to divert the train from hitting the child to hitting his Bugatti.  Does he have to do it?

You’re probably going to think “Yes, by all means.”  And by analogy, you’re supposed to become convinced that you must make contributions to Oxfam, which can use your money to save the life of a child just like the one on the tracks.

So why does Singer switch to the old deductive argument half way through?  For one, he is not keen on relying on intuitions, because many of his positions in ethics are actually counterintuitive.   He also seems to want to acknowledge some disimilarities between Bob’s situation and the situation of someone contemplating saving lives in a distant country.

I also think the switch might be tactical.  I do think Singer’s main goal in this book is to get us to give.  The Bob thought experiment does a good job of leveraging greater giving unless you start thinking about its ultimate import.  The moral is not  “give 5%” or “give 10%” or  “give whatever you don’t need for necessities.”  The moral is—give everything you’ve saved for retirement!

Some people will no doubt think there’s got to be something fishy about the case for obligatory giving, if it means we have to give away that much.  They might not be able to identify the flaw in the argument, but they’ll think there must be one.  And that might make them turn their backs on giving.

So Singer switches to the argument he’s been making for over 30 years, which doesn’t so transparently urge gargantuan sacrifices.  It goes like this:

(1)  Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.
(2)  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) 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.
Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong.

Singer stresses that “without sacrificing anything nearly as important” is vague.  He says he’s leaving it up to you and me to make honest comparisons.  That’s good strategy, but is it good philosophy?

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  1. I am waiting to read Singer’s book, but I have a vested interest – I work for the sort of aid agencies that I assume he is thinking of in his argument. From that slightly privileged position, I can tell you that donating to aid agencies is far from an unalloyed good and that one can make a fairly strong (non-Dambisa Moyo) argument against such donations in a large range of instances.

    The principle of his argument might be sound – although I would argue that it isn’t (and will try to articulate that later) – but his practical suggestions are neither radical enough to address the causes of these humanitarian problems nor conservative enough to appeal to the majority of people. So, bad strategy….

  2. What if previously Bob has decided to sell his Bugatti and investigated how much he could get for it and the best thing he could use the money for. After some research he discovers that his money would pay for operations that would restore to full health 5 children in Africa who would otherwise die within a week.

    Again Bob finds himself in the runaway train situation except this time the train is heading for the Bugatti. Should he pull the switch so that the train hits the child, but saves the car, or should he leave it destroying his chances of helping 5 children?

    I’m not sure that these examples really help. In Singers example, destroying the retirement savings is the only way to save the child. The same is not true in the case of children in the third world.

  3. Eric MacDonald

    I haven’t read the book. Sorry, my book budget won’t allow it just now. It’s tax time, and I think my tax bill is going to be a big one – not because I earn so much, but because I don’t have enough deducted at the source, and what is big for me isn’t all that big. I thought I should say this at the start.

    I’m very suspicious of thought experiments, especially when it comes to moral questions, because I’m not sure they catch the nuances that are always there in real cases of moral decisions, which are incredibly complex, because there are so many things making moral demands all at once.

    But I’m concened about the whole idea of aid itself. Taking Africa, as an example – though it could probably be extended to so many other situations – aid has not been an unmixed blessing, and arguably has caused more harm than providing other ways of helping people make rational choices in the situation as it is.

    I think, for example, of the numbers of children born in situations where there are recurrent conditions of famine, and each time a famine occurs there are more starving people to suffer. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t help, but it does mean that there’s a lot of unnecessary suffering going on which is directly attributable to the fact that aid has been provided in the past, and the simple lesson that restrictions on population growth would be an overall good. Besides, aid has, in many senses, diminished the need for people to take any note either of rates of population growth or the need to provide sufficient infrastructure in order to provide for sustained development. And arguably some of the problem here is the fact that aid is very often counterproductive. It may save someone now, but it makes possible situations in which larger numbers of people will suffer later.

    Another point is the fact that at the same time that aid is being provided to (say) African nations, there seems to be enough spare cash around to buy weapons and carry on longstanding civil wars, inter-tribal violence, governments that siphon off aid money into private offshore accounts, and all the rest of the dysfunction which goes along with failing societies. So is aid really saving children, or is it instead providing conditions in which more children will suffer in time to come?

    These are only questions, but I have a great deal of suspicion about aid agencies, and the kinds of competition amongst aid agencies, and the power relationships between aid agencies and dysfunctional states. Can we simplify things down so much so that whether a man wrecks his expensive Bugatti to save a child in imminent danger really gives us an answer to the question whether we should give to an agency that in some way might provide sustenance for a child in some failing society?

  4. Eric: I’m in the same league as you about buying books. At times 20 dollars is a lot of money for me, and now I’ll confess my darkest secret: I don’t have a credit card and hence, cannot shop at
    That being said, it’s not so clear which societies are failing and which not. The original Singer essay was written about Bengladesh in 1971, which at the time seemed like a basket case, and now makes sews our blue jeans. 50 years ago South Korea was another basketcase, desperately poor with a high birth rate as is the case with most poor nations, and now it is a relatively prosperous industrial nation. The experience of Latin America is that as nations become richer, the birth rates falls radically: parents assume that all their children will survive; children cease to be unpaid farm laborers and become costly to raise, as you well know. So the child who is saved today in Africa may end up, due to the twists and turns of history, as a citizen of one of the emerging
    economies of the next decade. There is no way of knowing. Who could have known 50 years ago that Singapore would be one of the most properous country in the world? Who could have guessed that China would become the economic super-power that it is?

  5. Kyle,

    I like the example. I’m actually pretty wary of all that trolley-ology, as it’s been called. Yes, I’m not sure if it helps, in sense of putting you in a state of mind where you will give more.


    As I understand it (from sources like Jeffrey Sachs’ book “The End of Poverty”) large families are a symptom of poverty, not a symptom of too much aid. In places with an extremely low standard of living and no aid, people have lots of kids because they expect some to die, and because there’s no social safety net in old age, and because they need them as labor on farms, and because women aren’t empowered to control their destinies, etc. As prosperity and women’s rights increase, family size tends to go way down. He’s got statistics to prove this.

    As to aid being siphoned off by corrupt governments…hmm. I think these are things you can actually look into. I am involved in a project that makes large donations to the International Rescue Committee for use in refugee camps on the Chad/Darfur border. When we’ve looked into the effectiveness of the IRC, we’ve been impressed. Singer has a chapter on this sort of issue…which I haven’t read yet.

    As to taxes, buying the book etc. Ah well. I hadn’t really planned on explaining each chapter, but it seems I can’t suppress the instinct to do so. So there’s enough in the post to serve as the basis of discussion. I won’t be sending my spies out to check on who’s really reading the book.

  6. No question that poverty and birth rate are connected. But poverty and corruption are also connected. And there is scarcely a stable government south of the Sahara, and not that many in North Africa. Raising aid as Sachs suggests will not solve a thing in Africa if there is no way to provide basic necessities to ordinary people. So far as I can see, having read over some of the stats from Africa within the last few months, while AIDS is cutting a big swath through African population, population is still growing at a rate greater than GDP. And if nothing is done about governance, you can pour as much aid into the continent as you like, and nothing will change.

    But let’s take a country where the economy is perking along very nicely and governance is, while not the greatest, at least tolerably humane, and, while corrupt, corrupt within limits. India. Great economy, great strides in innovation and production. Population way off the curve. The country can’t sustain that kind of growth. The Punjab, where arguably over 50% of Indian foodstuffs are produced, is going to run out of water sooner rather than later.

    And still no one is talking about population growth! This makes no sense. Bangladesh may sew jeans. but Johann Hari recently did an investigative report on the number of children being sent from Bangladesh to India as sex slaves. And stll no one talks about population growth.

    Certainly, aid is important, and probably an important moral imperative, but other things have got to accompany this, and if it doesn’t we are just creating the conditions for global catastrophe, if that isn’t already well underway. My very simple point was that the child and the Bugatti wasn’t a good enough thought experiment to deliver the kind of answer Singer wants – that we should give up some of our frivolous things in order to provide more aid. As a matter of fact, if our economy keep declining as it is doing at the moment, the likelihood that we’ll have all that may frivolities to give up is going to be a moot point. Global economies are built on consumption, even the stupid little plastic things that you can buy at the local Dollar Store. And if those chains of supply and demand dry up then somewhere people are out of work, and so are local people as well.

    As to corrupt governments siphoning off money – whether from aid or taxes makes no difference, really, since it’s all in the same pot – there’s so much corruption in Africa that during the time it has taken South Korea to become an economic powerhouse, the corruption in a country like Ghana, for instance, has caused it to slide back from a higher GDP than South Korea in 1956, to a position where its GDP is less than it was at independence.

    So, sure, I’ll grant the equation between poverty and overpopulation, but I don’t think that aid to Africa has anywhere near come to offering a possible soluition to Africa’s problems so far. So the moral question looks a lot more complex than giving up the glass of tonic water that I’m drinking right now and sending 89 cents to Africa.

  7. Eric,

    I wouldn’t say that no one is talking about population growth. Lots of people talk about it–like Jeffrey Sachs, who I mentioned. I think it really does seem to be well-evidenced that high fertility goes hand in hand with poverty. There’s no fixed fertility rate in poor populations that would be ratcheted even higher by aid. As to India’s increasing national GDP, but continuing high fertility, growth nationally doesn’t say much about extreme poverty in small villages, and why it’s correlated with large family size.

    I don’t think Bob and Bugatti is anywhere near the whole argument, and nor is the 3-premise argument at the end of my post. If you can prove to yourself that you have a moral obligation to give, that duty evaporates if it’s just not possible to get the aid to the people who need it. But then, doesn’t that sound like a wonderfully convenient excuse? I think people tend to seize upon the idea of insuperable corruption because it does quickly let them off the hook. I’m not talking about you in particular. I’ve taught Singer’s article “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” many times, and it’s amazing what experts students are about corruption and inefficacy. They know next to nothing about extreme poverty, but everything about why western aid can’t possibly do any good. There’s something just a little suspicious about that..

  8. Eric–I should have said Happy Easter. (Or should I?!)

  9. Eric, Also remember that Singer ultimately isn’t urging just any kind of aid. We can give all sorts of aid that will not help in the long run, or make matters worse for the local economy. (Singer discusses the “Dutch Disease” economic problem in chapter 7… so it might take a bit of time for Jean to get to it. But the short of it, in the Dutch economy worsened after discovery of natural gas in their country. Similarly great amounts of ecnomic aid which would amount to finding a great natural resource may end up hurting the economy.)

  10. I can only speak from my experience in Latin America. As families emerge not from poverty, but from extreme poverty, they reduce the amount of children they have in radical form. As to corruption, investment flows to where it makes money, not to where people are angels. Various very corrupt countries receive lots of foreign or domestic investment: Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Russia, China, etc.

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