The Miserable Planet

singer2A final post about Singer’s book.

This book is really meant to get you to give, so responding with deep philosophical angst is sort of missing the point.  So let me say right off the bat–yes, I should give much more.  Singer is right.

But now for the angst.  Let’s have a little thought experiment. For the next hundred years we do everything right, so that affluence increases for all.   There’s a high standard of living and a social safety net that protects the old and incapacitated.  This is the case everywhere on earth. Poverty is a thing of the past.  The whole human race is just as fortunate as the affluent are today.

And then it is revealed.  Space probes discover a very distant planet.  While earth has become all-affluent, the other planet is all-poor.  (Inspiration for this scenario:  the creepy but excellent novel Under the Skin, by Michel Faber.)  it turns out there’s no less misery in the universe than before, but instead all the affluence is concentrated on earth, and all the misery on The Miserable Planet.

Let’s not be distracted by the species on that planet. They’re human beings, and they’re good and bad just like us. Their problems are due to many of the factors that cause problems in the poorest countries today.  The population of the planet is about the same as ours.

Question:  Must we send off rocket-loads full of aid to The Miserable Planet?  Are we obliged to give up (say) half our affluence in order to lift them out of poverty?

Two questions here, best taken in order.  (1)  Must we give up our affluence to aid The Miserable Planet?  (2) If the answer is No, does that tell us anthing at all about our obligations in the real world, where both affluence and misery coexist on the same planet?

Leave a comment ?


  1. Why do we have to give it up? Whatever happened to teaching a man to fish rather than giving him a fish?

  2. Jen,

    Teaching a man to fish costs money too.

  3. But can’t we share, without giving it up? We don’t have to become monks to be generous.

  4. We’re probably obligated to do something. The line-drawing comes in on the question of how much, in what way, etc. I’m not sure what is meant by “giving up” our affluence so I can’t comment on it. If it meant giving it all to the other planet, impoverishing ourselves and enriching them, wouldn’t they be in the same position we were in and have to “give up” their affluence too? It would be sort of like a moral tennis match, with the altruism whizzing back and forth. Somewhere in the messy middle maybe?

  5. Great thought experiment. As the world has gotten smaller, due to rapid communications, we’ve begun to feel a brotherhood with and responsibility for people on the other side of the world that our grandparents didn’t feel, not because our grandparents were less generous, but simply because the world is smaller. So I suppose that in a hypothetical situation where we have instant communication with and fast travel to other planets, we would begin to feel a similar brotherhood and responsibility for those on other planets.

  6. If they’re people and you can help, it doesn’t matter where they are, does it? (Isn’t that part of the burden of Singer’s drowning baby stuff? By the way I enjoyed the posts and discussion of the book — must get a copy.)

  7. I like the adviser approach, but dare I say we’ll have to give up a lot more to raise The Miserable Planet out of poverty?

    “A moral tennis match, with the altruism whizzing back and forth.” Ha. It’s not quite clear when the game ends, but with great affluence on one planet and great misery on the other, we must lob some of our affluence their way, if we’re utilitarians. There’s more good to be done by alleviating their misery than by paying for our fancy meals and cars. Yet I feel reluctant to admit the “gravitational pull” of their misery.

    James, Yes, officially it doesn’t matter where they are. Also, Singer is not big on letting intuitions settle things. Still, it seems very odd to me to think that we must give up so much, the moment we discover the other planet. The thought experiment makes me think nasty thoughts like, “it’s their damn problem!”

    (Just to clarify–this is “philosophy hour.” In reality, I do give pretty generously to Oxfam, etc., though I think I ought to give more.)

  8. What I loathe about Singer’s philosophy is that it is based on such a glib, superficial grasp of real situations: so simple, and so wrong. For decades the West has been pouring billions in aid into sub-saharan Africa. Dambisa Moyo, an African economist, points out that this has never worked, yet we still keep trying it. We have destroyed their economies, propped up dictators and provided them with the cash to flood their countries with weapons, and supported ways of life which would otherwise have changed decades ago to the benefit of all. We are literally killing Africa with kindness, and Singer’s solution is to finish the job.

  9. Aha, this is more like it… the answer is yes, we should provide assistance, but not in the way I think you mean (and thus not in the way that I think Singer means). Direct transfer of resources can not resolve the modern problem of poverty; it needs a systemic transformation to achieve that (and don’t ask me for the details, because that will take forever).

    If this planet has achieved that transformation in the future, what we’ll need to send them is the information they need to solve the problems themselves, and let them get on with it. Luckily this will cost almost nothing, because information is much cheaper and simpler to send than physical resources.

    The problem we have now is that we don’t know how to solve the modern problem of poverty, which I hope is something that Singer discusses in the book, and so any aid we currently give is like throwing at a dartboard blindfolded.

    Mark Fournier: Dambisa Moyo’s argument is limited to “overseas development assistance”, i.e. aid provided by governments and usually given to governments. I don’t believe that she objects to giving money to NGOs, which I think is Singer’s main suggestion.

  10. I fear that a thought experiment such as this is too thin on details to make much headway for me. How did we even manage this astounding feat of “doing everything right?” Do robots harvest all our food? Or did we just give all the migrant workers a huge raise? Unequal distribution seems to me to be the very core of our global capitalism. Poverty is what makes the world go round. At a minimum we are going to need to solve the energy problem. America consumes…what? 25% of the worlds resources? How are we going to maintain the current lifestyle of the affluent without devloping completely new modes of energy production?

    Why do I harp on all these details? Because in your example there is an implicit notion that the people on planet miserable have a resource shortage, but if we’ve solved our own resource problem (which presumably we have done through new technology) we could just share the new technology with them. So the details really are important here, and a broad brush thought experiment really doesn’t do enough work to drill down into the many variables that make up this kind of moral calculus.

  11. Hi folks

    Please sign my petition and forward it to your friends if you are happy with the content & happy to participate.
    Many thanks

  12. Faust, I’m leaving it up to you to fill in the details. All I’m asking us to imagine is that earth has progressed to the point that there is prosperity for all…and (I forgot to mention) justice too. Surely it’s not impossible to imagine this eventuality.

    On The Miserable Planet, on the other hand, bad guys have prevailed. Warnings about environmental devastation have been ignored. Inequalities have increased. This is the sort of world that’s implied in Faber’s book “Under the Skin.” It might describe our planet, in 100 years, but what I am suggesting we picture is that we do everything right. Then, as we enjoy the fruits of our labor and wisdom, we discover The Miserable Planet.

    I don’t thinking sending them our “information” is going to suffice, any more than sending our information solves problems of extreme poverty in Africa or India. We’re going to have to send much more than that. But the question is whether we have to.

  13. To the extent we can send them more, we should. It’s what “can” means, or how much it means, that’s the problem. That’s where the line drawing comes in, and the difficulties the other posters have pointed out about what effective help would mean. As far as the whether we ought to do something effective if we can do it, yeah, we should. Why wouldn’t we?

  14. I guess that’s my difficulty: that I can’t imagine that eventuality, or conversely that every time I imagine that eventuality that I feel forced to imagine such utopian technologies that “giving stuff away” becomes trivial. I assume that the tension in the thought experiment is supposed to come from the fact that it will in some sense be difficult for us, costly in some sense, to give to planet miserable. So that we will be lowering our hapiness by say 50% to bring up their hapiness up nearer to where ours is. But do we really need to create a whole other planet to do this? Can’t we just imagine 1 affulent happy person encountering 1 miserable person wandering around on the street….joe businessman meeting joe street bum. Is he required to give him half his money? Any of his money? Probably this kind of scenario is covered in Singer’s book. But it seems sufficient to the task of investigating the general question, no additional planets are required.

  15. This strikes me as the same argument as the “They’re really far away, so why should I give?” just multiplied my light-years.

    If our martian neighbors were in economic distress, we should throw rockets filled with aid at them, the best we can. In this scenario, the only difference is administrative costs in sending the aid to the needy.

    So yeah, we should help. Easy experiment.

  16. Does affluence nullify misery? Or is it possible to be affluent, yet miserable in comfort?

Leave a Comment

NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>