Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Absolute Poverty, Relative Affluence, and the American Way of Life

Up till now we’ve dealt largely, in various forms, with questions that attempt to describe what’s wrong, or what’s missing, or what’s eating at our generation. First, we attempted to establish the simple fact that we feel a loss, an emptiness in our generation, and then described what exactly that is. We’ve seen authors and cultural commentators describe the corrosive effects of technology, or the overreliance on technology that leads to narcissism, superficial identities, and escapism. We’ve attempted to begin the conversation about an apparent generational apathy in regards to the endless list of universal ills plaguing our planet, but got sidetracked by the question of art and politics. We’ve wondered how we could all love such a desperately political TV show without feeling any need to react in a certain way. We discussed the nature of art and politics, though we left that conversation unfinished, and finally, we digressed into the Genius of Terrence Malick, but even that digression touches upon a different type of generational apathy: religious apathy, a topic for another day.

Today, I would like to begin the conversation on a topic that I believe holds some of the keys to the essential questions of our generation i.e. the question of distributive justice and affluence and poverty, but first a small but frightening tangent.

Report after report, and investigative journalistic book after investigative journalistic book, fights hard to make us aware of the mess of both our mental states and our psychological/psychiatric system. Marcia Angell, writing for the New York Review of Books begins:

"It seems that Americans are in the midst of a raging epidemic of mental illness, at least as judged by the increase in the numbers treated for it. The tally of those who are so disabled by mental disorders that they qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) increased nearly two and a half times between 1987 and 2007—from one in 184 Americans to one in seventy-six. For children, the rise is even more startling—a thirty-five-fold increase in the same two decades. Mental illness is now the leading cause of disability in children, well ahead of physical disabilities like cerebral palsy or Down syndrome, for which the federal programs were created."

Frightening indeed. For those who either care about the state of the mental health profession, or for whatever reason feel attached to the effects of psychoactive drugs, Angell’s articles, as well as a similar article by Louis Menand in the New Yorker earlier this year, are required reading. They are not for the light of heart, or for those who place their trust in anti-depressants, and some of the possible conclusions are frightening, a topic I hope to discuss at a different time. Here are the links:

Suffice to say that we appear to be a generation who has become increasingly reliant on our technological toys to navigate our day, on our psychiatric medicine to make that day more tolerable, to stem off the tide of unhappiness, or of anxiety, and a culture that knows more about pop culture than politics, and possibly, a culture that in an unprecedented manner cares more about itself than it does about the world. While these alarmist claims are just that, alarmist, in some sense they ring true, and I hope to begin to flesh them out today.

But let’s move on to the main topic of today, a topic I believe that touches upon the core of many of these issues, the topic of distributive justice and affluence and poverty. Peter Singer, the famous ethical philosopher of our day, has done more than any other thinker of our time to bring this issue to the forefront of our cultural mind. While the topic can get dense due to many of the philosophical underpinnings, the questions need not partake of that complexity. The basic question that Singer poses, time and time again in his prolific writings, is what is the obligation of affluent people and nations to the millions upon millions of people who live in absolute poverty. Singer and other in his footsteps (we must sacrifice complete accuracy in our sources for the sake of brevity. Though this story comes from Peter Unger, it raises the same questions as Peter Singer) essentially all ask
the same question through simple stories:

"The Envelope. In your mailbox, there's something from UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in a check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon. But, you throw the material in your trash basket, including the convenient return envelope provided, you send nothing, and, instead of living many years, over thirty more children soon die than would have had you sent in the requested $100."

How would you judge this person and their actions?

Most people, when asked this question, Unger found, would respond that it would be nice if they gave 100 dollars, but in no sense is a person obligated to give 100 dollars, but why do we feel this way? Unger then gives a different story to contrast to this one.

"The (Vintage) Sedan. Not truly rich, your one luxury in life is a vintage Mercedes sedan that, with much time, attention and money, you've restored to mint condition. In particular, you're pleased by the auto's fine leather seating. One day, you stop at the intersection of two small country roads, both lightly traveled. Hearing a voice screaming for help, you get out and see a man who's wounded and covered with a lot of his blood. Assuring you that his wound's confined to one of his legs, the man also informs you that he was a medical student for two full years. And, despite his expulsion for cheating on his second year final exams, which explains his indigent status since, he's knowledgeably tied his shirt near the wound so as to stop the flow. So, there's no urgent danger of losing his life, you're informed, but there's great danger of losing his limb. This can be prevented, however, if you drive him to a rural hospital fifty miles away. "How did the wound occur?" you ask. An avid bird-watcher, he admits that he trespassed on a nearby field and, in carelessly leaving, cut himself on rusty barbed wire. Now, if you'd aid this trespasser, you must lay him across your fine back seat. But, then, your fine upholstery will be soaked through with blood, and restoring the car will cost over five thousand dollars. So, you drive away. Picked up the next day by another driver, he
survives but loses the wounded leg."

How would you react to this story?

Most people, when given this story judge the person as morally reprehensible as opposed to the previous story, despite the fact that the damage done in the first story involves death, as opposed to monetary damage to the savior involved. From this and similar stories, Both Unger and Singer conclude our intuitions, our morally judgments are severally skewed. Something is deeply wrong in the way we think about our obligations.

Singer concludes from these thought experiments, and our strange intuitions, that we need a more truthful guiding principle of life:
"If we could prevent something harmful or bad from happening without sacrificing something of comparable moral importance, then it is our obligation (in other words we ought, morally) to do it."

At first glance, I find it hard to disagree with this ostensibly innocuous statement, but once we realize what it might require of us, we feel challenged at the core of our lifestyles.

Despite it’s purposeful ambiguity (what exactly does something harmful or bad entail, and how exactly do we define, do we operationalize “comparable moral importance?”), the question is very basic, and deeply challenging to our American/Western/Modern way of life. The repercussions would reverberate throughout every aspect of our life. Though most of us do not live in extreme affluence, we certainly do not live in absolute poverty. Absolute poverty is a non-relative state of poverty where the essentials, of shelter, food, and clothing are not met in a way that could allow a human life to continue living.

The basic question, put in much simpler terms that these ethical philosophers ask about our way of life is, given the globalization of knowledge, and given the fact that we know that thousands of children die each day from a lack of water, a problem that can be solved with a measly 5 dollar donation to Unicef, or to any other Aid providers, or that people in America’s ghetto’s die at a much younger age than those in suburbia or metropolises, how do we justify to ourselves that Venti starbucks coffee that cost six dollars when we could easily make coffee in our homes, how do we justify spending twenty dollars on a 3-d movie, on a sweater we don’t actually need, on a hardcover book that costs 30 dollars, on an exorbitant dinner, a ridiculously lavish vacation, a wedding that requires a second mortgage etc. the list goes on and on and on, when children are actually dying in Africa, and all over the world from a simple lack of water, from a lack vaccines that are readily available to be given out? What right, they ask, do we have to live lives of relative opulence when such a large part of our world dies everyday from absolute poverty? In what sense is this different than finding a child, in Africa, starving, drowning in a pool of water and you not stopping your car, despite seeing the child, to save him?

In other words, what right do you have to live lives of accumulation, accumulation of mostly stuff we don’t actually need when that money, or time, or effort, could be spent on saving the lives of countless children and adults in poverty stricken countries?

In some sense, this is a very old question, but it represents a particularly poignant attack on the Western capitalistic mindset of valuing personal autonomy and liberty above all else. I made this money, why should I be obligated to help someone 10,000 miles away? And if you did begin to think that Singer and Unger’s claim hold credence, then in the most extreme way, the way we live would need to be dramatically altered. Our society, a consumer, capitalistic society, one that thrives on our selfish drive to attain more objects, to get richer, would be challenged to the core by these questions (maybe we should spend more time, effort, and money helping other people on a global level, maybe we could lower our standards of what we expect in life, smaller homes, less amenities, less luxurious outings...) and yet, intuitively, though we might be bothered by this question we feel there must be a justification of our lifestyles.

I only meant this as an introduction into a dense topic that has occupied philosophers for over 40 years now, but I don’t think we need yet get into the complexities of philosophy or politics to realize the basic question. We are privileged, whether that privilege arises from circumstance or our personal talents, we cannot deny our privileged status. Most of the people you know, even if they are struggling with money, and in these harsh economic times we know so many unfortunate situations in which people struggle to just get by, do not struggle in the way that those in Absolute poverty struggle. There is no threat of malnutrition or starvation from a lack of clean water or food. For most people we know, a struggle with money will require accepting a new, possibly lower standard of life, not death.

The basic question then to explore is how can we justify the way we live, not just the single choices we make everyday, those also, but the way our society lives when so much of the world crumbles around us? Do we agree with Singer and Unger’s claim’s, and if so, why not? Why aren’t we morally obligated to save as many dying people in Africa and other places around the world as we can? If we do agree with Singer and Unger on some level, what does that require of us, simply to give more, and more efficient charity, or a remake of our lifestyle?

This discussion raises many question I hope to discuss in future posts, but for now, I hope to have time to mull them over, because I do not know the answers to many of them. What are our obligations to the poor, what does it take for us to live a both happy and ethical lifestyle, can we, in any truthful way say that we “deserve” the money we make, or can we claim those in absolute poverty can make money just like the rest of us? Does the fact that the children dying in Africa, a country 10,000 miles away make any difference? Can we come up with a philosophical basis to back up our intuition that we are not all selfish monsters (myself included, of course?) In a world of genocide, of absolute poverty, of avoidable death from malnutrition, Aids, Malaria, can we really justify our way of lives to ourselves, what are we missing?

Again, this is a simplistic entryway into a much larger topic, but I think the point stands. Some, though I hope not, will take this as an indictment against a person’s particular way of living their life, but instead, it is more of an indictment of a system, a consumerist system that tells us day in and day out that our personal happiness is the main value in life, or the personal happiness of our immediate group of friends and family. This system should be questioned, even attacked, we should demand from this system a coherent justification of it’s principles, not though, from any individual person.

In the next posts, I hope to flesh out these questions, and their philosophical underpinnings in a more coherent way, but for now, I think it's important to sit with these questions. To not immediately react with the sense of how ridiculous they seem, but to give them some credence. Many qualifications and answers have been provided, and the argument rages on, but I think, for me at least, sitting with the question allows for the most true analysis. It hurts me to think of this as preachy, but of all the questions, of all the accusations thrown against our generation, this one cuts the deepest, and I believe it also holds the answers to what type of generation do we want to be...

Thanks for reading,
Joe Talk.

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