Sunday, June 26, 2011

Absolute Poverty, Relative Affluence, and the American Way of life - Part Two

The density of this topic lies outside my range of comfort to discuss with full confidence. Consequently, we need to unpack this important challenge to our lifestyle slowly. First, a few facts:

·  At least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day.Source 1
·  The poorest 40 percent of the world’s population accounts for 5 percent of global income. The richest 20 percent accounts for three-quarters of world income.Source 3
·  According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. And they “die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.”Source 4
·  Infectious diseases continue to blight the lives of the poor across the world. An estimated 40 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, with 3 million deaths in 2004. Every year there are 350–500 million cases of malaria, with 1 million fatalities: Africa accounts for 90 percent of malarial deaths and African children account for over 80 percent of malaria victims worldwide.Source 9
·  Water problems affect half of humanity:
  • Some 1.1 billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to water, and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation.
  • Almost two in three people lacking access to clean water survive on less than $2 a day, with one in three living on less than $1 a day.
  • More than 660 million people without sanitation live on less than $2 a day, and more than 385 million on less than $1 a day.
  • Access to piped water into the household averages about 85% for the wealthiest 20% of the population, compared with 25% for the poorest 20%.
  • Some 1.8 million child deaths each year as a result of diarrhea. The estimated cost of several oral rehydration therapy packets, designed to stop death from diarrhea averages out to about 3 dollars.
  • The loss of 443 million school days each year from water-related illness.
· This is even scarier -  Consider the global priorities in spending in 1998
Global Priority
$U.S. Billions
Cosmetics in the United States
Ice cream in Europe
Perfumes in Europe and the United States
Pet foods in Europe and the United States
Business entertainment in Japan
Cigarettes in Europe
Alcoholic drinks in Europe
Narcotics drugs in the world
Military spending in the world
And compare that to what was estimated as additional costs to achieve universal access to basic social services in all developing countries:
Global Priority
$U.S. Billions
Basic education for all
Water and sanitation for all
Reproductive health for all women
Basic health and nutrition

If you can handle a more extensive and embarrassing list of similar facts look at this website:

I know this comes off as a Sally Struthers commercial that mugs your emotions to save an Ethiopian child. I know there is a sense of guilt pervading these facts, but sometimes we can benefit from looking reality in its face.

In this light, let’s consider Singer’s claims again:

Singer attempts to create the simplest argument so as not to get bogged down in dense philosophy. First, as a moral stance, Singer assumes that we can agree that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and health care are bad. Easy enough. Second, he assumes that given the relative affluence of the Western world, we can do something to rectify this situation and still live comfortable lives. This, importantly, is not a moral claim, it is a factual claim that we can help, and again, we can easily accept this fact. The third assumption is a moral claim, and therefore, the most contentious assumption:

"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."

Now, let’s apply it to the example he gives. Most people, if they were traveling in Africa and saw a small child, or even an adult dying of thirst, would give them a case of water, despite the fact that now they need to buy new water which will cost 15 dollars. However, those same people, most likely, will not donate 15 dollars to UNICEF through the mail for the same cause. Singer concludes that this distinction, though instinctual in some ways, is morally wrong. He goes on further to conclude that not only must we save the lives of these children, but if we don’t, we’ve transgressed our moral code. It’s important to realize that Singer doesn’t see this as an option to give charity or not, but as an obligation.  

I think we can all agree that Singer’s claim engenders a strange sense of ambivalence in us. On the one hand, we respect the simplicity and ambitiousness of Singer’s claim. Ending poverty, saving millions of lives, stopping death from diseases that we’ve all but eradicated in our modern world, but on the other hand, for numerous reasons, intuitively, something feels wrong with the claim that I cant buy my little baby girl a nice dress, or go on a vacation, or to the movies, or buy coffee, or get a nice house. I made this money. I feel entitled to spend it how I want to. I worked hard for my paycheck why shouldn’t I get to enjoy it?

To begin, we can pinpoint two basic questions. First, can we conceive of any differences that morally matter, between seeing a child dying of thirst and just knowing that children die of thirst each day in other countries? Second, how do we reconcile these conflicting intuitions of our right to enjoy our lives, our right to basic autonomy, with our perceived obligation to help others, of justice? In other words, how do we balance our duties with our rights?
In this post, I hope to unpack the first question i.e. can we differentiate between our obligations to the poor which we can see, to the poor of our cities, and the poor of the rest of the world. (An aside: even if we could distinguish between the two, it doesn’t seem like we spend much of our money, effort, or time, helping the poor of our city. We leave it to the government, and forget about it, but again, that's a different topic.)

At first glance, the two cases seem significantly different. We can pinpoint approximately four possible differences between seeing a child drowning, or dying of thirst and UNICEF asking for money that might explain our different reactions to each case. It’s important to note that finding a difference between the cases does not necessarily distinguish, morally, between the cases.
            The first and most obvious difference is one of physical proximity. In the case of the drowning child we see the child, we experience his or her pain, but in the second case, all we experience is an envelope and the abstract concept of a dying child in Africa. Again, this is a difference, but it’s easy to see how it’s a non-significant difference. All this distinction proves is that it is easier for us to feel empathy or sympathy for that which we can see. It might explain why we feel less motivated to help in the abstract case, but it provides no intellectual basis for a moral distinction. The fact that you don’t happen to see the child is arbitrary. You could simply get on a plane and see first hand the devastation, or watch TV, so this cant be a significant distinguishing factor.
            Others, explained that a possible significant difference lies in the source of knowledge in each case. In the case of seeing the drowning child, I, with my own eyes see the emergency and can be certain of it, but in the case of the envelope, who knows if I can trust UNICEF. In some ways, this is a fair, but rather petty claim. It is largely technical, and not actually a distinguishing conceptual factor because we could counter that true, you cant be sure at first, but do some fact checking and you will see that UNICEF actually gives out donations to dying children. So again, we are left stuck.
The next possible distinction draws from the field of social psychology. In social psychology there is a group of concepts that grapple with the question of why people act different, in terms of responsibility or effort, when in groups as opposed to when they are alone. Specifically, social psychologists focus on three similar concepts: diffusion of responsibility, social loafing, and the bystander effect. For our purposes, these concepts all explain in different ways that when in groups we tend not to act as proactively, but instead assume that someone else can or will help. Consequently, in our case, when we see a drowning child, we know we must save him/her because no one else is around, but in the case of the envelope, millions of people receive the same letter. Again, I don’t think we actually need to elaborate as to why this doesn’t morally distinguish between the cases. Rather, it simply explains our lack of motivation. It’s descriptive, not prescriptive in the least bit.
There are other distinctions raised, but none of them rise to the level of significance, besides one that touches upon a whole host of another set of complexities. Some claim that Singer’s case is manipulative. Don’t think of the case in terms of a child, but think of it terms of a person who lost all their money due to a series of bad life choices. Perhaps, they never cared to assert themselves in school, then they began to steal, or to deal drugs, and now, even though they dropped drugs, they live in squalor in real absolute poverty. Should we help them, even though, in some ways, their situation is their fault? Not every case is as simple as children dying, and even then, there are larger implications than just giving children water including questions of overpopulation, or does the aid we provide, in the long run, solve the problems we set out to solve? These are good points, ones I hope to flesh out in a later post, but this opinion does not essentially argue with Singer. They agree that we should help, but we should help with more caution and efficiency. (Do you help a heroin addict by giving them charity? McNulty would.)
Besides this more practical question, we have yet to discuss the tension but our rights and our duties. I hope to tackle these issues in the next post. What we have seen is that there is little room to morally distinguish between saving a drowning child and giving money to UNICEF to do that job for us, but that still leaves a lot of question that demand exploration.

Thanks for reading,
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