Friday, July 1, 2011

Distributive Justice, Overpopulation, and the Complexity of Giving.

            This is an actual exchange between an unnamed press corps official and White House/Bush administration spokesperson Ari Fleischer at a May 7, 2001 Washington press briefing: Question (Unnamed Press Representative): “Does the President believe that, given the amount of energy Americans consume per capita, how much it exceeds any other citizen in any other country in the world, does the President believe we need to correct our lifestyles to address the energy problem?”
            Answer (Fleischer): “That's a big no. The President believes that it's an American way of life, and that it should be the goal of policy-makers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one.”

 Up till now, in this series of posts, we've attempted to slowly build up Singer's argument, both because of its underlying density, but also, because of its deep challenge to our lifestyle.  In other words every building, if it hopes to stand for posterity, needs a solid foundation.
First, we presented the argument in a simple manner.  If money I don’t necessarily need can go to save a child dying of thirst then I ought to spend that money on saving that child. Then we began to flesh out the assumptions that Singer uses to arrive at his conclusion while we also attempted to bring up ways of justifying our intuition that we cannot compare a child drowning in Africa, a child we see with our own eyes, and the requests for money by UNICEF. In my mind, based solely on the attempt to differentiate between the cases, all of the distinguishing factors fail to create a significant moral distinction. This leaves us with Singer's challenge, our intuitions to the contrary, and the need to flesh out other issues with Singer's conclusion.
Essentially, two major ways present themselves to disagree with Singer's conclusion. The first entails practical disagreements in regards to the efficacy of food and development aid, and the second takes us into the realm of philosophy, or ethics and murky questions of rights vs. duties, of the nature of our relationship to our money and property, and questions of libertarianism, in its purer form than from which we see today, and distributive justice.
These all fit into Singer’s three main assumptions:
1.     A life of absolute poverty, one that leads to malnourishment, famine, and death from diarrhea and other common illnesses, is an ill of society we can all agree demands eradication. This, as we pointed out, is a moral judgment, seemingly one hard to argue with.
2.     Factually, we, in Westernized countries, where relative to the poorest countries we live the lives of kings and queens, we can help the poorest countries in the long term. Again, Singer makes no moral claim here. This is a practical claim about our ability to help other countries.
3.     Because of steps 1 and 2, to paraphrase Singer, we ought to save these lives if we need not sacrifice something of commensurate moral worth. This is a moral claim, an ought, that is the ripest for disagreement.
What I would like to do in this post, before we get to claim number 3, its underpinnings and possible ways to undermine it, is to establish certain facts about the ability to help other people on a large scale.
            When we think of aid, we think of Katrina, Haiti, and Japan. We think of emergency aid, which entails food, medicine, clean water etc. Because we usually think of aid in this manner all sorts of distortions regarding the world of development aid arises. First off, most aid situations do not rise out of natural disasters that disrupt the normal orders of life. In those situations, practically, there is less argument over the practical benefits to the recipients of the aid. Those in New Orleans needed to rebuild their lives, they needed water to live, food to eat, and shelter, but all of this served as temporary methods until they can return to a pre-Katrina state. Whether that possibility exists is a different question, but it’s hard to question the value of immediate aid, and in fact, we respond well, for the most part to immediate aid, which should provide telling insights into the way our moral minds work.
            What people fail to realize is that the aid world does not stop at start at food aid, at the attempt to simply provide food to starving people. Rather, it entails a multifaceted approach to alleviating starvation and poverty that includes food disbursement, but also includes economic incentives towards creating businesses and agriculture, providing health education, vaccines, and common medicine of the Western world, as well as microloans, condoms, and other methods of planned parenthood. The importance difference is that emergency aid attempts to bring a people back to a pre-existing more positive condition, whereas regular development aid attempts to create a new situation for people.
Let’s attempt to establish one fact before we get into the murky world of the long-term success of development aid. Pledging money works, at least in the foreseeable short-term future. Here, Singer, in an article entitled, What Should a Billionaire Give, and What Should You, relates that:
Last June the investor Warren Buffett took a significant step toward reducing those deaths when he pledged $31 billion to the Gates Foundation, and another $6 billion to other charitable foundations. Gates’s and Buffett’s donations will now be put to work primarily to reduce poverty, disease and premature death in the developing world. According to the Global Forum for Health Research, less than 10 percent of the world’s health research budget is spent on combating conditions that account for 90 percent of the global burden of disease. In the past, diseases that affect only the poor have been of no commercial interest to pharmaceutical manufacturers, because the poor cannot afford to buy their products. The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), heavily supported by the Gates Foundation, seeks to change this by guaranteeing to purchase millions of doses of vaccines, when they are developed, that can prevent diseases like malaria. GAVI has also assisted developing countries to immunize more people with existing vaccines: 99 million additional children have been reached to date. By doing this, GAVI claims to have already averted nearly 1.7 million future deaths.

Leaving aside the question of how we can extrapolate anything from Buffet or Gates, let’s think of 1.7 million people. 1.7 million people, like any number of people in the millions is impossible to fathom (think of paperclips, or whatever trick we used in high school, it does not matter so much,) but try to imagine that this organization, through the help of certain very rich individuals has saved 1.7 people from dying early deaths. I don’t think we need to go into statistics of how many people died in WW1, 2, the Armenian genocide, the Bosnian genocide, the Somalian genocide, the apartheid, the ongoing wars in Pakistan and India, the insurgencies and tribal wars raging in Africa, throughout the year, the constant war throughout the world to get a sense of the miracle that is saving 1.7 million people.
            But, as with all important issues, complexity reigns supreme. If only it were so easy that donations translated to physical salvation. Yet, as many economists, and development theorist point out, development aid runs into the abstruse problem of overpopulation. Many, though they might conceptually agree with Singer’s claim, believe that development aid either does not help at all in the long run, or actually hurts those we attempt to help in the first place.
This claim was first popularized by Thomas Malthus a famous English scholar and economist, who explains that:
I think I may fairly make two postulata. First, that food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, that the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain in its present state. Assuming then, my postulata as granted, I say, that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence of man.

Paul Ehrlich, a Modern Malthusian and professor of Population Studies, gives us a more vivid picture of the overpopulation problem, possibly the greatest problem threatening our world:

A cancer, is an uncontrolled multiplication of cells; the population explosion is an uncontrolled multiplication of people. Treating only the symptoms of cancer may make the victim more comfortable at first, but eventually he dies - often horribly. A similar fate awaits a world with a population explosion if only the symptoms are treated. We must shift our efforts from treatment of the symptoms to the cutting out of the cancer.

In essence, these thinkers might agree that our moral obligations extends to saving those in absolute poverty, but believe the idea of distributive justice not only doesn’t work, but actual causes more suffering in the long term because of the problem of overpopulation of earth compared to available resources. For them, the real solution lies not in development aid, but in controlling overpopulation through promoting smaller families, or making available birth control and condoms to the larger world. Again, our intuition, it appears, chafes at this suggestion even if our intellect might agree with it. It sounds as if something out of a dystopian science fiction writer, one who writes about a world in which we try to control the number of children allowed to be born in a society. Something feels big brother and nefarious about this type of help. 
            As Julian Simon, an economist who disagrees with the claims of overpopulation points out, “Have I gone crazy? What business do I have trying to help arrange it that fewer human beings will be born, each of whom might be a Mozart or a Michelangelo or an Einstein - or simply a joy to his or her family and community, and a person who will enjoy life?”

Intellectually, though, if the factual claims of overpopulation holds up, then the moral obligation, if you believe we have a moral obligation to help those in absolute poverty, would demand a more hands off policy, or better yet, a policy that rests on the goal of limiting births in the world, not in saving the existing children so as to exacerbate the problem. (Although even this claim gets us into murky territories which all depends on what is the center, or foundational principle of your ethical choices, a topic for the next post.)
However, many prominent theorists disagree with the claims of overpopulation, both factually, and conceptually. Rather, they advocate the child survival thesis.
The prevailing birth rate, coupled with mortality and morbidity characteristics of the population, generally yield child survival expectancies, or probabilities, consistent with the size of completed family that parents want. Increasing the chance of child survival by improved nutrition, public health, sanitation, etc. so the argument runs, will lead to a perception by parents that fewer pregnancies and births are necessary to secure the desired size of the surviving family. The (child survival) thesis argues that if food aid and nutrition programs increase infant survival, parents will desire fewer children and will be motivated to use birth control to achieve that result. If this demand can be met by family planning programs, vasectomy clinics, etc., the result will be lowered fertility.

            This theory, does not disagree with the fact that overpopulation is one of the essential problems facing our world, but disagrees on how to solve the problem. For them, the problem does not lie in a hands off policy, or in an attempt to directly push for restraint in family size, but in distributive justice, which will not only solve the short term problem of the sufferings of absolute poverty, but will also help solve the long term problem of overpopulation. In fact, many more contemporary theorists use this model as opposed to the classic Malthusian model of population control as the desired goal of foreign aid.
            This then, is one of the central questions of distributive justice. Even if you believe in the obligation, the moral ought, to spend what is necessary to save as many people from absolute poverty, you still must contend with the long term consequences of potentially putting a band aid on a gaping wound. Part of the problem involved in these calculations is that we simply do not have enough information, or the parts are so numerous that it becomes increasingly hard to predict what will work or not. The more I look into this dense topic, the more I realize that in some ways it seems so very simple, but in others ways it seems more complex than organic chemistry. But that must deter us from educating ourselves about these issues, and staying away from cynicism. One should always end on a note of hope:

There is, in fact, little reason for presuming that the terrible problems of hunger and starvation in the world cannot be changed by human action… (T)he eradication of famines is a fairly straightforward task, and there is not much difficulty in achieving it given systematic preparedness and the will to act quickly to protect or recreate threatened entitlement. Indeed, the successes achieved in different Asian and African countries in eliminating famines seem eminently repeatable in others. While the problem of endemic undernutrition and deprivation is harder to deal with, here too the possible lines of policy are clear enough and well illustrated by particular strategies that have already been used in one form or another… There is little room for cynical pessimism or for paralyzing skepticism. Amartya Sen – political philosopher.

Next time, I hope to continue/finish this conversation in dealing with the possible philosophical problems with Singer’s moral claims.
Thanks for reading,

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