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Peter_Singer.jpgThomas Nagel's recent review in The New York Review of Books of Peter Singer's book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, does a fine job of demonstrating why moral philosophy in its academic form has always baffled me: the blasted hypotheticals.

You walk past a drowning kid.  You can save the child, but you will have to wade into a shallow pond and muddy your trousers and ruin your shoes.  Is it immoral to keep walking and leave the kid to die?
From this hypothetical and variations thereon, Singer distills a principle: "'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.'" (p. 24.)  Building on this principle, Singer develops the general rule that "those who are financially comfortable" should donate 5% of their annual earnings (or more, if they are rich) to aid organizations that alleviate poverty.  (p. 25.)

While I agree with Singer that individuals have a moral responsibility for others less well off than themselves, and further that we should all be developing means of discharging that responsibility, I think the hypotheticals have led Singer astray.  As economists have learned, abstract models that work in theory tend not to operate so cleanly in the real world.  All of those "externalities" that economists - and moral philosophers - have ignored for the sake of elegant conceptualizing have a way of refusing to be ignored once the conceptual gets concrete.

One major externality in Singer's hypothetical is the response of the drowning kid.  Singer treats the drowning kid as a prop that serves to highlight the moral decision-making of the affluent actor.  But the needy, no less than those whose needs are met, are moral agents with responsibilities that they may choose to discharge or disregard.  "Internalizing" this externality in Singer's hypothetical might look like the following:

You walk past a drowning kid.  You can save the child, but the child will be ungrateful and, moreover, will steal your wallet while you are saving him or her.  Is it immoral to keep walking and leave the kid to die?

You walk past a drowning kid.  You can save the child, but the child will accuse you of implementing a non-sustainable intervention and of thereby preventing him or her from being able to survive without your assistance, a charge that will lead to your public humiliation and condemnation.  Is it immoral to keep walking and leave the kid to die?

You walk past a drowning kid.  You can save the child, but the child's brother will be furious at what he perceives to be foreign interference with his family and will subsequently blow up a bakery that foreigners in town frequent, with the result that several local youths die and several more people (including foreigners) are injured.  Is it immoral to keep walking and leave the kid to die?
In posing these hypotheticals, my point is not to suggest that aid recipients are immoral, but to illustrate the over-simplistic nature of Singer's unilateral model for assessing moral responsibility and crafting general rules based thereupon.  The financially well-off may have a moral responsibility to help those in need, even if they prove to be ungrateful, cheat them of small sums, accuse them of acting injudiciously, humiliate them, or use them as an excuse for outrageous crimes; but the affluent also have a moral responsibility to discharge their obligations in a way that will have the most positive possible outcome.  

With his 1975 book, Animal Liberation, Singer launched the animal rights movement, an impressive achievement that - despite its already numerous accomplishments - will continue to reverberate for generations to come.  As between humans and non-human animals, of course, humans are the only moral agents, a situation in which Singer's conceptual model has much greater emotional and logical force.  As between rich humans and poor humans, however, Singer's one-sided general rule both fails to persuade (the rich) and demeans (the poor).  What is necessary, instead, is a general rule that takes into account the moral responsibilities of both the donor and the aid recipient.  Only such an approach will have any chance of resulting in "the most positive possible outcome."

Such a rule cannot help but be more radical that Singer's current proposal.  Any general rule designed to promote optimal discharge of moral responsibilities on both sides of the wealth-redistribution equation must involve the affluent in more direct engagement with poverty than mere check writing.  

And while nobody today thinks that people who won't give 5% of their salary to charity are going face poverty more directly - by, for example, sharing the burdens of power outages and sub-par sanitation that result from volunteering in a developing country slum - nobody thought that the indiscriminate and cruel slaughter of animals was noteworthy in 1975 either.

(Image of Peter Singer from The Guardian)   

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