Saturday, September 30, 2006

"baby monitor", FIMP's Book of the Month

Subscribers to FIMP's Book of the Month Club should be watching for "baby monitor" to arrive on their doorsteps soon. This one gets a little grim; I was thinking a lot about Peter Singer's essay "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" while composing it.

It's an essay worth reading. Boiled down to a single sentence you get:

"If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it."

If that rings a bell, you might want to pay this website a visit.


Stephen Falken said...

Your linked article on the philosophy of giving was a very interesting read. To me, it harkens back to my earlier response involving Superman. From my understanding of the article, we are all supermen, capable of saving someone with every available second, and damned if we spare one second for anything trivial (such as pausing to speak with a friend or read a book).

The article mentions our moral obligation to help a child that has fallen in a muddy puddle. But with the "global village", one now looks up to see endless miles of children face down in puddles. Is one morally obligated to spend one's every waking moment saving children? Interesting thought. One might attempt to stop the children from falling in the puddles, but (to stretch the analogy), sovereign nations choose to drown their children (by spending on military, nuclear energy, or palaces instead of helping their own children). So one's only option is reactive, and the obligation limitless.

Also, the obligation does not fall merely on the rich. What of the artist, or the philosopher? A work of art might well influence thoughts and perception of the society at large, but if the artist had spent the same amount of time as he spent on a painting instead as a cashier (or trained for the highest paying position within his capabilities), and donated the money thus earned, how many lives would have been thus saved? In other words, it's not just HAVING money, but having the ABILITY to make money, that should have the obligation.

Finally, of course, the tone of the article is very much communist in nature. I don't say that in a "red scare" sort of way, just that it makes certain presumptions, such as that rich people who work hard for the trivia of nice clothes, would still be motivated to work equally hard to send all of their money overseas. Interesting theory, but I can't empathize with such theoretical beings as humans.

I think people base their own sense of moral obligation on what they would, in turn, expect of others. If my son Joshua had been face down in a puddle, I would have expected someone passing by to help. If someone on the other side of the country could help, I would certainly hope he would. Would I really expect someone on the other side of the world to intercede? Not really.

Human life DOES have a finite value, as distasteful as that sounds. We're animals, after all, that breed like, well, animals. We'll need to start teraforming Mars immediately to satisfy the exponential dietary needs of our ever-expanding populace.

It would be pretty depressing to feel that you were morally obligated not only to give virtually all that you had to the never-ending poverty overseas, but that you were obligated to work constantly towards making more money to send. The author touched on this paradox, but never answered it satisfactorily.

Marc Snyder said...

Hi Stephen!

I believe that one can distinguish between the truth of Singer's argument and the consequences of acting on it, and come to a personal decision on how to "use" that information. Taken to its logical extremes, Singer's argument points us towards a type of behavior that just doesn't correspond to the way people behave in "the real world", as you correctly point out. I don't think this disproves the argument that:

"if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it"

it just makes us ask how we should act in light of that argument.

I think if a person accepts that argument, even with enormous qualifications, it would still encourage a rethinking of one's habits and attitudes towards the world.

I believe that for many, you could make the weakest possible case, something along the lines of:

"if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without having any noticeable effect on our lifestyle whatsoever, we ought, morally, to do it"

and many of us would have to adjust our actions to accomodate that belief.

What "without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant" means could factor in your need to live comfortably, maintain the lifestyle to which you are accustomed, provide for your retirement and your children, and a whole host of other provisions, and for many people there would still be something left over that could go to someone who has nothing.

An example: Let's say a hypothetical artist type works in a building that has a Coke machine. Being a caffeine junky, he feeds the machine three times a day to get his fix. He works next door to a building with a refrigerator. He could easily buy Cokes at the grocery store at a considerable savings and place them in the refrigerator, saving a minimum of 50 cents a day, without inconveniencing himself beyond having to walk next door to get his fix. Once hypothetical artist notices this, and realizes that he is throwing away $15 a month for an incredibly foolish reason, he might consider setting up a monthly deduction from his credit card for Unicef for the $15 a month, which would encourage him to get off his butt and put the Cokes in the fridge.

Impact on the artist - none at all. He just gets a tiny bit more exercise, and has to remember to buy his Cokes at the grocery store. Impact on the world - 3 hungry kids are fed for 4 weeks with every 15 dollar donation.

I would suggest that there are a lot of people out there who could make a sacrifice (if you can even call it that) at that level. We're an incredibly rich country, and we're used to our luxuries, and it's just hard to argue with the idea that someone who is starving, no matter where they are, isn't deserving of a little of that bounty, much of which is ours through the fortunate circumstances of where we were born.

I don't see how the number of people starving impacts the decision to help a few of them. "The fact that we can't do everything doesn't mean we shouldn't do anything" (I think Madeline Albright said something like that). I've heard arguments from both directions - that it would cost too much to help everyone, so don't help, and an individual's contribution doesn't help many people, so don't help. I don't really see the logic in that.

Peter Singer acknowledges that his argument is not going to be taken to its limits - his own personal giving towards hunger relief is 20% of his earnings. But I think you can reasonably argue that many people use the remoteness of people in need - their "otherness" - as a reason to look the other way. You can acknowledge our enormous access to resources that much of the rest of the world does not enjoy, and give a bit of it away, while still taking advantage of those resources. To me, it seems like the moral thing to do.