Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Derbyshire vs. Singer

John Derbyshire, the in-house pessimist and misanthrope at National Review weighs in on the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia:


I have not, in fact, sent anything to the tsunami victims. I don't say this with any satisfaction, though I'm not particularly ashamed of it, either. Some numbers of my tax dollars are there in Uncle Sam's package. That'll have to do. It's not that I'm uncharitable. I don't think I come up to the old Wesleyan standard of "Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can," no more in the first two clauses than the last, but I write a check now and again. This past few weeks I've sent 50 bucks to the Marine Corps League and $200 to a building appeal by my church. I've diverted one small income stream to a medical charity in memory of a friend who died last month. It's not much, but from a modest lower-middle-class income, it's not nothing. So why haven't I given to the tsunami funds? Because I haven't been sufficiently moved to. Why not?

The short answer is that the south Asians are too distant and too foreign. The way human beings are made, we give up most of our interpersonal emotions to our families and friends. What little is left we spread among people, or causes, with whom we feel some natural sympathy. Most of those are going to be close at hand: our church, our political party, our school funds and youth groups, our associations of common interest. Obviously Thai storekeepers and Sri Lankan peasants don't fall into any of those groups.That's not a full account of our human sympathies, of course. A person whose tender emotions are strictly limited to family and associates is either a member of the Mafia, or a citizen of one of those unhappy societies Francis Fukuyama describes as having a "limited radius of trust," like the clan-dominated, cousin-marrying regions of the Middle East. The sympathies of a well-adjusted person can easily be aroused by the plight of strangers.

Furthermore I have no connection with them, no handle on which to hang my sympathy. "Racism"? Certainly not. My wife and her family belong to a race different from mine, and live in Manchuria. If the tsunami had come ashore there I should be fully engaged. These folk in south Asia, though: They are people-in-the-abstract, not people-I-have-anything-to-do-with.Most of us believe — I myself certainly believe — that something is owed to our common humanity, and that there is something unkind and inhuman about a stony indifference to the sufferings of strangers in distant places. I am not that cold; it's just that the warmth of my feelings for these poor people doesn't rise to the level of reaching for my checkbook. I'll gladly join in a prayer for them; I don't mind my government spending some of our public monies to relieve their distress; I absolutely would not do or say anything to hinder or discourage anyone from trying to help them.

Their media-mediated sufferings can move us to some degree (though obviously not much of a degree in my case); but if you tell me that the sight of an orphaned child in Sri Lanka moves you just as much as that of one in your own town, let alone your own family, I shall tell you that you are either lying, or (much more likely) are in the grip of a sentimental delusion.Derbyshire’s justification against not giving is that he didn’t feel like it. People in the abstract simply did not arouse his sympathies, nor do they, in his opinion, arouse the sympathies of anyone. Or at least not to the degree where you would pass on local charities that do arouse sympathies in order to donate to these people-in-the-abstract.
This is a classic objection to the arguments of Peter Singer put forward in his famous philosophical essay Famine, Affluence, and Morality.

In this argument, Singer “begin[s] with the assumption that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.” He then states the principle that "if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”

Although this principle looks benign enough, it has radical implications. Singer writes, “If it were acted upon […] our lives, our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed. For the principle takes, firstly, no account of proximity or distance. It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away.”

To elucidate with an example, say you walk by a small wading pool, only two feet deep. In this wading pool, a child is drowning, and will drown unless you come to the rescue. Most people would agree that since saving the child would entail such a small cost (getting your pants wet; wasting a few minutes of your time) compared to such a large benefit (saving the child) that to not save the child would be an immoral, possibly monstrous, act.

Singer says that this scenario of the child in the wading pool is no different from the people in Third World countries that die from hunger everyday, and that could be saved through a modest donation. To not donate all of your income, beyond the small amount needed for the basic food and simple clothes needed to keep you alive, makes you a murderer in nearly the same sense as the person that leaves the child to drown.

This is where Derbyshire’s and Singer’s views on charity come into conflict. Derbyshire is saying that human nature inclines us to give charitably to causes that are close to us and that affect people we know and care about. Singer, on the other hand, says that not only should we give to people further away first if they are in more dire need (which, for the most part, they are), but this giving is not charity as we understand it, but rather a moral obligation—that is, to not donate would be to do something immoral.

Now, I am sympathetic to both Derbyshire’s and Singer’s arguments; Singer’s for its relentless logic and Derbyshire’s for its inherent libertarianism and alignment with basic human nature.

I must say the upper-hand of the argument definitely goes to Singer (but, in fairness to Derbyshire, the point of his article is more along the lines of “why” he doesn’t give, not whether he has the inherent moral responsibility to give. For the sake of this post, I assumed that he was making a moral claim as well as offering a practical justification of why he doesn’t give.)

Just because, in Derbyshire’s view, human nature inclines us to give to the causes closest to home rather than to possibly more desperate causes consisting of people-in-the-abstract that are further away, doesn’t mean that it is moral to do so. It could possibly be that the inclinations of human nature are not inherently moral. This is a prospect that I think most people can agree upon, given the hedonism, selfishness, and greed that are as natural a part of us as is our altruism (okay, maybe Ayn Rand followers or extreme libertarians might not agree, but really who cares about them?).

The inclination of Derbyshire’s to give to those that he loves, even if just to make their lives better in a small way, such as by providing for their education, is in a way a kind of selfishness, if it means that people who are more needy will be passed over.

Update: I should say that I still disagree with Singer's argument. I don't think it pegs us with a moral responisibility to give money in the form of aid to other countries. Aid money simply doesn't provide long term positive benefits in most cases, and has actually caused negative effects in some scenarios (the example being Sub-Saharan Africa which recieves huge amounts of aid money, but has experienced negative growth). I think Singer's argument should commit nations to something more along the lines of free trade (which will help countries more than aid money does, as this column argues), as well as Bush's policies of democratization and liberalization throughout the world.


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