Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"All we did in this class was save some lives...."

Time for this blog to get a bit more multimedia savvy!

This is largely an "informative" post, sharing what I (try to) do and seeking any feedback.

Above is a video clip I use in discussions of arguments about helping people living in absolute poverty. I use Singer's NY Times "The Singer Solution to World Poverty" and some snippets from "Famine, Affluence and Morality" for some philosophical details. I like this issue because, unlike many moral issues, it has a stronger potential than many issues to be "relevant" to one's personal life, in this case, how one spends money and, indeed, even one's career choice.

While I think there are a lot of complex moral and empirical issues here, many students tend to think that Singer's arguments can easily be refuted. Since I think it's initially important to address objections that people actually have (as opposed to objections that philosophers raise, but just about nobody else would think of), I focus on the objections I round up from students. Some of them are here.

Inspired by Stuart Rachels, I also challenge them to put their thinking into practice. Since Singer's conclusion is stated in a way that is hard to pin down, we consider whether his arguments might show that each of us (who is able) is obligated to donate $.25 a day to help people in absolute poverty. This is about $10 a month and I encourage them to check out a maximally efficient organization called The Ten Dollar Club. Other students, business majors, have learned about microcredit organizations and have gotten involved in that. Here's a neat book of ideas I recently came across: Our Day to End Poverty. I also make some fun posters too for those who believe they do something that warrants their getting them.

I can add that, of course, anyone can do this even if they believe (as I do!) that Singer's arguments are, strictly speaking, unsound.

Singer writes that "Discussion, though, is not enough. What is the point of relating philosophy to public (and personal) affairs if we do not take our conclusions seriously? In this instance, taking our conclusion seriously means acting upon it." This seems right to me and this is one way I've tried to do this. And maybe I've even saved some lives in the process.


  1. These are great ideas, Nathan.
    When I cover Singer's arguments, I also point my students to The Hunger Site, which enables them to donate food for free (http://www.thehungersite.com).
    I then plug this act into a utilitarian-style cost-benefit analysis, in the way that Singer uses the drowning child analogy in "Famine, Affluence, and Morality." I point out that it costs them roughly 5-10 seconds to go to the Hunger Site and click on the button. The benefit is someone on the planet is fed that day.

  2. I use Singer very often in my intro to ethics courses. His arguments are rather straightforward and rest on premises that most students accept. The interesting thing is that most students reject the conclusions even though they accept the premises. The reason given are summed up nicely in your post, but Singer has an answer to all of them.

    What I do is challenge my students to do something that will cost them very little. I ask them to count the change they have laying around the places where they live and to send that amount to OXFAM or a local relief organization. They are not using the money so it ought not to cause them any harm to send it to relieve the suffering of others. The next week I follow up and ask how many have even counted their change. The answer is almost always zero. I do beat them up a bit on this and the discussion gets rather lively at times, but I tell them straight out that until the find something wrong with the premises, simply rejecting the conclusion that follows form them is not reasonable. Besides, I point out, we are talking about saving innocent children’s lives. It seems paradoxical that so many would argue against doing so.

    My mother had a very interesting idea for raising money to help others. She tithed, but felt that this was not enough, but she lacked the available funds to do more. What she did was to pay for everything with bills and to place the change into a large jar. When the jar was full she sent the money to a charity that she supported.

  3. I usually use the Global Rich List as a point of reference for the students to see, that while they relative to their fellow citizens may be badly off, in regards to global income they are almost certainly extremely privileged.

  4. I think this is a great and timely entry, since my class just last night went over Singer's arguments for ending world poverty and vegetarianism. Hopefully some of the students view the video and can put a face to a name. I think it helps to remind them that philosophers were, and are, real people, and that philosophical ideas can have real force. I think that is part of Singer's importance. Thanks for the video!

  5. I have come across one objection that seems problematic for Singer's argument. I believe it originated with John Arthur, in one or more editions of his anthology "Morality and Moral Controversies". Singer makes use of a principle which states that if we can prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing something of comparable moral worth, then we are morally required to do so. The objection is that the principle is too strong. For example, it would make donating a kidney to a stranger a morally obligatory act, according to Arthur, rather than a supererogatory act, which seems more accurate. I would be interested in hearing some possible responses to this philosophical objection.
    I don't think it is a practical problem for our students, or for us, because as Singer points out in the video posted by Nathan, we only have to give up some luxury items to help feed the starving. Still, it would be nice to see if the objection can be refuted.

  6. Nathan - That video is an excellent resource. One goal I think we should have is to give students a sense of empowerment or moral agency (i.e., to discourage uncritical defeatism in the face of hard social and moral problems). So to that end, I've often distributed to students (at the end of the term!) a list of organizations and advocacy groups dealing with the issues we've discussed in class. I try to be even-handed about it (listing both pro- and anti-death penalty groups, e.g.). I don't have any data about whether students contact these groups, but I'd like to think it helps to keep the education and engagement going once the course ends.

    Mike - I think the best answer to that objection is simply to acknowledge that Singer's principle is too strong. The goods we would have to forego in order to prevent at least death from hunger, poverty, etc. are worth far less to us in terms of risk, etc., than our kidneys. So a modified principle might be "if we can prevent something bad from happening by giving up something of trivial moral worth, then we are morally required to do so." I use examples of goods like cell phone ring tones and students find this weaker principle fairly plausible. Granted, it doesn't yield Singer's conclusion that we should give away all non-necessities, but it grounds a fairly strong duty to aid that, if followed, would reduce a great deal of hunger and poverty.

  7. I would add that at least according to what I've learned from Greg Pence's discussion of organ donation in his Elements of Bioethics book, it's actually often quite dangerous to donate an organ; apparently there often isn't much medical support for organ donors, especially the kind who would give pretty much just because they want to (insurance doesn't support such generosity).

    But if it were safe, I suppose, maybe one could make up some reasons why it'd be a comparable loss. But that'd probably be self-serving justifications, so it's probably better to just weaken the principle.

    As for me, I think his arguments don't show that giving to any particular worthy cause is obligatory, since - in this world of misery- in giving to one, you always "sacrifice" another. So you're permitted a range of options, but it is obligatory that you don't take the option that would often be described as "doing nothing."

    Thanks for these suggestions about some options what require even less "sacrifice" than $.25 a day. It's often good to start small.

  8. Nathan you are correct that organ donation involves some risks, and the benefits are often over stated, transplanted organs do not last forever and while life with a new organ is often (although not always) better it is not the same as being healthy.

    When I used to teach on animal ethics I offered to take students who were interested to the supermarket, so that they could see the range of food still available if they went down vegetarian or vegan grounds, and the number of vegetarian alternatives that were easily available. (Along with giving them a range of websites etc) I think it is important to support students if you are giving them arguments that they should change how they live their life.

  9. If you want some interesting information:
    1) 85% 0f the world's wealth is in the hands of 15% of the worlds population. (Good ol Pareto!)
    2) The four richest people in the world have more money then the 20 poorest nations.
    3) In the US, the top 20% of the population controls 47% of the wealth while the bottom 20% share 4% of the wealth.
    4) When a person earns a baccalaureate degree they will be 1 of 1% of the world's population that has a college education.

    If I recall correctly 1 and 2 are from the World Bank, 3 is from a Sociology text, and 4 is from a stats course my wife took a number of years ago so the percent is probably higher.

  10. For fans of this set of issues (and daytime TV), Salma Hayak was on Oprah promoting a Unicef plan to vaccinate kids from tetanus. Apparently a 5 cent shot will take a child from a painful and early death. More info. is here:

    http://www.pampers.com/en_US/unicef_homepage.do and


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