The Global Poor

Peter Singer argues that we harm the global poor. By ‘we’, he means those of us living in the developed world, and by ‘harm’ he means actively damage. He is writing in November 1971 at a time of famine in East Bengal. He observes that if I am walking past a drowning baby in a pond, I have a duty to assist even if I might get my expensive suit dirty. He is careful to specify that it is a shallow pond: I am not being required to endanger myself. He compares the aid spend of the Heath administration at that time (£14.75m) with the projected cost of Concorde (£440m, with the out-turn being £1,400m). [You can scale all those numbers up by around 10x if you want to use RPI as an inflator.]

Thomas Pogge goes further. Everyone in the West is culpable as a result of the industrial revolution being founded on uncompensated asset transfers in colonial times. We must now assist much more than we are currently doing.

Now I don’t agree with the premises but the argument seems valid. Singer says there is no difference between helping the baby and helping someone in sub-Saharan Africa under famine conditions. I think there is a disanalogy in that as Pogge points out, it isn’t just one baby in the pond – there have been 270m deaths from famine in the 15 year period starting in 1990. You can’t save that number of babies from drowning. The 270m number is more than died in combat in the whole of the last century.

I don’t think there is any case for Jobseekers’ Allowance to be paid in this country, at least while there are any job vacancies. You will doubtless disagree with me and saying I am being too harsh, and that people have a human right to work. I also disagree with that, but it doesn’t matter. Because the question for you is how to deal with the Singer and Pogge argument if you think there is a human right to work or to subsistence at the expense of others. Then:

Why is it OK to spend money on people in Bolton to keep them alive but not in Africa?

Singer wants us to spend maybe 25% to 40% of GDP on aid. He doesn’t want to use all of it because he admits that that would be counterproductive – it would be better to retain a strong economy than overtax it. But then in a variant of the above question, which is phrased for physicists since that was whom I was in the JB with last night, is:

Why is it OK to spend £5.6bn on the LHC when people are starving?

I have given my response to this. If you want to deny my exit is conscionable, then you will need a different answer. Maybe you want to say something like ‘ we should look after the people who are already here first’. But do you really want to say that? Why does conscience end at the borders, if it exists and produces duties? Why should people fortunate enough to be born here get looked after? Aren’t you dangerously close to saying ‘we should look after the people who look like me’? Or are you saying ‘I can see that homeless person so I should help him’ while people you can see only on television who are much worse off can be safely ignored…?

So I would announce the end of Jobseekers’ Allowance in three months with a three month transition period after that. I don’t mind weakening it if you don’t think I have a right to insist that people move – the phase out can occur only to the extent that there are no jobs locally available if you like. Note that this is not Incapacity Benefit – paid to those who medically cannot work – or Carers’ Allowance – paid to those looking after someone. I have said nothing about those benefits.

I think if we must spend this money, it is morally better spent in Africa and even the economics say so. It is mathematically the case that almost 3 of those 270m people were the smartest person in 100m. I don’t know of any reason why people with the capacities of an Einstein wouldn’t be born anywhere in the world. Shouldn’t we be finding those people and helping them? You can be as smart as Einstein and also incredibly diligent; it won’t help you or us if you don’t make it to three months old.


24 Responses to The Global Poor

  1. lily says:

    Are you saying that we should save only the smart babies? If so, how do you propose doing this?

  2. lily says:

    Also I disagree that it would make more sense that what we are doing now. Saving the smart babies would mean:

    (1) Developing a method to accurately determine the intelligence of infants to within perhaps 5 IQ points. The method would have to work on dying and malnourished babies.
    (2) Testing every infant in the world
    (3) Removing the infants from their starving communities

    You are insane.

  3. timlshort says:

    So if you want to save the whole 270m you are in fact saying you are happy with the status quo because we don’t have the resources to do that.

    OK maybe it’s impracticable. I can abandon that element of the argument. You still owe me a reason why we should build the LHC instead of saving starving babies.

    • Simon Dean says:

      1) The question is meaningless – if the funds were diverted away from the LHC, they would not be used to save starving people in Africa.

      2) Einstein was dyslexic, struggled with maths and would certainly have failed any tests you may propose to root out the people with the highest IQ.

      3) All life is valuable and there is an argument that the cleverest people will be able to find ways to do better for themselves anyway, so better to use funds to help those less able.

      • timlshort says:

        1. The implication of the philosophical argument is that all spending beyond that necessary to keep UK citizens from starving is illegitimate so it’s not just the LHC that would go. It’s roads, hospitals, everything. That’s the conclusion you are forced to if you think there is a basic human right to subsistence at the expense of others and you need that if you want to have Jobseekers’ Allowance.

        2. “Although Einstein had early speech difficulties, he was a top student in elementary school.” But fine – as I said to Lily, I will abandon this part entirely. You still owe me a justification for the LHC which isn’t inconsistent with your view that there is a human right to subsistence.

        3. If all life is valuable, why the LHC? And what maximum would you set to the world’s population? 10bn? 20bn? 100bn? We should keep going as much as possible if all life is valuable.

      • Simon Dean says:

        1) I don’t think there is a basic human right to subsistence, I just think people should try to help out where it is possible and practical. Also, below I justified having JA without falling back on such a right.

        3b) Why will the human population be limited to one planet in the future?

        3a) Regarding the LHC – are we discussing the way the world is or the way the world should be? Because you are using elements of both in your arguments. If it is the way the world should be, then we wouldn’t need to choose between having an LHC and giving subsistence to Africa because we would have both. Given that we are living in the real world, where humans are greedy and selfish and countries are separate, self-interested entities then there is no possibility to replace JA in Bolton with aid to Africa. As soon as you start to justify abolishing JA on the basis of starving people in Africa, then you may as well start from scratch and design a planetary manifesto in which JA in Bolton would not exist anyway, such as it is now.

  4. Simon Dean says:

    The implication in this article is that Jobseeker’s Allowance is implemented purely for compassionate reasons – it isn’t. Supporting people while they look for work is designed to reduce unemployment and make the economy stronger overall. So, to be ruthless about it, our money is better spend in Bolton than in Africa because we get something back if those people are encouraged back to work. It’s an investment in our own country.

    Obviously the current welfare state is bloated and incentivises unemployment – this needs to be fixed!

    • timlshort says:

      How is that consistent with ‘all life is valuable’?

      “Supporting people while they look for work is designed to reduce unemployment” – how does it do that and why doesn’t it in fact do the opposite? Which is what you say at the end with “Obviously the current welfare state is bloated and incentivises unemployment”.

      • Simon Dean says:

        It isn’t consistent. The statement about valuable life referred to the hypothetical situation where we could choose which fraction of the 270m to save, which is a situation belonging to the philosophical world “as it should be”. My comment about benefits was a realistic explanation in the economics world “as it is”.

        Having no food or sleep before a job interview is not helpful. Having enough food to get you through a job interview is helpful. Having regular enough free meals so as not to care about the job interview is not helpful.

  5. lyn greenslade says:

    I agree the welfare state has to be pared back but I can’t see any government surviving the outrage of the disenfranchised and the bleeding hearts – cleverer incentives for employers to employ and for the unemployed to work could be devised. In Aus there was a brilliant strategy for the 18-25s if they didn’t have a job they had to be studying in an educational institution to be eligible for any government allowance.

  6. timlshort says:

    Simon –

    If it isn’t consistent then it isn’t a tenable view. You can’t think two inconsistent things. You have to choose between the LHC and ‘all life is valuable’. We could save all of the 270m if we wanted to. There is no difficulty in the economic world ‘as it is’ which prevents that.

    You still need to tell me why the optimal population size isn’t infinite per planet on your view. Also does ‘all life is valuable’ apply to animals? Bees? Bacteria?

  7. timlshort says:

    Lyn – you are right. Fundamentally this is a problem with democracy. Or more precisely, democracy combined with the fact that 70% of people are a net drain on public resources.

  8. Simon Dean says:

    Your quotes:
    “If it isn’t consistent then it isn’t a tenable view”
    1) “So if you want to save the whole 270m you are in fact saying you are happy with the status quo because we don’t have the resources to do that.” (economist’s viewpoint)
    2) “We could save all of the 270m if we wanted to.” (philosopher’s viewpoint)

    The hypothetical is therefore inconsistent – should I formulate opinions based on the philosopher’s world where we can do anything, or the economist’s world as it is?

  9. timlshort says:

    The economics view and the philosophy view are not inconsistent though – only your position is. We do in fact have the resources to save the whole 270m and we are required to by your principle that ‘all life is valuable’. In the same way, we are required to not build the LHC by that principle. Saving people from starvation is not very expensive; whether compared to the LHC (£5.6bn) or UK social security spend (£231bn).

  10. Simon Dean says:

    The views are inconsistent and you are deliberately forcing the choice between the LHC and feeding people, which is a false choice. We are not required to cancel the LHC if we believe that life is valuable and if we believe your statement that it is not expensive to feed all starving people since the LHC is also not expensive. Or are you suggesting that the cost of feeding everyone is in fact exactly the same as the sum of all countries GDPs?

    • timlshort says:

      Simon –

      I suppose by ‘false choice’ you mean that in fact we could do both. I don’t know whether that is true bearing in mind that fertility rates in Nigeria and Mali, for example, are north of 7 per woman. So keeping people alive now creates a much larger problem in the future, unless the resource/conflict etc situation in affected countries improves dramatically.

      But in any case, I am forcing the choice between ‘all life is valuable’ and the LHC because it is a real choice. It simply is the case that you cannot consistently hold that we should build the LHC and that we should always act so as to maximise the amount of life, which latter maxim is entailed by ‘all life is valuable’. Unless you want to add some caveats.

      I didn’t claim that ‘it is not expensive to feed all starving people since the LHC is also not expensive’. Though I would agreed with the latter statement; £5.6bn is not that large an amount in terms of government expenditure and when shared between various countries. But the fact remains that you could have saved a lot of people with that money. Malaria, for example, kills a million people a year and a bed net costs $10. By building the LHC, you have said that it is more important to you to spend the £5.6bn than the $10m. I agree, but I can consistently do that because I do not agree with ‘all life is valuable. Again, I urge you to tell us where to stop with that principle.

      • Simon Dean says:

        (apologies for the ambiguous sentence – your quote was just “it is not expensive to feed all starving people”)

        So you agree with the statements “it is not expensive to feed all starving people” and “the LHC is also not expensive”. Expensive is a relative term, so if something is “not expensive” then it is always affordable. Therefore, in all situations, we can feed all starving people and fund the LHC. If you disagree with this, your position is inconsistent. So this is the second time I have shown that the question is bogus.

      • timlshort says:

        I think you are still missing the point. If ‘all life is valuable’ is true without caveats, then any non-aid spending is illegitimate, not just the LHC.

  11. Chris Jay says:

    Just a pedantic (but characteristically long-winded) rumination or two on this claim, Tim:

    “It simply is the case that you cannot consistently hold that we should build the LHC and that we should always act so as to maximise the amount of life, which latter maxim is entailed by ‘all life is valuable’.”

    On the strict reading of “maximize the amount of life” (the one meaning that we try to get as much life as possible, including perhaps having more lives as well as longer ones), that we should act always so as to maximise the amount of life is not in fact strictly entailed by the principle that all life is valuable. [If you want to check that, remember that “all life is valuable” means that for any life, that life is valuable, whilst “maximize the amount of life” means that there should be as much life – so perhaps as many lives – as possible: the former principle just quantifies over (existing) lives, attributing value to them, but says nothing about how large the domain over which it quantifies – how many existing lives there are – ought to be.]

    But I take it you were thinking of reading the “maximize the amount of life” claim in the more restricted way, such that it means just that the lives there already are should be as long as possible. Still, though, “maximize the amount of life” isn’t strictly entailed by the principle that all life is valuable, and for a reason more germane to the actual debate than the logical point I made before: to say that something is valuable is not to say that it is of the greatest value, so it is consistent with the view that all life is valuable that there are things of greater value which restrict the extent to which life ought to be preserved. Compare: loyalty is valuable, but it does not follow from that that only a life which seeks to maximise loyalty at all costs is the sort of life that’s good; it is rather a value which must be weighed against other, perhaps greater, values on some (perhaps all) occasions. (If you don’t like the example, pick any other you like – you get the point. I chose loyalty for its Kantian resonances – it’s always wise to keep the Great Man in the vacinity when thinking about something ;o) )

    I can see the pressure to read “all life is valuable” as equivolent to “all life is maximally valuable” or something similar which would be closer to entailing “maximize the amount of life” in the context of this debate [though even then it still wouldn’t strictly entail it without appeal to a (non-trivial!) principle connecting what is maximally valuable to what ought to be done, but we won’t go there!]: it might seem kind of beside the point to just say ‘all life is valuable, but of course there are other – perhaps more – valuable things’, since that would leave the question about priorities just as open as it was before (because we might or might not say that whatever the putative ‘better cause’ is, e.g. scientific knowledge, happens to be one of the more valuable things).

    But I can also see the pressure to say “all life is valuable” in this context without meaning it in that way. To say that life is valuable is to say that it is to be seriously weighed against other values and not hastily discounted as an end, even when (or if) resources are scarce and even though it might be that in the end its value is outweighed. It is to say that if lives are to be lost – any lives – it had better be for a very good reason; and that is worth noting in a debate which can tend to treat lives merely as beans to be counted up. I think that way of seeing the meaning of “all life is valuable” is better than treating it as a utopian principle which is set against “real world” principles: it is not that all life is valuable so in an ideal world it would be preserved but in actual fact the principle cannot do much for us; it is that all life is valuable, so even in the real world when we make our decisions we ought to be able to justify to ourselves why it is worth sacrificing life, even if sacrifice it we must. This, Tim, seems to be something you can agree with (so you needn’t reject the “all life is valuable” principle, read in that way) – it’s just that, I take it, you think that demand for justification can be met.

    • timlshort says:

      Yes, exactly.

      I want people to be much more precise about what they mean by ‘all life is valuable’ but as you see, they did not respond by putting any caveats on it. I deny it altogether, and I think they do so as well but would like to pretend otherwise because of the harshness of the position. If ‘all life is valuable and more so than anything else’ is what they are implying, then we do indeed have to maximise the number of lives and their length and presumably also their types down to bacteria…and of course the choices are going to get very difficult very quickly in that space. In fact untenably so in my view, which is why I abandon the principle. The woolly thinking that says ‘of course I want to save the whole 270m’ together with ‘and I want to build the LHC’ requires a consistency check or an alternate model of belief than that a belief is a disposition to behave – because people who behave by building the LHC are not thereby asserting that all life is more valuable than anything else.

      I fully agree that there are things more valuable than life and the LHC is one of them. I just want people to recognise that some death is part of the price.

      I am 100% in accord with your last paragraph. But it might be too easy. Very few of us would build the LHC if we had to construct it from human skulls. But I am struggling to see the difference between that and not spending the money on aid.

      • Chris Jay says:

        Do you really subscribe to behaviourism about belief, such that a belief is a disposition to behave?! Surely I am disposed to act BECAUSE I have beliefs; not the other way round, not that I have beliefs because I am disposed to act…?

        Also, I (pedantically) still don’t think you are right about:

        “If ‘all life is valuable and more so than anything else’ is what they are implying, then we do indeed have to maximise the number of lives and their length and presumably also their types down to bacteria…”

        I think the first point I made, in my previous reply, stands with respect to the difference between saying that all life is (maximally) valuable and saying that there ought to be as many lives as possible. In fact, there are analogous cases, I think, where it is clear that the value claim precludes the recommendation to maximise. Compare: each exchangable coin is valuable; but does that mean we should maximise the number of exchangable coins in the world? No, for that is inflationary and therefore decreases the very value we were suposedly motivated by in the first place! The coins there are have LESS value the more of them there are, so the fact that they have the value they do cannot be a reason to produce more of them. I’m not suggesting the same is true of the value of life; I am merely pointing out that it cannot simply follow by logic from something having some particular value that it ought to be maximised, for there are cases in which it ought NOT to be, precisely because of that value.

      • timlshort says:

        There is nothing to a belief beyond a disposition to behave because the self is an illusion. I don’t think I need be committed to the counter-intuitive direction of causation you mention from that statement. If someone claims they believe X, then I say they do not in fact really believe X if they in addition claim something which has the effect of ~X or if they act in ways which are inconsistent with X. So in the context of the discussion we have been having, and using X as ‘all life is valuable without any caveats’ and adding your correct adjustment that if Y is valuable without any caveats than we must pursue the maximisation of Y AT ALL COSTS’ seems to be the claim that people are making for life. But they then build the LHC which I don’t have a problem with but it is inconsistent with their other claim.

        I am very happy with you making these caveats because I think they work in my favour. No one has yet come back and said that what they meant when they said ‘all life is valuable’ is the version you put up. Clearly you are right in your last para, and the principle should then be modified to something like ‘all life is valuable up to the point when it isn’t any more because we have rammed the planet with people’. No one is willing to do this of course because once there is any modification of the principle, it will become impossible to defend it. Because we won’t have any systematic way of deciding which exceptions are allowed. (I think your man would be well on board with the idea that caveats have this property!) But at the moment, we have ‘all life is valuable except if I want to build the LHC’.

        The answer is to deny that all life is valuable. Or at least, more valuable than anything else under all circumstances.

        The alternative is the type of thinking that just says ‘we should spend infinite amounts on the NHS’ because that is easier than trying to make real decisions.

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