Boldly not going

At the risk of sounding crassly utilitarian, I think it’s frankly a dumb idea to send manned space missions to Mars (or even back to the Moon) when there are plenty of problems here on planet Earth whose amelioration could benefit from that sort of concerted national effort and cash (take your pick: extreme poverty, global ecological catastrophe, etc.).

Not to mention, from what I’ve been able to glean, non-manned missions serve useful purposes and are much more cost-effective. Beating the Chinese (or whoever) on a race to Mars just isn’t a very persuasive justification, even if it is the sort of grandiose national project that makes neocons’ hearts go pitter-pat.

Aid: it works (sometimes)

Good post by Matthew Yglesias:

Ultimately, obviously, the ideal solution would be for Africans to get richer. But the per capita GDP of Africa isn’t going to magically reach American (or even Mexican or even Chinese) levels overnight even if Africa does start seeing strong growth. Meanwhile, people with HIV will die really soon unless someone gives them medicine. And even better, the marginal cost of producing extra HIV medication is really low. There’s just no getting around the fact that giving poor people medicine is a useful and important way of making the world a better place.

Foreign aid is not a panacea for everything that troubles the developing world, but one thing that was impressed upon me by Peter Singer’s recent book is that there’s still a lot of relatively low-hanging fruit that aid can effectively address (e.g., easily curable diseases or other medical conditions) and which will make dramatic improvements to people’s lives.

The Life You Can Save 5

So, where have we traveled so far? Singer has argued that 1) we have a moral obligation to help those who lack access to sufficient food, shelter, and medical care and 2) that we can do this by donating to aid agencies. Assuming we agree with him, how much should we give? Part 4 tries to tease out an answer in detail.

On its face, the book’s argument seems to imply a pretty demanding level of giving. After all, I could deprive myself of a lot of luxuries (and donate the money saved to aid agencies) before being in danger of not having enough to adequately meet my own needs and those of my family. Are we then obliged to sacrifice everything beyond what we need to live more or less comfortably for the sake of helping the very poorest people of the world? Singer admits that the logic of his argument seems to point in this direction, but he also knows that many (perhaps most) of us would balk at such an extreme conclusion and, human nature being what it is, maybe decide not to give anything at all. If such seemingly onerous sacrifices are called for, we might say, then there must be some flaw in Singer’s reasoning.

Singer presumably doesn’t think his own reasoning is flawed, but he offers a kind of compromise position as a public standard that he thinks most people can aspire to, but which can still make a huge difference. To this end, he proposes percentages that people in the top ten percent of the U.S. income distribution should give to aid. Those making more than about $105,000 a year should give 5% of their income away; those making over $148,000 should give 10%; more than $383,000, 15%; over $600,000, 20%; and over $1.9 million, 25%. To avoid dis-incentives to move to a higher bracket, this standard could be made more progressive – e.g., someone making $500,000 would give away 5% of the first $148,000; 10% of the next $235,000; and 15% of the remainder.

The amount of money this would raise–from affluent, or at least comfortable, people in the U.S. alone–is about $471 billion a year. For comparison’s sake, Jeffrey Sachs, author of The End of Poverty, estimates that it would cost $189 billion a year to meet the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. (Bracketing for the moment the question of how effective the MDGs themselves are.) Singer adds that there’s no reason to think that people in the bottom 90% of the income scale can’t also give something; if they gave just an average of 1% of their income, this would add about another $40 billion. While it’s obviously difficult to generalize about how much any of us can give, which will depend a lot on circumstances, when I did the math it was pretty clear that I could give according to Singer’s scheme without being seriously deprived.

As is often the case with Singer, there’s a tension between what consequentialist morality seems to require of us and what our own particular attachments–to our family, friends, compatriots, etc.–seem to demand. This isn’t to say that Singer opposes all particular attachments; he thinks there are good (consequentialist!) reasons for preferring that parents raise their own children rather than society trying to institute some kind of communal parenting arrangement. But many of us will balk at this rather cold-blooded argument. It just seems right, we say, that we should prefer our own children to the children of others.

But you don’t need to buy completely into Singer’s utilitarianism to feel the force of his argument. Even granted that we have special duties to our own kith and kin, isn’t there some point at which showering them with luxuries seems grotesque given the magnitude of human suffering in the world? Is it really OK to spend tens of thousands of dollars to send your kid to a fancy private school, or to buy him a new car for his 16th birthday, or send him on a European vacation when there are millions of children in the world who lack access to the basic necessities of life? Surely our particular duties to those we love don’t trump all claims that others might have on us.

The book ends with a consideration of how giving to others can be a way of finding meaning in one’s own life. He cites ancient wisdom and modern research to suggest that helping others is actually a source of deep satisfaction. It almost goes without saying that, from a Christian perspective, it’s well-attested that it is better to give than to receive.

Whatever else Singer has accomplished here, I think he has, at the very least, put the burden of proof on those who deny that we have obligations to do a lot more than we currently are to alleviate world poverty. The fact that this often barely registers as a blip on our political or personal radar screens is a scandal. There are groups doing good work that make a difference in people’s lives, even if it’s sometimes difficult to say how much difference they’re making. And the sacrifice required for most of us to make a significant difference would be comparatively small.

The Life You Can Save 4

While chapter 6 of The Life You Can Save was concerned with identifying individual programs that make a real difference in the lives of those they aim to help, chapter 7 looks at criticisms of aid at what we might call the “macro” level.

One prominent critic of international aid is William Easterly, author of The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. Singer quotes Easterly:

The West spent $2.3 trillion on foreign aid over the last five decades and still had not managed to get twelve-cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get four-dollar bed nets to poor families….It’s a tragedy that so much well-meaning compassion did not bring these results for needy people. (p. 105)

However, when you break out the numbers a bit, there doesn’t seem to be quite as much “well-meaning compassion” here as Easterly suggests. For starters, $2.3 trillion over five decades amounts to $46 billion a year, and the average number of people in the affluent nations over that five-decade period is around 750 million people. So, the aid given amounts to about $60 per person per year, or about 30 cents of every $100 earned. Not exactly a staggering proportion of the affluent world’s wealth (see pp. 105-6).

Beyond that, though, much of the aid included in Easterly’s $2.3 trillion figure did not go toward poverty relief, but toward buying political influence. For instance, the West poured money into the coffers of African dictators during the Cold War in order to get them to tilt toward the West. And the countries currently receiving the lion’s share of U.S. foreign aid are places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, Egypt, and Jordan. You can tell just from the list that this is politically-directed aid, not aid aimed at maximizing poverty relief. “Only about one fifth of U.S. aid goes to countries classified by the OECD as ‘least developed,’ while about half of all U.S. aid goes to ‘lower-middle income’ nations” (p. 107). Singer also points out that much of the aid that is given is self-interested, such as food aid that, by law, must be grown by U.S. farmers (essentially a domestic agricultural subsidy), which often has the result of depressing local markets in recipient countries.

Moreover, while Singer concedes that much government-to-government aid is corrupt and inefficient, Easterly, he says, doesn’t reckon with the effectiveness of non-governmental charity and hasn’t shown that more of this kind of aid is a bad idea:

Because it hasn’t been tried, no one really knows whether poverty on a global scale can be overcome by a truly substantial amount of aid provided without political interference. The political and bureaucratic constraints that encumber official aid only make private donations to effective nongovernmental agencies all the more important. As Easterly himself says, the annual total amount of foreign aid for the world’s approximately 3 billion poor people (this figure includes those who are living on less than $2 per day, as well as those who are living on less than $1.25 per day) comes to only about $20 per person. Should we be surprised that this paltry sum hasn’t ended poverty? The worst that can be said with any certainty is that in the past, a lot of official aid has been misconceived and misdirected and has done little good. But it scarcely seems possible that, if we truly set out to reduce poverty, and put resources into doing so that match the size of the problem–including resources to evaluate past failures and learn from our mistakes–we will be unable to find ways of making a positive impact. (pp. 110-111)

The balance of chapter 7 discusses some other common objections:

“Trade, not Aid”–It’s sometimes argued that the key to lifting people out of poverty is to include them in the global market, rather than giving aid. Singer agrees, to a point. He singles out rich nations’ agricultural subsidies in particular as causing great harm to the world’s poor. However, aid is still necessary “for those who for whatever reason are not benefiting from economic growth.” Those who just want us to focus on expanding the economic pie are peddling a global version of trickle-down economics where the poor will (someday!) benefit from policies that currently seem to favor the rich.

Bad Institutions Undo Good Projects–Some nations seem to suffer form endemically corrupt and fragile institutions, which can undermine aid projects. This provides a good reason, not for abandoning aid, but for making certain kinds of aid conditional on government reform.

“The Planet Can’t Hold Them”–Does giving aid just encourage a reckless population growth? Are people like Paul Ehrlich right that we’re facing a population explosion and there’s simply not enough to go around? Unsurprisingly, Singer disagrees. First, any “food crisis” could largely be solved by shifting away from a meat-intensive diet to a plant-based one, considering that meat production is a highly inefficient use of the world’s grain. Second, the best way to reduce fertility is to reduce poverty. Not to mention that it would be morally repugnant, as suggested by, for instance, Garrett Hardin, to simply adopt a “lifeboat ethic” and leave starving and sick people to their fate.

The bottom line here is pretty clear: we simply can’t claim that we’ve yet made a truly serious effort to combat global poverty. There are clear examples of programs that make a difference, and the objections that aid is distorted by politics constitute an argument for more and better-designed aid, not giving up. So, if that’s right, what kind of obligation does each one of us have? That’s the topic of part 4.

The Life You Can Save 3

In part 3 of The Life You Can Save, Singer tries to answer the question whether we each really can save a life (or several) by donating more to overseas aid. Specifically, how much does it take to save a life, and is aid actually effective in improving the lives of the world’s poorest people?

Chapter 6 looks at the cost of saving a life and how you can tell which charities do it best. Singer spends much of this chapter telling the story of GiveWell, a nonprofit group dedicated to determining the effectiveness of charities. As Singer points out, groups like Charity Navigator look at charities’ program costs vs. their administrative costs, but this is not necessarily a good proxy for the impact charities have on the lives of those they’re trying to help.

GiveWell, by contrast, actually tries to measure this impact, which–not surprisingly–turns out to be pretty difficult. The organization gives grants to charities based in part on its assessment of their effectiveness. The founders, two former hedge fund employees named Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld, found that the information provided by most charities on the effectiveness of their programs was nowhere near the level of the information they would’ve expected to be provided with for a prospective investment.

Karnofsky and Hassenfeld undertook a study of organizations working to save lives and improve health in Africa, and, of the fifty-nine organizations who applied for GiveWell grants, only fifteen provided what they considered adequate information. Of these, they gave their top rating to Population Services International, a DC-based group that “sells condoms, bed nets, water purification treatment, and treatment for malaria and diarrhea, and educates people on their uses” (p. 88), all at nominal prices. Other highly-rated organizations were Partners in Health, a group that started in Haiti to provide health care to poor people, and Interplast, which provides surgeries to correct cleft palates, among other things. GiveWell also looked at poverty-relief programs and high marks (and a $25,000 grant) to Opportunity International, a microfinance organization that gives very small loans at low interest to poor people.

The point here is that proving effectiveness is a pretty tricky thing to do. Virtually all aid organizations can offer descriptions of the kinds of activities they undertake, but not their effectiveness or efficiency. Singer discusses some attempts to quantify the effectiveness of aid programs, but he also recognizes that not all benefits can be so easily quantified. For instance, Oxfam ran a program that helped organize a group of Indian “ragpickers” (“women who make their living by sifting through the town garbage dump to collect not just rags but anything else that can be recycled” (p. 94)), enabling them to demand higher prices, avoid harassment, and receive entry to apartment buildings to collect residents’ recyclables. This resulted in not just more money for these women, but a greater sense of dignity, something that’s pretty hard to reflect in numbers. Singer also discusses another Oxfam effort, one to improve the legal rights of women in Mozambique, as providing hard-to-quantify but still undeniable benefits.

The chapter ends with a list of forms of aid that, in Singer’s words, “we can reasonably judge to be highly cost-effective, even without formal studies” (p. 97). These include

–providing well-drilling equipment to villages in Ethiopia, relieving women from having to walk miles each day just to get clean drinking water

–providing arsenic filters to families in Nepal

–providing cooking stoves that shorten cooking time, allowing girls time for school

–helping residents in a slum of Kathmandu build indoor toilets

–helping villagers in remote mountain areas of Nepal to build a school

–providing inexpensive surgeries to correct cataracts

–providing surgeries to help women with fistulas (a hole between a woman’s vagina and either the bladder or rectum that is sometimes produced by the pressure of a baby’s head during labor)

Singer writes:

It’s difficult to calculate how much it costs to save or transform the life of someone who is extremely poor. We need to put more resources into evaluating the effectiveness of varoius programs. Nevertheless, we have seen that much of the work done by charities is highly cost-effective, and we can reasonably believe that the cost of saving a life through one of these charities is somewhere between $200 and $2,000. (p. 103)

He notes that, by contrast, the median cost of saving a life in the U.S. is around $2.2 million, and the EPA estimated the value of a generic American life at $7.22 million. Given the money we spend on saving lives here, and the money we spend on what can, by any reasonable accounting, be considered luxuries, nearly all of us could make a huge difference to the life of someone very poor by giving away more of what we have.

This doesn’t mean that aid as it exists doesn’t need to be improved, which is the subject of chapter 7.

The Life You Can Save 2

In part 2 of The Life You Can Save, Singer considers some of the psychological obstacles to giving more, as well as some ways they might be overcome.

Chapter 4 reviews some research that provides a measure of insight into our reluctance to give to strangers living in extreme poverty. For instance, people are less likely to give more generously if they

don’t think it’s going to an identifiable individual;

are being asked to give to foreigners rather than their compatriots, even if, impartially considered, the foreigners are far worse off (Singer compares the response to victims of Hurricane Katrina to the response to victims of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia; Americans gave $6.5 billion to victims of Katrina, which claimed 1,600 lives and gave $1.54 billion to victims of the tsunami, which killed 220,000 people);

perceive the effort as futile (the “drop in the ocean” effect);

responsibility is diffused–people are less likely to step forward when others are around and not doing anything;

don’t believe that others are giving too–that is, people don’t like to fee like suckers or have their sense of fairness violated; or

associate giving with a monetary reward–studies indicate that a society built around the “cash nexus” reduces people’s sense of connection to others in the community.

Singer then goes on to discuss some recent theorizing about the connection between ethics and evolution and how our evolutionary history might have conditioned us to be less giving to distant strangers. Some of the psychological obstacles to giving discussed above reflect what philosophers sometimes call our moral intuitions–our reflexive judgments about right and wrong. And to some extent, evolutionary theory can shed light on these intuitions. For instance, since for most of history human beings lived in small tight-knit groups, it makes sense that people with an innate preference for the interests of members of the group (versus the interests of outsiders) would flourish.

However, as Singer points out, intuitions that may be the legacy of our evolutionary history are subject to reasoned criticism. Preference for kith and kin and or the sense that I ought only to help those I can individually identify might have served our ancestors well, but they don’t necessarily provide sufficient moral guidance for our very different world:

Patterns of behavior that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce may, in today’s very different circumstances, be of no benefit to us or our descendants. Even if some evolved intuition or way of acting were still conducive to our survival and reproduction, however, that would not, as Darwin himself recognized, make it right. Evolution has no moral direction. An evolutionary understanding of human nature can explain the differing intuitions we have when we are faced with an individual rather than with a mass of people, or with people close to us rather than those far away; but it does not justify those feelings. (pp. 60-61)

But Singer isn’t so naive as to suppose that we are all going to be guided by impartial reason rather than feeling. In fact, following a tradition in moral philosophy that goes back to David Hume (and includes Adam Smith and Darwin himself), Singer sees feelings–or “moral sentiments”–as an important part of ethics. Contrary to some accounts of evolution as producing creatures that are purely egoistic and competitive, a more complex and accurate picture reveals a mix of self-regarding and other-regarding elements in our psychological make up. The trick is to encourage the latter and to try to bring them into closer alignment with an impartial evaluation of the interests of all people.

Creating this “culture of giving” is the topic of chapter 5. Singer explores various ways in which a higher standard for giving away one’s wealth has become a norm in certain communities. For example, a group of philanthropists started a group several years ago called the 50% League, which was dedicated in supporting members in giving away at least half of their wealth. Much of what we consider normal or adequate is defined by our peer group, so changing the expectations of that group (or joining another one) can make a real difference in terms of how much we feel comfortable giving away.

Along the same lines, Singer identifies some other factors that can help people give more, such as (1) being open about what we and others give; if we think others are doing it, we’re more likely to do it too; (2) linking giving with identifiable recipients, as with some programs that ask donors to “sponsor” a child in another country, even if their donations aren’t going exclusively or directly to that child; (3) “nudging” people in the right direction as some corporations have done by making giving to a charitable cause something that employees must opt out of instead of opting in to; and (4) challenging the norm of self-interest.

The last is one of the more interesting discussions in the book so far. Singer argues that we are actually prone to describing our actions in terms of self-interest even when we’re acting generously and to over-estimate the degree to which self-interest motivates other people. One study, for instance, found that people vastly overestimated the extent to which men would oppose increased medical funding for women’s health issues. Singer also discusses an experiment which showed that students were less likely to return a lost envelope containing $100 after taking a semester of economics! Having to some degree internalized the axiom, common to so much economics, that people act purely out of self-interest, they changed their behavior accordingly! Even though there is ample evidence that people often act from motives other than self-interest, we seem intent on unmasking apparent altruism to reveal darker motives beneath. But the evidence seems to be that motives can be encouraged or discouraged, at least to some extent, by social and cultural norms.

However, even if giving is the right thing to do, and psychological obstacles to giving more can be overcome, will it actually do any good? The next part will look at the many questions surrounding the effectiveness of giving to people in extreme poverty.

The Life You Can Save 1

I finally got my hands on a copy of Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save: Acting Now To End World Poverty, courtesy of the DC city library, and have been working my way through it. Like most of what Singer writes, it’s extremely clear and accessible, filled with facts as much as philosophical arguments.

Chapter 1
begins with what the late philosopher Robert Nozick would call an intuition-pump: a thought-experiment designed to prompt a certain moral response. Singer asks us to imagine passing by a shallow pond and seeing a drowning child in it. If we can save the child at very little cost to ourselves (muddy shoes, a ruined suit, being late to work say), isn’t that the right thing to do? Moreover, wouldn’t be be guilty of a serious wrong if we didn’t wade in and save the child?

But this, Singer maintains, is analogous to the situation we (that is, we in the rich parts of the world) are in with respect to people elsewhere in the world who live in extreme poverty. We routinely spend money on things that are, by any reasonable definition, luxuries, especially when you consider the situation of extremely poor people living on the equivalent of $1.25 per day.

And he’s not just talking about the ultra-rich here. He’s talking about those of us who routinely spend money on bottled water, iTunes downloads, nice vacations, dinners out, and so on. The money we spend on these luxuries could be going to help desperately poor people elsewhere in the world without any significant blow to our well-being. So, aren’t we just as guilty as we would be if we refused to pull the drowning child out of the pond?

In chapter 2, Singer provides a more formal version of the argument:

1. Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.

2. 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.

3. By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.

Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong. (See pp. 15-16.)

Singer points out (correctly, I think) that premises 1 and 2 of this argument are pretty difficult to object to. Premise 3 looks like the most controversial, and Singer will spend much of the book defending the notion that giving to aid agencies can make a difference. But, bracketing that issue for the moment, it looks like a pretty solid argument based on fairly uncontroversial premises.

But this deceptively innocuous argument, Singer says, would have radical implications for how we live our lives. It would require us, at a minimum, to consider giving away much of what we now spend on luxuries (as defined above; we’re not just talking about giving up our private jets and jewel-encrusted Rolexes here) to agencies dedicated to helping people living in extreme poverty.

Chapter 2 concludes with a review of traditional religious attitudes to giving charity. Traditional Christian, Jewish, and Muslim authorities, Singer says, are united in insisting on the duty of charity. To cite one example, St. Thomas Aquinas maintained that “whatever we have in ‘superabundance’–that is, above and beyond what will reasonably satisfy our own needs and those of our family, for the present and foreseeable future–‘is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance'” (p. 20).

In chapter 3, Singer considers some common objections to the argument above. Not all of these are equally compelling (e.g., an appeal to relativism, that there’s no universal moral code for everyone), but he does consider a serious challenge from libertarian philosopher Jan Narveson. Narveson says

We are certainly responsible for evils we inflict on others, no matter where, and we owe those people compensation … Nevertheless, I have seen no plausible argument that we owe something, as a matter general duty, to those to whom we have done nothing wrong. (quoted on p. 28, ellipses in Singer’s text)

Singer has a two-part response to this. First, he appeals to the general implausibility of libertarianism as a political philosophy which would require abolishing “all state-supported welfare schemes for those who can’t get a job or are ill or disabled, and all state-funded health care for the aged and for those who are too poor to pay for their own health insurance” (pp. 28-9). Even many libertarians balk at such conclusions and thus, implicitly at least, reject the principle that we owe nothing to those whom we haven’t previously wronged.

But even if you do accept that principle, Singer says, there is still ample reason to believe that we have obligations to the world’s poor because we have wronged them in various ways. Singer offers the examples of overfishing by Europe, China, and Russia in African coastal waters, which has devastated the livelihood of subsistence fishermen; the extraction of oil and minerals from poor countries, which, at best, enriches a tiny minority and essentially constitutes stealing those nation’s wealth; and the rich nations’ use of our shared atmosphere as a carbon sink, leading to global warming that will disproportionately harm very poor people. Even by the strictest libertarian standards, rich nations have committed aggression in various forms against the world’s poor.

Singer also debunks some other common myths about aid, including that the U.S. is excessively generous with foreign aid. Interestingly, surveys find that people frequently support cutting foreign aid, but they also drastically overestimate how much the U.S. actually gives in aid. For instance, one survey found that a majority of people think the U.S. gives too much in aid. However, the median respondent estimate of what the U.S. gives was 20% of the federal budget! (The actual figure is about 1%.) Meanwhile, the median preferred amount was 10%, ten times the actual amount!

Singer considers other objections, but toward the end of the chapter bumps up against what he sees as a crucial issue: it just seems to go against human nature to extend our circle of concern beyond our immediate family and personal relations, community, and perhaps our nation. Singer takes up this question of “human nature” in part 2, which I’ll talk about in the next post.

Collier on Singer

Paul Collier, who wrote the book The Bottom Billion about global poverty, reviews Singer’s The Life You Can Save and has some interesting criticisms. Though, I think our obligations to the world’s poorest people aren’t simply a matter of altruism; it can be well argued, I think, that we owe them, given some of our behavior (e.g., our contribution to global climate change).

Still waiting for my copy of Singer’s book from the library. (See here and here for relevant posts.)

Singer and Cowen on poverty

Interesting “diavlog” between Peter Singer and libertarian economist Tyler Cowen, focusing mostly on Singer’s new book The Life You Can Save. (I mentioned the book here; I still haven’t read it, though I do have a request in at the library.)

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I think at one point Cowen gets into some fairly outlandish thought experiments that aren’t particularly relevant to evaluating a moral theory. I generally think that moral rules exist to equip us to deal with the world as it is, not with a highly hypothetical, if possible, world. For instance, he seems to suggest that Singer’s consequentialism has counterintuitive results because it implies that one ought to want one’s granddaughter to be genetically programmed to be more altruistic, even to the point of selling her baby to benefit 30 people living in dire poverty. And this seems to conflict with moral sentiments most of us currently have. But, of course, as Singer points out, to truly result in the best consequences, this engineering would have to have been perfected, the daughter would have to experience no sense of loss or separation from her child, etc., etc. Once you’ve changed so many of the features of the real world in your thought experiment, its relevance as a counterexample becomes less clear. Similar things happen with other objections to utilitarianism. The classic case is the secret murder of an innocent person to provide some great social benefit; once all the details of such a situation has been tweaked to make it realistic, much of the initial sense of counterintuitiveness tends to dissipate (e.g., if no one would find out, if it wouldn’t undermine the rule of law, if no one else would be adversely affected, etc., etc.). I’m not a utilitarian per se, but I do think there are good responses to many of the most common objections. And other moral views do seem to have a consequentialist “tipping point” where rights or duties or whatever yield to some kind of utilitarian calculus. (I’m not sure if Cowen really objects to utilitarianism on these grounds or if he’s more playing devil’s advocate.)

More importantly though, am I the only one who thinks Peter Singer sounds eerily like Jermaine from Flight of the Conchords?

Singer on the lives we can save

Beside his writings on animal liberation and bioethics, Peter Singer is probably best known for his views on the obligations people in the affluent parts of the world have to those living in absolute poverty. His article “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” is a classic in applied ethics; in it, Singer argues that those of us in the affluent world–to the extent that we expend resources on luxury goods that could be spent on alleviating extreme poverty–are acting in a grossly immoral fashion.

Picking up on these themes, Singer has just released a book called The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. Again, the emphasis is on extreme poverty. Singer contends that ending extreme poverty is within our reach, but only if we in the richer world give much more of our incomes than we currently do to relieving that poverty. He proposes that we should give away our income to poverty relief organizations according to a sliding scale based on income (1% for those making under $105,000, 5% for those making between $105,000 and $148,000, and so on). Singer points out that Americans in particular routinely overestimate the amount of foreign aid the U.S. gives (and much of that is not even aimed at development or poverty relief); increasing the amount we each give is not only good for the immediate end of helping very poor people, but it can also serve to ratchet up public perception of how much we in the rich parts of the world owe to people who are extremely poor.

Here’s an article summarizing Singer’s argument; here’s the book’s website, which offers suggestions for how much to give and a list of organizations doing good work. It’s interesting that such a resolutely secular thinker as Singer would suggest such a notion at a time when many, if not most, Christians have given up the idea of the tithe. Not a bad thing to think about this Lent when considering where you alms can make a difference.