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I’ve very much enjoyed during the last month or two the blogosphere’s discussions about Peter Singer’s philosophy. Here is a transcript of an interview that economist Tyler Cowen conducted with him recently regarding his latest book. Singer’s point, extremely simplified, is that we can and should be giving a lot more aid to the world’s poorest people and that it is ethically inappropriate not to do so. Let’s not debate that.

His analogy is that it is awful to watch a kid drown if the excuse for not jumping in to help is that you will ruin your fancy shoes. Similarly, it is awful to live lives of luxury today, especially in places like the US, while a billion people cannot eat. Again, there is much to sympathize with here. I’d simply like to point out that Mr. Singer does not have appear to have even taken his own arguments seriously. And no, I don’t meant that he’s a hypocrite for not giving away all of his money, not at all (in fact, he may have done that, I don’t know!). What I do suggest is that Mr. Singer has not thought really hard about how to make sure the poor in fact do not starve. Like so many folks that I worry about, he seems 100% fixated on the solution to any problem as tax people more and give to others. Just read his responses to Cowen’s questions about immigration, changing institutions, the lack of empirical evidence that aid works and more.

Again, to keep the post short, I’ll just paste below a couple of the interesting exchanges.

On Immigration

Cowen: For instance, in my view, what is by far the best anti-poverty program, the only one that’s really been shown to work, and that’s what’s called “immigration”. I don’t even see the word “immigration” in your book’s index. So why don’t we spend a lot more resources allowing immigration, supporting immigration, lobbying for immigration? This raises people’s incomes very dramatically, it’s sustainable, for the most part it’s also good for us. Why not make that the centerpiece of an anti-poverty platform?
Singer: I must admit that I haven’t thought a lot about immigration as a way of dealing with world poverty. (my emphasis added) Obviously, from what you’re saying, I should be thinking more about it, but I can’t really say whether I agree until I have thought more about it.

On Charity and Tax Breaks for the Rich

Cowen: If we give a greater tax break to charitable donations, and here I mean only true charity, not say a fancy art museum, disproportionately this will benefit wealthy people. Wealthy people have a lot of money. In essence you’re cutting their taxes. They’re giving more, they may not have a higher level of consumption, but would you be willing to raise your hand and say “I, Peter Singer, think that cutting taxes on the US wealthy is in fact one of the very best things we could do for the world’s poor, if we do it the right way”? Yes or no?
Singer: Yes, if the tax break only goes to those of the wealthy who are giving to organizations that are effectively helping the poor, I’ll raise my hand to that.

On Poor Institutions in Africa

Cowen: Take the overall opinion of economists, which is again that Sachs’s projects can do good, people in those villages might be better off, but if you’re in the middle of, say, a totally corrupt African country which is not democratic, which maybe has been fighting wars, which has an absolutely horrible infrastructure, which has a bureaucracy, a kleptocracy, massive problems, lack of literacy, that maybe you could eliminate infectious diseases or malaria within that village. People will be better off, it’s worth doing, but at the end of the day is there really any reason to think, given the last 300 years of thinking and writing on development and economic history that this will at all cure poverty? Doesn’t it just mean you’ll have poor people without malaria, which is better than poor people with malaria, but they’re still essentially poor people?
Singer: If the governments and the situation is as bad as you describe, you’re probably right, but of course not all countries … you describe pretty much a worst case scenario. I think there are a lot of countries where there are poor people which do not have governments which are as bad as you painted. I think in those countries we can hope that people actually will lift themselves out of poverty and I think that’s what we need to try to do. Now, you may be right that that’s still going to leave poor people in countries that are as bad as you describe, and there is a real question then as to how much we can do to help them, whether giving more will really be enough to help them or because of those governments in those situations there’s really nothing much we can do. That will be the dilemma. But I don’t think we’ve got to that point yet because we’ve not really worked out what we can do for people in the countries where the governments aren’t so bad.

On China’s Rise, and Are We or Are We NOT Too Wealthy?

Cowen: In countries like China in a way it’s internally driven. It’s not that anyone successfully pressured them, but in another way I think it’s highly externally driven, that the Chinese, Taiwanese, Koreans, other countries followed the example of Japan They saw that Japan worked. They saw that an Asian country could rise to moderate wealth or even riches and at some point they decided to copy this in their own way. If we look at Japan, Japan copied the west, so maybe one of the very best most important things we can do is just ourselves be a beacon of progress: be humane, be tolerant, respect others, be wealthy and just show that it’s possible. We shouldn’t think of that as a substitute for aid, but maybe that’s actually our number one priority. Does that make sense to you?
Singer: That makes sense. I don’t know that we have to strive to be more wealthy than we are–well, maybe just right at this moment we need to strive to get back to being as wealthy as we were a year ago perhaps. But I think we are setting that example, undoubtedly. We are showing countries what can be done with reasonably good government, open economies, and I do hope that other countries will follow that. But maybe not all countries can do it. I think that Paul Collier argues in his book that it’s going to be difficult for some African countries to get into this game now. There are reasons why it’s going to be hard for them to compete with countries that have established positions, have developed markets, have low labor costs. It’s not clear to me that this is going to be a path that every poor country can follow.

To Singer’s credit, at least he’s honest when he says he hasn’t thought hard about some of this stuff. But then again, how am I to take the arguments seriously if he essentially is begging the question? Read the rest.

10 Responses to “I Think Peter Singer Watches Children Drowning in Ponds”

  1. chuck martel says:

    Singer and Cowen’s exchange on immigration is one of the most interesting parts of the whole dialogue. If, indeed, immigration from poorer countries to the US is an effective means of reducing poverty, wouldn’t EXPORTING the concepts that, up until now, have made the population of the US wealthier than other nations be even more effective and efficient? Couldn’t the US export governmental bureaucracies like the Dept. of Agriculture, for instance, which is almost surely the cause of America’s bountiful food production, to places like Haiti or Sudan? An Albanian Dept. of Labor could take instruction from its US counterpart in effectively managing the labor component of industry to assure general prosperity and low unemployment. Or, do we already have such a program on a kind of informal basis? Don’t many of the bureaucrats in failed third world countries receive their education in American universities?

  2. Harry says:

    If I were doing my dissertation on the consistency of Peter Singer’s “philosophy”, I would not mind my Godless Trinity professors, plus a PhD from Cornell named Rizzo. A chapter would be devoted to the rights of rocks and Peter Singer’s views on relative values.

    Peter has spent his convouled life thinking about ways to steal from others. He thinks human life, unless it is ordered to his design, is a handicap. This has no roots in Aristotle, Plato, or even Heraclitus, who observed that you never stepped into the same river twice. This guy is a Princeton politician, with tenure.

  3. chuck martel says:

    Singer, and Cowen as well, need to reread, since surely two well-educated individuals such as they must have read, Eric Hoffer’s magnificent “The Ordeal of Change”. In it he points out that the tendency of modern Westerners to work harder than necessary to merely exist is a new phenomenon in the West and one that is still unknown in much of the rest of the world. Both of these guys assume that members of other cultures share their perspectives and value systems. Of course, they are wrong about this.

  4. Harry says:

    You bet, Chuck.

    PC occurred after I was in college, but I have wondered about its broad influence in insulating iconic professors from criticism. Even before PC, one had better know a professor’s tolerance for skepticism. The wrong word could affect one’s grade. This leads to the next question: how much value does a famous professor provide, assuming he deigns to teach at all? Would universities better serve their students with less famous, more open-minded, professors?

    If you would plop me in one of Peter Singer’s seminars, if he does seminars, tomorrow it might be engaging, assuming he were willing to peel away the layers of misunderstanding along with me, a neophyte.

    That will not come to pass, and tomorrow I will play golf and enjoy a few hours of metaphysical uncertainty.

  5. wintercow20 says:

    Hi everyone, I would just offer up that closed-minded professors are the reason I ended up where I am today. While sitting there in class for 9 years of college and grad school and never hearing anything resembling a consistent and principled argument I forced myself to expand my studies. Plus, it hones the senses during their lectures and readings – not just looking for what may be wrong, but I find it very helpful to regularly ask myself if I am crazy, BS-ing, bias confirming, etc.

    I definitely sympathize with the above points, don’t get me wrong.

  6. The parts of the interview where Singer says he “Never thought of those points before” is hard for me to understand.

    I realize he is being honest. He may not have thought those things before. I question then what he does with his time. I am no genius nor even that well educated, but just cruising the blogosphere and reading Tyler’s short e books he puts out along with Tabarock I have encountered the idea of immigration eliminated poverty cheaply many times. I do not understand at all how a man like Peter Singer can say he has never thought about this???

    I left that part underly confused and dissapointed.

  7. Harry says:

    Not only that, WC, we got the ethical point about the person hesitating to save the drowning child, a complicated point for some ethics mavens.

    I wonder how the Princeton philosophy department will spin Bubba Watson’s pink driver. Was it fate or by accident that it put him in the rhododendrons on the right of the tenth fairway? Should the committe have taken Bubba’s short irons to make the contest fair before he hooked it around the trees? Should Bubba give his prize money to deserving Palestinians? Have lunch with Peter Singer and find out.

  8. sherlock says:

    Bradley, completely agree. How one could write a book entitled “The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty” and never come across this idea boggles my mind. Especially since he’s telling people what they should or should not do.

  9. chuck martel says:

    The discussion about eating fish is more alcohol-fueled, 2 AM dorm room disputation. It should come as no surprise that they didn’t get to catch-and-release sport fishing, which involves real ethical issues, since it is entertaining humans by torturing fish. Imagine walking along, seeing a ten-dollar bill on the sidewalk, picking it up and then being yanked up in the air to some unknown dimension, grinned at and photographed, and then thrown back down to the corner of Chestnut and Main. Would you like that?

  10. Harry says:

    Where are the brave defenders of Peter Singer? Surely those who rudely occupied Rizzo’s class should have some ideas. For example, do you think rocks have rights? What about drilling a gas well in the middle of the quad? Would that violate the rocks’ rights? Does Rizzo have the right to stir up controversy to wake up the crickets?

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