Tuesday, March 10, 2009

America's Shame--Peter Singer

I read an article by Peter Singer called "America's Shame: When are we going to do something about global poverty?" I was struck by the level of superficiality of his arguments, given that he is a renowned author and academic in the field of ethics. Two points about his argument follow:

1. Singer's proposal reminds me very much of the old school charity-based approach to social problems. This method has been repeatedly criticized in International Humanitarian fora. Not that there is anything wrong with charity or charitable mentality, but presenting it as a way of solving world's problems is a fallacy. This is mainly due to charity approach's lack of capacity to deal with the roots of any complicated problem. By definition, this approach is meant to work as a band-aid solution for acute problems and is not based on deep analysis of the issues at hand. Also, by comparing the example of Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina with the issue of poverty, Singer is presenting a convoluted picture of the problem he is addressing.
Except for a brief mention of the issue of global warming and the role of industrial nations in it, Singer does not seem interested in addressing the fundamental issue of inequality in the world. He never talks about the economic bases that have led to 1.4bn individuals living in absolute poverty. Rather, he suggests that we increase our donations just to make sure that no one lives with less than $1.25 a day!? He talks about ethics, while suggesting that those with an annual income of $10m should donate 33% of their income to the poor, without questioning the ethical basis of earning $10m/year in a world where others can't even earn $1.25 per day!!!
Although Singer's point of view is obviously well intended, it is the type of distraction that one should avoid. Not addressing the core of the problem is exactly why issues (that can potentially be solved much earlier in their life cycle) linger for decades and centuries without a real solution.

2. Singer suggest a re-direction of educational funds from art and history to fields that more directly address the dire problems of our time. There are two arguments that can be made against this point of view:
a) are we really short of funds or is it just being allocated to things that are increasing suffering rather than reducing it? A quick look at Ameica's public spending on correctional facilities (prisons and etc.), military operations/facilities (arms research and production, and etc), and intelligence operations reveals that this mightiest country in the world is not short of funds, but rather is not putting the necessary money into education. So if there is a battle to be fought it is the battle of re-allocation from other sectors and not within the education sector itself.
b) Plato argues in Republic that if "the society we have described can never grow into a reality or see the light of day, and there will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed, my dear Glaucon, of humanity itself, till philosophers are kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands ...." It can be argued, therefore, that it is in fact shortage of artists, philosophers and scientists in ruling positions that has led us to where we are today. Instead of producing artists and philosophers, the education machinery is producing more "professionals" who are trained for specific tasks: experts in the areas of international relations, domestic affairs, development, and.... Due to their intellectually narrow training background, such individuals often lack the capacity to think and act outside the box. Thus, the wrong question gets asked over and over again without anyone breaking the cycle and questioning the conventional question.

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