Child Drowning vs. Giving To Charity

 This is a response to Peter Singer’s book, “The Life You Can Save,” and the moral arguments he poses that indeed obligate us to give to charitable organizations.

 Singer does a sensational job in convincing the reader that he is immoral by not giving to charity, especially when using the analogy of the drowning child in the pond. It is an effective approach to influence behavior. Though it is an analogy, intended to spur emotion toward the topic at hand, it should not be used to make a broad assertion of objective morality. The book is based on three premises listed at the onset:

  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.

He concludes by claiming, “Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong.”

Of course, not saving the child drowning in the pond would be absurd, especially if I had perfect information of why this child was drowning and how exactly to go about saving the child. The expensive suit, new shoes, or smartphone, would not be given a second thought as I jump into the pond. Saving the child, in the manner Singer describes, would involve only two parties: the benefactor (the potential lifesaver) and the beneficiary (the drowning child). The only barrier, which takes form in a process, between the two parties are intrinsic within the benefactor—his own morals, cost-benefit analysis, and survival. The beneficiary dies if the benefactor fails to hurdle through any of these intrinsic barriers. To illustrate with basic calculus, the decision to save the child would only happen if we can derive it three times. The moral compass would act as the first derivative of the decision curve. It would imitate the sudden urge to help a drowning child. The second derivative would be the information gathered from a quick cost-benefit analysis of the decision to save the child. Why is this happening? Will I be able to save this child? Do I have to ask permission? Is there any catch to this? Do I have the courage? Are piranhas swarming the child? Lastly, after acquiring the sufficient information, survival is confirmed and the benefactor would proceed in saving the child.

 When applying this calculus to giving to charities, in particular to those that work in countries where malaria is still a thing or where children suffer from worms and starvation, we unfortunately see a much more convoluted decision-making process. Due to our morality, sudden urges to help may be created by concerned philosophers like Singer or through personal experience. However, I would conjecture that the majority, due to the attention on their own lives, just do not get this urge. The reason being because it is intangible. There is an intermediary involved with giving to charity. It removes the ability to have a sustainable moral urge, assuming there was any urge in the first place.

 Following, the information and cost-benefit analysis would quickly become complicated. The opportunity cost of the decision becomes a more important player when there is an intermediary involved. Without getting into how poorly managed the aid industry or ineffective it really is, simply not visually seeing your hard-earned money do its duty, completely stumps the ability for information to transact. When someone dines in an elegant fine dining restaurant and orders the $55 steak with the $150 of wine, the person is realizing the value of the transaction. Virtually any market transaction, which is what Singer wants us to do, we see value realized immediately or have the information to know it will be realized, like in the case of investment of capital. Therefore, not only will we not see our $200, $300, $10,000 charitable contribution realized in any discernible way, but we have also not seen aid have any success in bringing people out of poverty. If anything, we have seen aid become a business, many times corrupt, and arguably systematically keeping these areas of extreme poverty in their current state. The potential benefactor can now sympathize with the fact that there is no clear evidence that an impoverished child or family will, in fact, be saved.

 This market transaction is no different from any other market transaction in regards to the decision being made. Where else could the benefactor put the money toward that would bring the same amount of perceived value, or the opportunity cost? Would the person give the money to this global aid organization with the cool website and big projects run by politicians and successful business people, or should I put my money in the stock market? Should I invest in the non-government organization that aims to build basketball courts and schools or should I invest in my children, local business, or BMW Sportster?

 Those that do not give to aid should not be morally condemned, but should be analyzed with a foundational starting point of human action. Any form of human action is compiled with three general components. The first component being in a state of satisfaction in which the person does not feel inclined to do anything to move from that state, which is usually reached for extremely short periods. The second component involves being in a state of discomfort but having the knowledge or a vision of how to see it that this discomfort becomes diminished. In the context of the topic at hand, knowing that kids are dying from a lack of food, shelter, and medical care is a state of discomfort. The providing of food, building a home and/or a hospital can be the vision toward eradicating this discomfort. The third component is the action taken toward eliminating the discomfort and getting to the state of satisfaction. These components can be seen at the micro levels of decision making all the way to the larger scale goals and projects. However, they must get through many micro decisions in order to reach the larger visions.

 These are [simply] reached in the case of a child drowning in a pond, but in giving to an aid organization, it can be much tougher to visualize the state of satisfaction. So, one can simply focus their human action on easier things to visualize. Writing a paper for a college course can be difficult because it is so hard to visualize, so students would rather direct their human action toward simpler pleasures and routes to satisfaction. Further, it would be much easier for me to give the money to give a larger sum to a fellow coworker who is in dire need of any of these needs as I would be able to more easily realize the value and get to the state of satisfaction.

 However, Singer’s argument throughout the book is also subject to the law of diminishing returns. Instead of stopping with just the conservative call to action of everyone giving $300 to charities annually, he also shows explains how, morally, we should be giving every dollar of surplus income we make. This objective morality is a result of a flawed understanding of natural human action.

 If we could see that our transferring of money was successful in saving enough lives to make it meaningful, because after all, due to the impersonal intermediary makes this a statistical question, I think people would give even more than $.60 for every $100 of their annual income. However, history has told us that giving too much of our money to black box entities that claim to be for the public good, have often failed to provide the public any good. The black box (es), whether government entities or aid organizations, get larger at a faster rate than the alleviating of poverty. What we can see is that through the promotion of small businesses and the subsiding of bureaucratic aid organizations, poverty declines.

Singer also argues that our capitalist behavior contributes to causing poverty in the world, so we are obliged to help end poverty. Seeing how we, as normal everyday citizens, have benefited from the extractive transactions our governments and big businesses have made with the governments of the countries with extreme levels of poverty, we are technically at fault. With this argument, he does bring to light a reality that may invoke our morality toward giving to poverty. Nevertheless, just as he says we would not likely see these types of systemic corruption and extraction extinguished, poverty may never be extinguished by giving to other large bureaucratic organizations. If anything, we see the virtues of the libertarian ideology that Singer dismisses in the book. Libertarians may be sympathetic to a society that runs on orderly anarchy, but they also understand the value of the institutions in place. The rule of law, property rights, and financial stability because of good institutions, are the key to economic flourishing. Aid is ineffective if we must continue to provide it.

This is not saying all aid is bad. Humanitarian support is indeed a virtue needed to be praised and propagated. I am in agreement with Singer in that we should do whatever we can do to save a life, especially if we know it will save a life. Morally, it should be our duty. Giving to charity is not very hard to do, but arguing that we give all our surplus income just because it could save a life, that puts morality into an unnecessary corner. Conversely, it would be immoral to condemn anyone that doesn’t give to charity if their belief is that charities and the aid industry is actually killing more children than it is saving.

This is not saying all aid is bad. Humanitarian support is indeed a virtue needed to be praised and propagated. I am in agreement with Singer in that we should do whatever we can do to save a life, especially if we know it will save a life. Morally, it should be our duty. Giving to charity is not very hard to do, but arguing that we give all our surplus income just because it could save a life, that puts morality into an unnecessary corner. Conversely, it would be immoral to condemn anyone that doesn’t give to charity if their belief is that charities and the aid industry is actually killing more children than it is saving.

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