Sunday, March 22, 2009

Tyler Cowen and Peter Singer on Poverty

This conversation gets wacky but I support the idea of doubting our moral intuitions. (If you view the video on the site, you can have it play back at 1.4x speed.)

The discussion of the effectiveness of aid is something many of us struggle with. A great part of the conversation is the question of the relative benefit of being a generous giver with a low income or an (ungenerous) successful businessperson in the cellphone industry. I currently TA a course on economic development, and in my tutorials try to encourage my students to re-think what seems obvious about development. (Mostly the bits that 'feel good'.) The fact that NGOs and aid have played almost no part in lifting countries out of poverty, for example, is hard for most to accept.

Some highlights of the discussion:
  • You see a child drowning in a pond, but saving her means ruining your expensive shoes. If it is unethical to do nothing, then isn't it unethical not to do something about preventable deaths of poor children worldwide?
  • Peter Singer proposes that anyone below the 90th percentile donates at least 1% of income to charity (more for the upper 10%), and makes their adherence to this public (on a website). 
  • Immigration from poor to rich countries, Cowen argues, is the most effective poverty-reduction program we know of.
  • Singer supports: Oxfam America, Givewell (site is down?), Kiva.
  • Cowen supports "no-overhead giving" - if visiting a poor country, get some names of poor people you meet and send them money from home via Western Union. Instead of choosing what the poor need (a well, better roads) let them spend it according to their needs. 
  • It's better for society to be successful in a business that affects the poor (such as mobile phones) and donate nothing, than to donate a large portion of a small salary. 
  • That being said, there is value in admonishing the rich to give. (Once you have succeeded in business, nothing is stopping you from also donating large sums.)
  • Genetic modification is creepy (this is not their point, it's mine).
  • Two major drawbacks of utilitarian moral theory: it leads to highly demanding consequences that people reject; and unlike following a simple set of moral rules, you have to be informed about what effect your actions will take. (Giving to charity requires you to make some effort ensuring your money is well spent and useful.)


  1. Very interesting. Cowen seems like the kind of guy who'd try to convince you into agreeing to eat your own grandmother, but it's neat to see Singer, especially his utilitarian take on things. Towards the end it gets especially interesting when Cowen calls Singer on thinking along Jewish-moralistic lines and not fundamentally utilitarian ones, which he supposedly defends. I actually agree with Cowen on this one and think that Singer (along with most ethicists) are largely trying to justify their own moral compasses, even if they have to occasionally follow their constructed rules for the sake of consistency.

    Debates on giving, when they don't reduce to trying to decide on what yields the greatest leverage, seem to come down to what people's goals are. Here it looks like Singer and Cowen have radically divergent ideas of what they consider successes. Cowen's idea of giving seems to boil down to making individual poor people rich, which Singer seems to take a larger view of turning poor countries/populations into wealthy, or at least healthier and less prone to die preventable deaths.

    In that case, the question becomes: if you can give X dollars, and it won't hurt you that much, and you *know* that it will save a life, why won't you? Assuming you can know, it's a strong claim to make, if you believe that all lives should be saved when convenient (or, even stronger, possible).

    Of course, doing certain things which may indirectly save lives and directly saving lives are two different things. It's one thing to give money to help a herder buy another goat, so he can be richer and his children *perhaps* have a better/healthier life, but it's another thing to give money to directly vaccinate against a disease, or to prevent malaria. In that case you're not actually helping people out of poverty, put preventing them from (potentially) getting sick and dying, though I suppose that would help people out of poverty since you can't work if you're sick and you certainly are no good to your family if you're dead.

    I wonder how strongly the analogy holds up when dealing with, say foster parenting, in which the health of individuals may or may not be directly linked to your support.

    As always, knowledge of circumstances is difficult, as any utilitarian will admit.

    As an aside, I'm also interested in how Singer's form of preference utilitarianism differs from a Benthamian one which stresses pleasure/pain, which, if I recall, was his original view w.r.t animal rights - it seems a little inconsistent to me. Yes, a fish may not prefer to die, but that's a different argument then saying that the pain caused to the fish in killing it either through suffocation or the explosive pressure changes of rapid ascent is bad and we should avoid these practices.

  2. I find that blogosphere debates on aid and poverty amount to little more than a gladiatorial round pitting savage research excellence vs meek moral obligation. The conclusion is predetermined; the score is tallied based on how much blood got spread around in the process. It's like climate change news... shall I just shoot myself, then? Thank you, Singer and Cowen, for offering something different. Some reactions:

    -institutional reform - well, obviously that would be nice, but it is dangerous comparing that sort of change to aid... taking that seriously, we would probably all end up doing lobby work.
    -"curing" poverty... I guess I haven't read the books, but that seems like a lofty goal, one highly unlikely to come about through aid work (especially since poverty tends to adjust with the times)
    -the genetics question: weird, but awesome. I agree with Singer.
    -no-overhead giving: the ultimate pre-trickled-down approach. Fun to think about, but think of the incentives problems. And it would make visiting a place downright awful (decreasing tourism-generated revenues and the chance that someone would go there in the first place?).
    -really enjoyed the parts on moral obligation: yes, yes and more

    My first experience. To my surprise, I watched the whole thing. The 1.4x is hilarious - weird, but hey - you get through it faster! It is fun to switch back to real time, once you've adjusted. Fun to see Cowan in person... I love the old-school phone.

    I've signed the pledge (though, sorry Singer, I am opting for career path B).