Climate and Peter Singer’s drowning child analogy

Posted by in Ethics

Apparently Peter Singer (1946) is one of the most preeminent ethicists on the globe right now. Applied ethics I might add, and I like that. What’s the use of ethics if it’s not easily applicable. His paper I need to respond to is “Famine, Affluence and Morality” that he wrote back in 1971 as his response to widespread starvation occurring at that time in Bangladesh. Nowhere in the 15 page essay (full text here) he notes that this famine as so many others had war and rebellion as its primal cause, but let’s leave that aside.

The essay is quite murky to say the least. It actually creates confusion by arguing both for macroeconomic international aid by rich nations as well as the ethical obligation for each individual to give. Then it wildly claims that the state or some other body might be able to establish who are the non-corrupt philanthropic organisations we all ought to give to. Live Aid back in 1985 was one of the more horrific examples of philanthropic corruption we have seen since. And books have been written about the entire fallacy of the giving (to keep them poor) industry.

For the sake of clarity let’s copy paste the tenets of his ethical theorem here in full:

  • Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad.
  • If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then we ought, morally, to do it.
  • It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away.
  • The principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position.

Peter Singer doubled down on his theory in 2009 with his book The Life You Can Save and at least in his own career and private life he has made quite an effort to giving and to apply effective altruism. He definitively however has gotten caught up in adjacent fields that confuse his message further at least for those who aim to clarify matters rather than obfuscate them. He wrote a postscript to his original essay proposing that giving aid should be coupled to poor nations adopting programs of active population reduction. He turned into an animal rights activist and follows a vegan diet singing in the choir of those who claim that meat production is unethical since it takes tenfold the resources needed to produce plant-based foods.

Singer in this way unwittingly has joined the army of climate activists who are stampeding the more thoughtful ethical landscape, reminiscent of the hippie movement that was created by the CIA in Laurel Canyon to blow away the original effective and thoughtful anti-Vietnam war movement. One tenet of climate activists is that ordinary folk should not partake in air travel and long haul tourism. This relates to the Singers bold claim that:

It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards away from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away.

I feel that a solid logical philosophical claim can be made that: if high speed air travel has turned the world into a village, that then the moral obligation to help and give accordingly only also pertains to those who make these travels and get to meet these people. It’s the height of elitism and arrogance when moral leaders private jetting all over the globe, get to tell ordinary folk who can’t even pay regular flights and will never meet these people, that giving to them is their holy duty. It would make sense to turn this around and say that only those who truly get to experience the world as a village are therefore obliged to give to the poor as much as they would give to their neighbor back home. With the added practicality that such people can actually give more. But sadly I can’t remember ever having been asked to give to malaria prevention or relief of vitamin A deficiency or analfabetism when booking a flight. You get this pressing question about CO2 compensation though, that I of course always decline since I wouldn’t want the earth to stop greening as it does.

Peter Singer simply presumes by the way, that people are naturally inclined to give to their neighbors, next of kin or otherwise close ones. They are not, as the dichotomies between slave owner and slave or employer and employee simply prove. Personally I see rich parents giving tremendous luxuries to their kids rather than giving a simple cheap car to some neighbor or further relative in dire need. The power of biology and genealogy appears to be tremendously strong here. On the other hand Singer omits that people in rich countries can and do become tremendously altruistic, precisely in their direct surroundings, but maybe rather than alleviating extreme poverty, they help fight alcohol addiction, domestic abuse, obesity or other forms of suffering and alienation. Elon Musk decided to stay close to home and save free speech in America rather than extreme poverty in some war torn country. He may do the latter later, but for now idiosyncratically decided that free speech and going to Mars are more important to the overall benefit of mankind.

According to Wikipedia Peter Singer became a hedonistic utilitarian of late. We can assume thusly that he knows that the so called luxuries are in the end what gives life spiritual meaning and where our Maslowian purpose lies. Is it reasonable to demand that Elon Musk should give up on Mars or free speech, in order to give the most basic materialistic help imaginable: putting food in the mouths of people caught up in the maelstrom of history? Should a student aspiring to help free Julian Assange, spending his money on a Harvard law degree, give up on that purpose to spend his life working as a garbage collector with his American salary feeding one hundred Africans or Asians? Singer himself betrays his own principle by giving only 10% of his income away and keeping the remainder for his need for luxury (comfort and hopefully spiritual growth).

In his 1971 essay he does explain that some macroeconomic modelling and optimisation should be done in order to prevent rich economies from collapsing, like when we all start using flower pots to cut our hair rather than going to a professional hairdresser, who then goes bankrupt etc etc.. Singer probably sees himself as elevated above such practical calculations and simply assumes that some realistic optimum will be found. In his 2009 book he settles on the standard of at least 1% of income for everybody (presumably except the global poor). Such a simple number is reminiscent of the completely arbitrary 1,5 degrees Celsius temperature rise in the climate debate that we are assumed to need to stay below.

Singer also doesn’t seem to appreciate that in the free market economy the whole purpose of the game is for everybody to help everybody as much as can anyway. The baker bakes bread, not for money, but to happily feed people. The yoga teacher teaches yoga, not for money, but to elevate people physically and spiritually. And even consumerism will do, since wouldn’t – under Peter Singers own theorem – a rich person buying cheap yet fine clothes made by poor (exploited?) people in Bangladesh be ethically obliged to buy them knowing that at least a few cents of the proceeds will land in the hands of those who most desperately need it? Knowing also that in this way I will be supporting a real economy rather than a giving “keep them poor” status quo? The fact that a fair trade clothes shop exists, doesn’t lift the moral obligation to shop in the exploitative shop as well. Shop in both!

But let’s now come to my main point, which I feel I need to write down after reading Peter Singer’s ethics. Anybody thinking deeply about ending abject poverty should have a say, right? Maybe some people might want to add, that we need to stop utter misery by preventing wars. Why not set Julian Assange free and hear his voice on the matter? I presume Singer would welcome such contributions. In this sense let me do my part and give my contribution to this ethical debate, by giving an alternate version of Singers drowning child analogy, which goes:

If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

I’m telling the truth when I say that I have been using a variation of this analogy for years, whilst I only recently stumbled upon Singers 1971 essay. My version as I told it to many people over the years is this:

If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. Let’s now imagine that, right as I’m about to grab the child, I’m distracted by the loud panicky cries of a passer by yelling “we urgently need to reduce CO2 now since otherwise global warming will lead to ice melting and more ponds and drowning children in the year 2100”. I’m confused staring dumbfoundedly into the pond before I come to my senses and reach for the child again. Then the passer screams even louder, as he has just discovered that I left the engine of my car running: “The engine. The engine. Switch it off. Help CO2! The end is nigh. Switch the engine off now!” Confused again, I look back at my gas guzzler. Then to the passer by who is clearly in a total panic – faked or not, I have no time to tell. The noises of the child drowning in front of me, wake me up from the predicament. So what will I do? What would you do?

I propose the following:

My mind refocusses. I save the child. Of course. Then my practical ethics impels me to approach the passer by and punch him hard on the nose. Then I give him 50 dollars to replace his bloody shirt, thus blemishing my guilt and helping the poor textile workers in Bangladesh as well. All the while my gas guzzler is running and greening the earth.

This is a perfect representation of what climate activists, as the passer by in the analogy, purport to do. Climate science is the field in which I hold a MSc, yet I will not delve into my skeptical views within this field. Let’s follow Bjorn Lomborg for now, simply assuming that the IPCC is right about all the bad things climate change will bring. Even in that case the order of urgency of their recommendations is totally unethical and simply wrong, as my analogy clearly shows e.g. proves. The right order is always to first eradicate malaria, vitamin A deficiency and analfabetism regardless of what problems might ensue in the future. There cannot be any reason to let a single child die of malaria in 2023. In this Peter Singer and I are fully on one page (I hope). It’s even quite troublesome that we eradicated malaria on most continents with the Nobel prize winning pesticide DDT, which then suddenly became an environmental issue once it was Africa’s turn to be relieved. I can’t help but see a veneer of utter racism in the environmentalist agenda, but let’s leave that aside. Let’s do note however, that as an African Elon Musk should definitely also help in Africa and should at least acquire land for Cobalt mining and create a truly humanitarian version of this ugly industry and make the Congo and Tesla great again.

Peter Singer’s theorem has a lot going for it. Live in the now. Help now. Truly help. Don’t just buy off your conscience. If we expand his drowning child analogy to mine, then the climate debate will truly and simply be over! Do we need a debate to end malaria or analfabetism or vitamin A deficiency now? Let’s just do all the items on Bjorn Lomborg’s list of getting the most bang for our buck as do gooders.

Lastly: there is a grave misconception that it would somehow be our current task to prevent the problems of our not yet born grandchildren. It is not! In AI research homo sapiens is referred to as a general problem solving machine, unlike the brilliant dolphin, who has brains but lacks our hands. That’s who we are. That’s how we thrive. So it would make more sense to discuss what intriguing set of problems we could give our grandchildren, rather than which problems we should avoid for them! Do we truly want or need to build a safe space for our grandchildren?

My father was born in The Netherlands in 1937. As Europe was effectively a heap of rubble, he was 8. He graduated as an engineer in 1960. Plenty of good jobs up for grabs. Still profiting from the economic boom of rebuilding Europe. He was thriving on the problems created by the generations before him. Of course I’m not advocating for war and destruction at the end of this essay – in fact I’m a full Trumpist in the sense that I’m for building hotels along the worlds beaches and golf courses on rolling hills, rather than blowing countries to smithereens, as the neocons would have it (and sadly do have it). I’m only positing the question whether future climate disasters are really going to be more debilitating than the hellscapes of the 20th century. To end on a logical philosophical note…. even if they were!

PS Each philanthropic dollar can be spent only once. And a career will usually be spent in one direction too. In my personal network (born 1966, graduated 1991) I know literally dozens of intelligent people who have chosen, or switched to, careers with “something with sustainability”. They are all making a good living, claiming and sometimes even believing they are saving the world from impending doom. Sadly and probably as a consequence of the former sucking up all the positive energy, I also literally do not have a single person in my direct network, who has dedicated his or her life to malaria eradication or what have you. I do personally know some good journalists and truth tellers though. And truth is a prerequisite for any ethical system to bear fruit rather, than grapes … of wrath.