Monday, December 10, 2007

A Screening Room Of One's Own

In an old essay from the 70's, Peter Singer argued that most of us should be giving away most of our discretionary income. (He wrote a sort of updated version in The New York Times last year).

Part of the original argument went something like this: If you happened to walk by a child drowning in a dirty shallow pond, you'd rush in to rescue him. You'd rush in to rescue him, even if you were wearing a really expensive suit.

Since physical distance isn't morally significant (more on that later), the same principle shows that, as long as there are people starving somewhere, you should take the money you'd have spent going out to dinner tonight, buying Champagne for New Year's, and getting iPods and Playstations for all your loved ones, and you should send it to famine relief.

Now, there are lots of problems with this argument that I don't really want to get into. Like, for instance, it seems plausible that one reason we twenty-first century Americans have so much wealth to spare is that we have a good economy, which in turn is somehow related to the fact that we spend our discretionary funds going out to eat, buying Champagne, and amassing closets full of obsolete electronic gadgetry. Let's leave that stuff aside for now.

What I do want to get into instead is the distance question.

I think Singer is right that, strictly speaking, physical distance isn't morally significant in and of itself. I don't owe you less or more just because of where you happen to be standing.

His implementation does go too far, I think, in that it seems to me you can still draw a principled distinction between people you ought to care about more and people you're allowed to care about less. It's appropriate to care more about your family and loved ones than about strangers, and it's appropriate to care more about your fellow-citizens and countrymen than about others you share no loyalties with.

But Singer's point is still usefully corrective. Because the way people feel and behave varies much more with simple proximity than seems to make sense. We think about, care about, and help, the people we happen to see, far more than those we don't. Just because we happen to see them.

This would be fine and unexceptional, and maybe even reasonable, except for the fact that it creates an immediate and simple method of removing yourself from the moral calculations of life: just don't see a lot of people. Especially don't see a lot of people who need help.

And that's what Americans do. They move to the suburbs; they drive through the nice parts of town; they build their own in-ground pools and put exercise equipment in the spare room. Enough in that direction and you never see anyone who needs anything.

Convenient! It's like the moral equivalent of driving past the pond so you won't run into any drowning kids. Oops! Didn't see it happen! Wasn't there! So sorry!

I mean, it's fine to carve out your own space. But for all the difficulties with his line of thought, Singer is right to insist that doing so does not let you off any moral hooks. A screening room of one's own is not the answer to the crowds in the movie theater. At least, not a total answer.


Charlie said...

I think people's readiness to rescue the proverbial drowning child has something to do with the relatively cut-and-dried nature of the problem. I mean, you see this child unable to swim, and if you yourself can swim, and the body of water doesn't look too menacing, you jump in and save the kid. You get to save a life, feel good about yourself, and suffer little more than a dry cleaning bill (which somebody will probably pick up for you anyway.)

But reducing other forms of human suffering, for the most part, is much more complicated than that. When I see one of those commercials for the starving children in Africa, I feel bad for a moment, but then I think: what am I going to do about it? Move to Africa and feed them? Send them money? Even if I had extra money to send, to whom would I send it? Would those people use it wisely? Or would it just get wasted by graft, inefficiency, etc.? I end up doing nothing.

Similarly, right now I work in a blighted urban area, whose blight I can appreciate up close and personally on the train ride in. I see poverty in all of its manifestations. I think: maybe the people here could be helped [bracketing for now the issue of whether it is condescending to think such people need help at all]. But then I think: how? What could I do for them? I am not sure. So I do nothing beyond taking it all in, thinking about it, and going to my job. There's no drowning child to rescue...

Having written all of this, I realize that of course there are probably things I could do, it's just that finding out something both (a) useful and (b) satisfying for me would require time and effort. So I'm wondering if the sheer apparent intractability of most problems is why people choose to ignore them.

Noko Marie said...

Charlie, I agree - I think you're right, and I think these are some of the other major problems with Singer's view.

I do think it's good and important to promote economic policies that benefit the worst off. And you can always ask them, what do you need? What would benefit you?

For me this means voting for such policies and for the governments that promote them. Even if these policies mean that "overall growth" -- whatever that is -- will suffer.

In this I also sort of disagree with Singer, who believes that governments will only help if individuals do... but that's another story.

The Secretary said...

A simple smile costs nothing. 8 ]

Anonymous said...

this is an important conversation. I want to add a little cynical but well-meant note. We no longer have visceral disgust at conspicuous consumption, and that removes an important form of social control on it. Look at the New Yorker mag -- full of high-minded liberal democratic posturing, and paid for by egregious adds for bling and islands with swimming pools overlooking the ocean (no, it could be cold and you might bump into something living if you really swam IN it). What would it be like if one were not allowed to call oneself a liberal unless one made choices that involved NOT having as much stuff, taking actions to find out who was making a difference and supporting them, etc? What if R. Murdoch or one of our 100-mil + CEOs went to a party and everyone refused to speak to him, as though he were some sort of high-grade pimp?