I have just finished listening to an episode of the Waking Up podcast by Sam Harris, entitled “Being Good and Doing Good: A Conversation with William MacAskill“. In the podcast, Sam and William discuss altruism, and the ethical and moral responsibility we all have in the Western world to be philanthropic. Sam and William brought up many valid points regarding our affluence, the state of misery many in the third world experience in their lives, and the ethical and moral responsibility we westerners have to alleviate this misery.
I was introduced to Sam Harris and his Waking Up podcast via Dan Carlin several months ago, through episode 293 of Dan’s Common Sense podcast, where the pair sat down for a discussion on immigration, foreign policy, and other topics. I was hooked by Sam’s viewpoints and have since been an avid listener (and Patron) of his podcast. I have been a fan (and supporter) of Dan Carlin for over 5 years as well. Both of them are examples of what motivated, intelligent, and talented people can do in our digital era to advance our understanding of the world and our places in it, while providing enlightened entertainment with meaning and purpose. If you aren’t already, you should investigate Sam and Dan’s work.
In this episode of Waking Up, Being Good and Doing Good, Sam and William describe a powerful and thought-provoking analogy, which I will attempt to accurately summarize here for the purpose of context:
You are walking beside a shallow pond and see a child drowning. Do you jump in (and risk ruining your expensive clothes) to save the child, or do you continue walking?
Sam and William do a better job with this analogy than I do, but their answer, and most peoples’, is that yes, we’d jump in with hardly a thought. Yet the quandary from this analogy, which is based on philosopher Peter Singer’s views, is that everyday there are children “drowning in that pool” and we daily “walk by and do nothing”. The reason us moral, ethical and vastly fortunate people don’t do all we can is because that drowning child is not right in front of us. The crisis of those dying children is not a pressing concern in our lives.
Now that we are aware of the drowning children, Sam and William contend, the logical next step is that we practice this philosophy in our daily lives. Because, if we were actually thinking about what was occurring around the world, we would be so moved to act to save all those drowning children. We can do this by giving money to worthwhile causes, ones which have been thoroughly vetted and actually do the work as advertised. William gave a figure of $3,500 to save the life of one child. I believe this was in the context of purchasing a net that would be used to prevent the spread of malaria.
I found this discussion fascinating, sad, and a bit inspiring, even to the point of calculating how much my family could give regularly.
I agree with their assessment. In an abstract world, where philosophy, morals, and ethics are enough to guide a reasonable person’s behavior, then yes, we should all be giving all we could, in an effort to save innocent lives. Of course, this abstract thought does have a very important assumption, and that is I can really impact this outcome in a meaningful way.
Giving money to any organization means other people are taking it and spending it on your behalf. Whenever these efforts involve multiple countries, languages, cultures, distances, and laws, those all represent layers of complexity (and cost) which will all eat away the money donated. These factors also make it more difficult to execute the tasks needed to complete the items you intended to pay for. In the podcast, Sam and William use the example of the children’s play structure, which was supposed to pump water to villages. This project received worldwide fanfare and monetary support, but unfortunately, was quickly proven completely ineffective.
But, let’s assume that Sam and William are correct, that there is at least one organization that guarantees that your money actually does end up doing all the good they say it will; that your dollars are put to good use (I want to note that I do think people who work for these organizations deserve to be paid, so I agree with reasonable administration costs). Even with the assumption that a western based non-profit can do what is says it can do, there are still other factors in play that are part of this complex situation.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that there’s plenty of food to feed everyone. If that’s not the case, then we should take a serious look at stores like Costco and people’s shopping habits. I was once a capitalist but these beliefs are hard pressed to describe a valid need for obese people wheeling away pallets of cheesy poofs, “diet” soda, and the like. The same can be said of fast food. This is a main reason I oppose publicly funded healthcare. But I digress. That is an entirely different blog post.
However, my point is that in terms of saving the millions who are dying of sickness, starvation, exposure, is that there are political forces contributing. There’s likely enough food to go around – but there is a group who prevents that food getting where it is needed. There’s likely medicine – but it is intercepted by groups who want to deny it from getting where it’s needed.
Dealing with the political forces is where the complexity (and extra layer of foreign policy) comes in. Many Westerners have spent the past decade violently opposing any interventions with military force. Therefore, if military force is what is needed to get that stuff where it’s needed, and democracies are unwilling to pay that price, then the logical shortfall in my mind is: why bother sending money? Won’t that go into a black hole of administration/local thugs in underdeveloped countries?
Finally, if it really does come down to enough money, then why aren’t the Hollywood types – the ones adopting children and going on talk shows – just outright buying a third world nation? Seriously, Ben Affleck, Angelina Jolie, Matt Damon – they have more than enough money to buy a country and then do whatever they wanted with it. Have they even tried to? Seems to me like buying a country would be the most expedient way of fixing it.
In the realm of philosophy, it is simple and easy to establish a set of ethical principles. On that basis, it is easy to think “why don’t we all just give money and fix everything?” That is a very enticing and positive way to think. However, I think that life just isn’t as simple as that. My analytical, cynical mind won’t let me take that philosophical leap 100%.
But, hey, what if it really is that simple?
My thinking is this: I will do what I can, when I can, and continue to be grateful for what I have each day.