Finding Nemo

Monday, May 16, 2011

Morality part V: White Man's Guilt

When I see a poor street urchin begging for money in some 3rd world country, I feel deep sadness.  It wasn't his fault.  This poor kid was just born unlucky.  And, perhaps worst of all, he will probably never attend school and have a real chance at bettering his life.  He is doomed to a life of suffering because of blind chance--he was born where he was born.

Then I feel tremendously lucky.  I was born in a wealthy nation, to parents who raised me well enough to get a college scholarship and a good job.  If I had this kids misfortune it would be me looking at the foreigner like he was a bag of money, not the other way around.  Even the hardest libertarian has their heart broken when they visit India and see what the rest of the world is really like, up-close and in your face.  You can't flip the channel when a small child, fingers cut off or blinded in both eyes to make them appear more sympathetic, thrusts their arm inside your taxi.

And so for someone like me, who when traveling is confronted with what seems to be an endless ocean of suffering and misery, I find this next question of utmost importance.  What is the moral duty of citizens of rich nations to citizens of poor nations?  Do I give a beggar money or ignore him?  Call it angst or call it White Man's Guilt, but its a challenge all of us who have wandered outside our comfortable neighborhoods have faced.

This is tackled in Sterba's book with two great articles.  The first is an infamous essay called Lifeboat Ethics by Garrett Hardin.  Hardin compares the rich nations to lifeboats, adrift in an ocean of poor humanity who are all trying to get aboard and be saved.  He makes several arguments against saving any of the damned.  Obviously, Hardin is a callous asshole who you probably wouldn't want to trust your dog with for an hour.  But that aside, his reasoning is so compelling that every liberal since has had to first refute it before giving their reasons for helping.

First, he invokes the Tragedy of the Commons.  Suppose a farmer with a nice pasture is surrounded by neighbors who do not have any pasture due to drought or negligence.  They have cows that will die if they don't get access to pasture and ask the first farmer if they can use his.  If the first farmer opens his pasture to all, the large herd of cows will overwhelm the grass and ruin the pasture, and all the cows will die.  Thus, if the first farmer refuses the requests, he will at least save his cows.  But if he accepts, then all the cows will die.  This is the Tragedy of the Commons.  Hardin states that rich nations, the lifeboats, cannot accept anyone from the drowning ocean of people because they will overwhelm the boat and it will sink.  Thus, rich nations cannot become commons or all will suffer.

The glaring flaw in this logic that conservatives seem to miss is that the world is not black and white.  Although the lifeboat metaphor is colorful, the truth is that we can effectively help some people without ruining our own country.  The boat will not sink if we haul in a few people, because we are not a lifeboat.  We are a massive aircraft carrier with millions of people onboard, and helping a few more won't do any harm.  But this is getting ahead of ourselves with the next essay.

Overpopulation explained with smurfs
Hardin's next argument is the strongest, and also the most painful.  I liken it to chemotherapy.  He states that helping the poor only makes the problem worse!  How can this be?  His logic is cold and precise.  Poor nations reproduce much faster than rich nations, due to a variety of factors including infant mortality and education of women.  India for instance grew from 600 million in 1980 to over 1.2 billion today.  That is a doubling of people in only a single generation!!  In the same span the US has only grown from 230 to 307 million, much of that due to immigration.  Hardin says that currently there are already more people in 3rd world countries than can be effectively supported by the available natural resources.  And this seems a fact.  As Peter Singer the liberal states in the subsequent essay, 15 million children under five die every year (and this was in 1980) from the combined effects of malnutrition and infection.  In other words, the tragedy of the commons is already killing people in these nations at a rate that is beyond comprehension.

Overpopulation: A Short Film

Hardin then goes on to say that every person helped means a life saved.  Which means that the poor nation, which is reproducing at an out-of-control rate in an overpopulated country, will have even more people and therefore an even worse problem because of the assistance.  Thus, he concludes that helping people in these countries means that you are avoiding deaths now only to ensure many more deaths in the future.  He even states his conclusion as "population control the crude way."  Now if you feel at this point that you want to grab Hardin's ears and then slap him a few times in the face with a fish, you feel the same way I did.  The man has obviously never been to India.  And I guarantee that if he was forced to watch those 15 million children die in person, one at a time, when all he had to do was contribute a few dollars to save each one, he would change his mind.

Statistics are dry, logic is cold and precise.  But human suffering is real and is happening all the time every day.  And I believe for most people in rich nations, it doesn't really hit home until they travel to these places and see it for themselves.

Peter Singer is perhaps one of the more famous liberals in the modern age.  He promoted animal rights when it was a new idea back in the 70's, and argued that vegetarianism is the only ethical way to live.  I don't fully agree with either of these views, but his essay on Famine Relief is worth a look.  He starts with a number of shocking statistics (such as the 15 million children dying every year) that are aimed at getting your average person to realize the scope of the problem.  And I think for most people, this is an important point.

When you sit on your couch, flipping channels after a day at work, maybe sipping a glass of wine or beer, you aren't thinking about children dying in Bangledesh.  You are thinking about what you are going to do this weekend, or perhaps that you need to buy some new clothes or plan your next vacation.  In other words, you are thinking about luxuries.  For a moralist, luxuries are anything that go beyond satisfying your basic needs for food, shelter, education, and work.  The person on the couch is not thinking about any of these things, these needs are satisifed.  So they are free to dream of things that bring them pleasure.

Singer then examines this argument: Letting people die in poor countries, when you could easily save a few by donating a small part of your income, is the moral equivalent of murder.  He ends up backing off this a bit, but he does conclude that its wrong not to help.  And I find myself nodding my head in agreement.  How can I justify buying a new plasma TV when that $500 could save the lives of 10 people?!  We will get back to this in a bit.

Because none of Singer's essay is valid unless he is able to refute Hardin that helping people in poor countries simply makes the problem worse.  What does he say about this?  Singer says the following: to say that helping people will simply make them survive and continue to reproduce at the same rate, excaberbating the problem, is false.  Every wealthy nation has gone through a transition.  Initially a country is poor, medicine is not available, women are not educated (which has been intimately linked to family size through various studies), and the result is that parents have large numbers of children because many of them will not survive.  The next phase is when nations become a little more wealthy, effective medicine becomes more widely available, infant mortality drops but parents still have large families.  This is when a population starts growing much faster, it is what is currently happening in India.  But the next crucial phase is when parents realize that their children will likely survive and start having less kids, which usually coincides with better education of women.  This is the stage that most of the Western world has entered.  And its fair to say that India may soon follow.

Thus, Singer concludes that helping someone live today is not guaranteed to kill more tomorrow.  In fact, children saved today may grow up in world that is more efficient at producing food, has better medicine, and overall makes more with less.  And so Hardin's argument is invalid.

But perhaps most importantly, in countering Hardin, Singer is forced to recognize that its NOT enough to simply donate to charity or give food to the poor to ease your conscience.  Hardin notes that in the 1980's, 70% of the aid given to Somalia by well-meaning Westerners was appropriated by the army.  In other words, the aid helped a dictator stay in power and made the situation worse.  Paul Theroux in his recent travelogue Dark Star Safari noted that he would see aid organizations in Africa driving new Range Rovers.  Their aid consisted of driving up to a village, dumping food onto the ground much like potatos into a pig trough, and then driving back off to their air-conditioned hotel.  The villagers were not motivated to plant crops or do anything that would further their existence, they could just sleep all day and wait for food.  These examples illustrate that aid alone doesn't do anything to help further a country's transition through the stages described above, in fact it can even be hurtful.
There is a famous poem by Rudyard Kipling called White Man's Burden.  The poem laments about the duty of the West to help the rest of the world, because that world is too backwards to help themselves.  It is heavily criticized as it seems racist and imperialist.  And that brings up a good point.  Is our "duty" to help the poor actually a misguided bit of racist superiority?  Is our pity perhaps guided by a feeling that only the West knows what's Best?

One stanza in particular stands out:

Take up the White Man's burden--

The savage wars of peace--
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

Kipling is saying that we can try to help all we want, but the people of Africa or wherever the aid is going are just too lazy to make anything sustainable out of it.  You can see why this poem gets people upset!  So, when helping the 3rd world, its vitally important that we respect those assisted as human beings, worthy of dignity.  We shouldn't impose our culture on them in the process because of some notion that we are somehow better than them.

Following Singer's argument, the focus on giving must be on the long-term, i.e. sustainable.  Giving must be targeted to effective organizations that improve women's education, improve medicine, increase the productivity of agriculture, and don't harm the environment.  Its the old proverb "teach a man to fish" while making sure its not done with dynamite on a coral reef.  Thus, when someone gives, one must do sufficient research to ensure that the money spent will truly help and not make things worse, shows respect to the local culture, and preserves natural resources.

"Wait a second," you might say.  "That's a lot of friggin' work!  I just want to get the tax break and ease my conscience when I see a starving kid on TV."  Fine.  Just keep in mind your money might really be going to a fancy new range rover or a corrupt dictator if you aren't careful.

What does it all mean to me though when I'm traveling?  Do I give that street urchin a few pesos or not?  First, let us ask if its the right thing to do.  One might say that it varies depending on your ethics, but it seems the answer is always "Yes".  Christians would say that its God's command.  Kant would say its because if we were in the same situation, we would want someone to help us (which is pretty much what Jesus said).  Utilitarians would say that giving would hurt you less than it would help them.  Aristotle would say that charity makes someone virtuous, and so its the right way to live.  So the answer is simple: it is indeed our moral obligation to help.  Reason tells us that no matter our moral philosophy, we must assist.

If it is the right thing to do, then how do we do it?  I think the answer has been given.  The arguments for nations can be reused for single individuals in one-on-one encounters on the street.  Will the money I give help and not hurt?  Will it feed the kid for the night or will it be given to the kids pimp and then used on drugs?  If I buy a shell necklace from a little girl on the beach, do I help her feed herself for that day, or do I simply encourage more parents in that village to force their kids to huck crap to tourists instead of sending their kids to school or letting them play?

As tough as it might be, I think when you give to someone you have the right and even the duty to ask a few questions about what they will do with the money.  If they give answers that work, then give.  But keep in mind this: its much better to donate to a children's organization like UNICEF that will get these kids off the street in the long-term than to simply give them a hamburger.  Perhaps they will eat that day, but the next day guess what?  They will be encouraged to go out and beg again after you are gone.

And there is an ever better answer.  Its called volunteering.  I might even have to try it someday.

Rankings of best and worst charities (US-oriented):
International charity ranking service:
Short story about man with good intentions, bad results:,8599,1987628,00.html
International volunteering guide:


  1. Still reading your blog. I haven't read as many books as you on philosophy etc., but I did read "The Road to Hell: The Ravaging effects of foreign aid and international Charity" by Michael Maren which helped chrystalize many of my personal thoughts on foreign aid. I believe that the best foreign aid kind of falls into two types. There's the Chinese way, where they just go in and build a road or some other useful sort of infrastructure and then leave. The other way is to have some sort of very long-term local commitment that can monitor the effects of the foreign aid in a continuous manner. I applaud many of the expat women's groups in countries where I've lived because they have a long-term organization that monitors directly the aid that is given. So, when they give aide to an orphanage for example, they're around to see that the director of the orphange used their money to buy himself a new tv instead of helping to build a new nursery.

    I never give money to the street unfortunates. In Thailand, there were many stories of children from Cambodia brought into Bangkok and maimed so that they could be useful for begging. I believe giving money to people on the street makes begging a profitable occupation. If it didn't work, then people would try something else.

  2. Great post Dawn! thanks for the book tip. I'm a bit burned on morality at the moment but I'm sure i'll turn back to it in a month or so. I hear you on the street kids, unless you take the time to talk to them before you give its tough to know what the effect of the money will be.