Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

The Handwriting on the Wall

I recently attended a talk at Stanford by Walter Bradford Ellis, a too-little-known activist and writer on the issue of global poverty and world hunger. It’s transcribed from a recording I made. The sound quality was lousy, so apologies if I’ve mangled some of the specifics.

Good evening. This is the first time I’ve spoken before a college audience, and therefore I would like to take advantage of your presence to ask you a few questions before I begin on my prepared speech. Basically I want to know how morally committed the students at a typical ‘good’ school are, and while I know an audience of several hundred from one school is neither large enough nor diverse enough to give an especially accurate picture, still the results should provide a rough indication of where the real truth lies. That’s sort of an interesting juxtaposition of words. ‘Truth lies’ I mean.

Anyway, as I said, I’m interested in knowing how morally committed you are. I must say at the outset, I am pessimistic. At any rate, primarily what I want to find out tonight is how important it is to you for you to act according to your own definition of right and wrong. In other words I’m not interested in knowing what sort of behavior you think is right or wrong but merely how committed you are to living up to whatever standards of right and wrong you possess.

I was trying to think a few minutes ago what questions I could ask you to find out this information, and it is very difficult to come up with anything satisfactory simply because individual standards of right and wrong vary so markedly. I had to pick a situation which seems perhaps a little silly because it is so improbable, but that is because I wanted as pure a case as possible—one which is in no way connected with any existing world situation—so that your prejudices and preconceived notions about a particular situation will play no part in your answers.

My hypothetical circumstances are concerned with a person who murders innocent people, and I suspect that nearly every one of you will agree that that is wrong. So please now imagine yourself to be in an ancient country which is ruled over by an evil king who has absolute power of life or death over all his subjects—including yourself. Now this king is very bored, and so for his amusement he picks 10 of his subjects, men, women, and children, at random as well as an eleventh man who is separate from the rest. Now the king gives the eleventh man a choice: he will either hang the 10 people picked at random and let the eleventh go free, or he will hang the eleventh man and let the other 10 go free. And the eleventh man must decide which it is to be.

Now if death is bad, then on average 10 deaths must be 10 times as bad as one. So hopefully nearly all of you will agree that the eleventh man should give up his life in order that the other 10 might live. But that is not the question I am asking you. I’m asking whether you would in fact make that sacrifice if you were the eleventh man—if you really did have to decide whether you or they would die. And you knew the king meant business because he did this every year and sometimes killed the 10 people and other times the eleventh depending wholly upon what the eleventh had decided.

Now I am about to ask you for a show of hands, but of course I realize that few of you know yourselves so well that you can be certain of the correctness of your answer—especially if your answer is yes. So I will simply ask you to hold up your hand and answer yes if you are any more than 50% certain that you would make that sacrifice. Understand?

All right, all yes answers, please raise your hands. Let me see, that must be about a third of you. That’s more than I would have guessed.

Now let me ask only those who are reasonably certain—say 95% certain—that they would make the sacrifice to please raise their hands.

Yes. That’s more like what I expected. That’s at most a tenth of you. I have a feeling that most of that tenth of you are kidding yourselves, but perhaps human beings aren’t as selfish as I have always thought.

Now just two more quick questions. Same situation except that the king says he will let his 10 hostages go free if you will go to prison for 20 years, otherwise he kills them. That’s an easier question to be sure of your answer about than the previous one, so this time answer yes only if you are quite certain—95% or better. All right everybody hold up his hand if he is at least 95% sure he would go to prison for 20 years in order to save 10 people’s lives.

Well that looks like about three-quarters of you. Again I think you have overly high opinions of yourselves, or maybe some of you are too embarrassed to tell the truth, but I sincerely hope you are correct in your self-assessments.

Just one question more now. The king says he will let his people go if you will agree to give him all the money you have and all the money you will make in the future, except of course enough for you to feed and house yourself and take care of all the absolute necessities. In other words he’s asking you to be poor, but not so poor that it impairs your health in any way. Again I’m asking for at least 95% certainty. All in that category please hold up your hands.

Well that’s nearly every one of you! I’m very pleased; I hope you mean it. Perhaps in fact you do this time. After all, since you have the power to decide whether 10 people die or whether you give up your money, if you made the other decision you would be killing 10 people in order to make money for yourself, and surely that is murder.

I see some head-shaking—it looks as though a few of you disagree. The king has said, kill these 10 people or I’ll take your money. If you kill them, that is murder.

Look at it another way. If you are poor and kill 10 people in order to steal their money, that is surely murder. But morally speaking, that situation is exactly the same as this one. In both situations if the people die, you will be rich; if they live, you will be poor, and it is within your power to decide which it is to be. In either situation if you decide that they should die in order that you can be rich, you have put your happiness, or not actually even that, you have put material riches for yourself above 10 people’s lives. That is the moral error you have made and it is exactly the same for both cases. One is as bad as the other and if one is murder so is the other.

Anyway, those are all the questions I wanted to ask you. I didn’t mean to spend as much time on them as I did, but at least from my point of view it was well worth the time. Thanks for your indulgence, and also for your soul-searching—I guess those weren’t easy questions to answer if you answered them honestly. Just be happy it was a make-believe situation and none of you is likely ever to really be forced to make any of those rather unpleasant decisions.

And now I’ll get on to what is supposed to be my topic: world hunger.

In 1650 the population of the world was 500 million (500M). Within the next 50 years an absolute minimum of 500M people will starve to death. The UN reports that around 10M people starve to death every year and the problem is only going to get worse as the population increases.

Perhaps that figure of 500M is too large for you to grasp in abstract terms. Let me translate it into something more concrete: if those 500M people were all to join hands, then figuring at about 1,000 people per mile, they would form a line long enough to stretch to the moon and back—with enough left over to reach across the United States 6 times. Or if you prefer keeping things more down to earth, they would reach 20 times around the world.

The US Army’s M-16 machine-gun fires 700 rounds per minute, or about 12 rounds per second. If you drove a car past the line of people at a little over 40 miles per hour, you would pass 700 people every minute. If you used poisoned bullets or some such deadly concoction, you might be able to kill 1 person with every shot as you drove past. If you kept your finger on the trigger for 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, killing 1 person with every shot, it would take you 3 years and 4 months to kill them all.

It is a rather gruesome picture, and yet all these people—and probably many more—are absolutely doomed to die in the next 25 to 50 years. And it won’t be the quick, easy death of a bullet, but the slow, pitiful, wasting death of starvation.

There is one bright spot in all this, however—the legions of the doomed will not really reach quite 20 times around the world. Perhaps they’ll really only reach 12 or 15 times around, for most of them are children and their arms are short.

Opposed to these ravaged peoples of the world are the gluttons of America. You yourselves are good examples. As future graduates of a good college, it is surely within the grasp of most of you to be making a salary, after taxes, of $50,000 or more within a few years. How much money is that? Well, you could easily take care of all the true necessities of life for $20,000, thus leaving you $30,000 for the luxuries. In America, anyone can stay healthy spending five dollars a day for food. It is not even hard to do. If one really skimps, he can stay alive and well for a dollar—for I have done it. If it can be done in America for a dollar a day, it can surely be done for that in the countries where people are starving. Thus your $30,000 of luxury money could be providing 82 people with a dollar worth of food a day—people who otherwise might starve. Since presumably if your $30,000 were donated to UNICEF, they would take care to pick out poorer than average people, I think it not unreasonable to state that $30,000 per year over a period of 40 years is enough to keep healthy 10 people who would otherwise starve to death—plus a good many more who would otherwise be malnourished.

So you see, I lied to you a little while ago when I said none of you would ever have to make any of those three unpleasant decisions. You will never have to make the first or the second—the two hardest choices—but you are this moment confronted with the third: for the 10 who would otherwise starve are the 10 hostages, you are the eleventh man, and hunger is the king. Thus if you decide to go on with the life you were probably planning to lead, you will be letting 10 people die rather than give up your flat-screen television and your cocktail parties. And that is more than gluttony, it is murder.

Good evening.

Aaron again. I’d like to make a few remarks about the speech, but before I do I should admit something. The speech was not given by Walter Bradford Ellis. Instead, it was written by a too-little-known philosopher named Louis Pascal. He published it in the 1980s under the same subterfuge in the journal Inquiry and it was reprinted in Peter Singer’s collection Applied Ethics. (I have modified it to bring the numbers up to date and shortened it a little to make it more blog-sized.) He justifies the subterfuge as necessary to get readers to more seriously engage in the thought experiment. I do think it would be wonderful to have this talk given in person, however. If you are interested in pursuing this, please let me know.

If you do want to help needy people, you can donate to UNICEF or Oxfam.

You should follow me on twitter here.

December 6, 2007


An obvious problem with the King scenario, is that one is not culpable for murders other people commit, even if they threaten you / ask you to tell them what to do - especially in the contra-command-flow structure presented in the story.

It’s also interesting to wonder why it is that the fact that someone is suffering, that it is incumbent upon us to help. Why is that a moral duty? I, for one, don’t accept it as an absolute moral duty. It certainly introduces a moral hazard - it can encourage people to wallow in suffering, to depend on future help. It may also be in one’s self interest, in a democracy, to contribute to the poor via tax systems, to avoid revolution and help uphold the rule of law.

However, it would be madness for us all to forego our above-essential income, and flatten the distribution, because it has many of the problems of communism: lack of incentive to compete, lack of investment base for risky & experimental ventures, and congealing layers of bureaucracy feeding on income redistribution.

posted by Barry Kelly on December 7, 2007 #

The questions are these: Do you oppose the deaths of innocent people? Are you willing to make personal sacrifices to stop it? Whether you think someone has a moral duty to prevent innocent people from being killed or whether someone is culpable for not intervening are up to you.

Similarly, are you seriously maintaining that promoting an “incentive to compete” and preventing “congealing layers of bureaucracy” are more important than the lives of millions?

posted by Aaron Swartz on December 7, 2007 #

Barry, you’re going to have to come up with a far better justification than that to avoid looking like a miserable human being, in deep self-denial.

Not that your intuition is necessarily wrong, but you should think it through a bit more deeply. If the only reason you can think of for helping people is that letting them get too desperate might result in violent revolution, well…

On a more positive note, I hope that you spend some time with those in deep poverty, who, as human as the rest of us, will be happy to share their homes and meals with you, their stories and jokes, their hopes and dreams. Perhaps it will help you to see the human side of the picture, and you can form a world view less dominated by abstract concepts like bureaucracies and tax systems.

posted by Jacob Rus on December 7, 2007 #

Bleh. A bit careless there. It appears like vanilla denial, not self-denial. :)

posted by Jacob Rus on December 7, 2007 #

This little guilt trip has a fatal flaw. Nowhere does this man conclusively prove that by giving my flatscreen TV, I save 10 people’s lives.

I agree that consumerism is out of control nowadays, but atleast prove your point. My mom always proved her point during the guilt trips she would send me on.

And Barry just might be an idiot.

posted by Sohail on December 7, 2007 #

That seems not very well thought out. For one thing, it is not clear that donating to Unicef really helps very much. Another thing: what if I save those 10 people, but then they go on to have 50 children, that I can’t feed anymore? Those 50 will die, so by saving the 10, I have killed 50. Just saying that the calculations are too simplistic. I think most people want to help, but it is not obvious what the best course of action would be.

posted by Bjoern on December 7, 2007 #


“Do you oppose the deaths of innocent people?”

I think the deaths of innocent people are lamentable, but there needs to be a cost-benefit analysis before conclusions are jumped to. For example, Wikipedia.org referencing NHTSA indicates at least 43,443 innocent people died in the US in 2005, without significant outcry - that is, on the road, in automobile accidents. People in the US clearly value the freedom of driving over the deaths of innocent people, for some value of freedom and for some (quite large) value of innocent deaths. Would you trying making a claim using similar logic that, because most people are opposed to deaths of innocent people, they should stop driving? These things are not absolute; that was the main thrust of my point, and why I used phrases like “absolute moral duty” and “for us all to forego our above-essential income”.

“Are you willing to make personal sacrifices to stop it?”

Sure, I make personal sacrifices all the time. However, I don’t sacrifice everything non-essential, or even anything close to that, and nor does anyone else; and trying to browbeat people into feeling guilty because of that is wrong, I believe, for many reasons.

“Whether you think someone has a moral duty to prevent innocent people from being killed or whether someone is culpable for not intervening are up to you.”

How indirect does intervention need to be before Is it a moral duty to feed another family for the rest of their lives? And what does feeding them out of one’s own economic surplus do to both those people, and the farmers in those regions who are trying to sell food to those hungry people? How does this altruistically-created dependency economy get better - i.e. what’s the exit strategy?

“Similarly, are you seriously maintaining that promoting an “incentive to compete” and preventing “congealing layers of bureaucracy” are more important than the lives of millions?”

Yes: I believe more people will be saved through the discovery of new technologies, new medicines, spread of education, integration of economies, than would be saved by sacrificing all of those things in order to save people right now. There needs to be a balance struck. These things are not absolute. Your argument just sounds too absolutist to me.

posted by Barry Kelly on December 7, 2007 #

A big problem is that it really, really isn’t obvious that giving money to UNICEF will save those lives. Aid really hasn’t worked very well.

Most of the 10 children you’re going to save aren’t born yet. If you spent the money on condoms, not food, would that also count? Or, perhaps, on giving the mother a factory job, which has been in many countries the first step to giving women more power, and they then choose to have less children. Does that count? And if you get the TV she assembled, does it compromise your moral standing?

You could, instead, give your money to an aid agency which saves women from dying in childbirth. How does this naive calculus of deaths count her unborn children who then get to die of hunger, later?

posted by improbable on December 7, 2007 #


“Barry, you’re going to have to come up with a far better justification than that to avoid looking like a miserable human being, in deep self-denial.”

Like most people, conveying ideas that seem relatively obvious to me is difficult without a relatively large investment in time, because of all the premises involved, explaining them and supporting them with references.

“Not that your intuition is necessarily wrong, but you should think it through a bit more deeply. If the only reason you can think of for helping people is that letting them get too desperate might result in violent revolution, well…”

No, it isn’t the only reason. But I also don’t believe in truly altruistic acts, in the literal sense that there is no benefit whatsoever to the actor. And those benefits, i.e. those intrinsic motivations, aren’t necessarily aligned with the needs of those being helped, especially in dealing with world poverty which isn’t nearly as simple as both yourself and Aaron seem to presume. The systemic effects need to be analyzed and cost-benefits evaluated. Absolute statements and emotional guilt-tripping are very poor substitutes for reasoning, and that’s what I feel the post Aaron posted is guilty of.

“On a more positive note, I hope that you spend some time with those in deep poverty, who, as human as the rest of us, will be happy to share their homes and meals with you, their stories and jokes, their hopes and dreams.”

Indeed. I spent the Christmas and New Year of 2006/2007 travelling around Morocco (GDP per capita in PPP $4,000, according to CIA factbook) and saw many eye-opening things, which inform my less patronizing attitude today. Poor countries have economies too, perhaps even more complex than rich countries, and everyone, everyone, is trying to turn a buck all the time. Injection of subsistence aid undercuts subsistence economies; it can ruin people.

For more argument:

http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/0,1518,363663,00.html (Summary: “The Kenyan economics expert James Shikwati, 35, says that aid to Africa does more harm than good. The avid proponent of globalization spoke with SPIEGEL about the disastrous effects of Western development policy in Africa, corrupt rulers, and the tendency to overstate the AIDS problem.”)

Not to mention, my own home circumstances were pretty modest: a child of unemployed parents in the west of Ireland in the 80s.

All this isn’t to say that disaster aid, effectively providing a kind of insurance to poor countries, is a bad thing; quite the contrary.

“Perhaps it will help you to see the human side of the picture, and you can form a world view less dominated by abstract concepts like bureaucracies and tax systems.”

My view isn’t dominated by abstract concepts, but rather by a synthesis of eyes on the ground, economic thinking and opinion pieces that I found convincing.

posted by Barry Kelly on December 7, 2007 #

@Sohail: I might be an idiot, but I suspect you’ll have to expand on your reasoning before you convince me :)

posted by Barry Kelly on December 7, 2007 #

Oh man Barry likes to type! After your elaboration, you don’t seem to be an idiot. Perhaps just pragmatic.

I think someone said about donating to Unicef. I think that is idiotic. They have a business model that revolves around needy people. To keep the model going, you need needy people.

Micro-financing is the way to go. It is win-win for everyone. The investors, and the borrowers.

posted by Sohail on December 7, 2007 #

So how about the people that starve since I no longer buy products with my extra money? How about instead of giving, we find ways for them to work for food?

posted by MC on December 7, 2007 #

this is me, thrashing. god it’s hard to give effective aid. as a giver, you’re not only disconnected from the lives of these people, but from the accountability of the process. honestly, i want to give, but it goes so wrong so fast.

a hell of a lot of the world’s starvation is political. for instance, mugabe specifically starved the western part of zimbabwe because that was the seat of power for the opposition. so that gets to an interesting question. why in this example don’t you try to kill the king? i mean, the king isn’t hunger all the time. sometimes it’s just the goddamn king. i guess though if there was a pass the hat on hiring a hit on mugabe, i’d throw in my disposable income. unfortunately, those fuckers tend to be hard to kill.

but here’s an odd fact- in the next 50 years more people are going to die of obesity related illnesses than starvation. they will be older on average than the ones that die of hunger, which makes them less attractive to help. so you have to ask yourself, at what age do they fall off your love list? and hell, how on earth do you throw money at a problem like that? right now your best bet is probably supporting diabetes research. unlike heart disease, that at least gets your money treating those cute, though fat, kids again.

here’s another fun fact: malaria hits that 500 million mark a year. most cases don’t lead to death, but many lead to short or long term disability. most of them, again, are kids. but nets might lead to starvation through environmental destruction, and fail to prevent the disease anyhow. we’ve got nowhere on the vaccine. do i get moral brownie points for investing in companies doing research on diabetes and malaria? i have no frickin clue. this shit is hard.

outside of assassination and vaccination, for my money your best bet is doctors without borders. they’re not picky about how you’re dying, they’re just trying to stop it. but hell, i am still stuck hoping they don’t turn out to be corrupt.

posted by Q on December 7, 2007 #

one more thing- anyone that puts “cost benefit analysis” near “deaths of millions” need to get out more.

posted by q on December 7, 2007 #

Instead of nitpicking about effectiveness of aid, if we should give them money or food or condoms, complaining that we are discussing about hunger instead of X (e.g. children dead on road accidents, drugs, war, disease), which are just ways of ignoring the real question, we should discuss the ideas proposed, shouldn’t we?

@Aaron: “Do you oppose the deaths of innocent people?”

What does this even mean? Opposing death is (in a sense) like opposing gravity. It’s something that happens and (in the end) can’t be avoided. Of course we can do something to extend people’s life and avoid certain forms of death (e.g. most kinds of disease, hunger, war), but we can only do as much.

So the question is not opposing to the deaths of innocent people but opposing to avoidable deaths of innocent people.

Also I question this innocent label, most people aren’t and even if when they’re not usual claims of justice don’t favor killing the guilty (unless it’s part of the judicial system), so it shouldn’t matter to most forms of popular western morality if we are feeding (or giving jobs or medicine) the innocent or the guilty.

Then we reduce the question to: Do you oppose to avoidable deaths of people?

My answer is it depends. I oppose to the deaths of people I care (i.e. family, friends, community) but otherwise I don’t care (nor expect for others to care about me). If I have to choose between providing better to my family and strangers’ life (i.e. assuming that I’m not directly responsible for their situation) I would choose my family almost everyday.

Currently my family isn’t spending much beyond essential things (i.e. housing, food, cheap clothes and medicine), we save and invest what we can. My choice is: do I want to spend this surplus on someone else’s life today or do I want to increase this wealth and be more effective later. Wealth isn’t a constant resource, we can increase it through many means (e.g. if we create means to use resources (e.g. agriculture, energy) more efficiently we increase productivity and wealth). The choice we have to make is save one life today or save many years later. Should Warren Buffet have spent it’s money on charities or increased it million fold and then used it to help others. Ditto for Bill Gates.

My choice is to improve my wealth to the point I can become independently wealth and then help others, because it’s much more efficient and effective to do it this way. Also I will help others only because at this point spreading wealth improves global wealth better than my personal actions will do. If I did it otherwise I know I wouldn’t be doing the best to increase the world’s wealth. Today I know that I could feed 50 people with the economic surplus I have (ignoring investments), but in ten to twenty years I will help feeding at least a thousand, just because I wisely invested my surplus for the past ten years and plan to continue doing so.

“Are you willing to make personal sacrifices to stop it?”

If someone says that they oppose something but aren’t willing to make personal sacrifices then they don’t really oppose it. So inasmuch as I don’t really oppose it I’m not willing.

posted by Daniel on December 7, 2007 #

Wow, someone actually made the “don’t help UNICEF, they require needy people, so you’re only helping perpetuate poverty” argument.

By that logic we shouldn’t pay teachers. Teachers only educate the ignorant, so they require a large population that lives in ignorance. Helping teachers do their jobs must therefore, I infer, perpetuate ignorance.

posted by Jamie McCarthy on December 7, 2007 #

Development economics is a complex subject. Resorting to emotionally charged analogies is manipulative and dishonest.

Before trying to help, make sure you do no harm.

posted by That hypothetical scenario is a terrible analogy on December 7, 2007 #

UNICEF doesn’t have to do a darned thing to maintain the population of hungry people, and we don’t seem to have crested the wave of idiots either.

Everybody wants a piece of my wallet. I can feed hungry kids or I can dig clean wells. I can give to my church or to the Red Cross. If I give all my money to UNICEF, there’s nothing left for Amnesty International.

Which is more important, helping to free a political prisoner in China or giving a laptop to a poor kid? Should I help flood victims in Bangladesh and Indonesia, or bums in Chicago? Should you build a house for someone in New Orleans or support your local theater? Is it more important for people to think or to breathe? Is one American worth three Kenyans? Is one Kenyan worth three Americans?

It’s got to add up somewhere, and that somewhere is in Quicken. But it doesn’t add up and it never will. Why can’t I live perfectly?

posted by Dan Lewis on December 7, 2007 #

The scenario appears to assume an infinite food supply.

The moral question becomes a lot tougher if the supply is assumed to be finite. I believe this tougher question more closely matches reality.

posted by Lloyd Dalton on December 7, 2007 #

Sohail - careful about micro finance. The incentive of micro lenders is to achieve the highest possible repayment rate. Repayment rate is seen as the best indicator of a program’s success, and so the micro lenders push extremely hard to reach repayment rates of 90-95% How likely is it that the success rate of businesses in developing countries is actually this high? The strain of reaching 95% payback rates on loans often forces the poor women who receive them to resort to prostitution.

I think we should work hard to solve these problems, but it is important to understand that there is no panacea.

posted by term on December 7, 2007 #

I think someone made the point that a lot of it is political. I would tend to agree with that. Perhaps my suggestion not to donate to Unicef is idiotic but the teacher analogy isn’t appropriate. You don’t benefit from keeping people ignorant. Those people just don’t go to school and go flip burgers.

My beef with Unicef-like agencies is that a lot of them focus on crisis-mitigation rather than crisis-prevention. But Lloyd brings up a good point, there is no panacea. But I would tend to side with an agency whose specific mandate was to alleviate poverty, not feed people.

posted by Sohail on December 7, 2007 #

This is that kind of argument that is superficially compelling, but doesn’t really make a lot of sense.

Has anyone ever worked out what the consequences of the citizens of a large industrialized nation changing their spending habits in the suggested way would be? Economic collapse doesn’t seem out of the question. And then who is going to be sending out charity money?

Problems like starvation, and other deadly effects of poverty, are serious and tragic and difficult to approach, and hard to wrap your head around properly. But they aren’t well served by silly arguments.

posted by Mike Bruce on December 7, 2007 #

In the spirit of the story, my question, Aaron, is simple, what percentage of your income did you donate to poverty this month? This year?

It’s a nice story, and I believe, cuts to the heart of most modern moral issues. People are willing to turn a blind eye.

posted by Callum on December 7, 2007 #

Let’s cut through the verbiage and hit the bottom line: How many of you have done/are doing something, anything to relieve someone’s suffering in this world? Isn’t that ultimately what matters?

posted by Tim Tyson on December 7, 2007 #


It’s nice to hear that your original statement was an exaggerated and oversimplified version of your views on the topic. Your responses make you no longer seem like a miserable miser. :)

Like most people, conveying ideas that seem relatively obvious to me is difficult without a relatively large investment in time

Sure it takes time, but the time is spent in reflection, thinking through the argument, not in the explanation, and yours still has a ways to go.

As for the best way of approaching big problems like global poverty and hunger: It is all to easy to lull ourselves into thinking that donations of monetary or food aid will solve the challenges facing developing countries (almost as easy as ignoring them altogether and doing nothing). These countries desperately need political and social change, investment in manufacturing, improvements in education and healthcare, construction of critical infrastructure, etc., and dumping foreign grain into the hands of their officials is at best a stop-gap measure, useful in stopping mass death in severe crises, but hardly an effective long-term development strategy.

What should we do (speaking as an American)? That’s a tricky question, but suspending military aid to corrupt dictatorial regimes, committing more fully to the U.N. and global dialog instead of constantly catering to corporate agendas, spending research dollars on development problems, alternative energy, etc. instead of military technology, stopping large-scale sales of small arms to military and paramilitary groups with histories of turning them on local civilian populations, etc. would be good starts.

Foreign aid would stretch further if it were devoted to communications and transportation infrastructure, schools, hospitals, etc., employed local workers, rather than highly paid American contractors, and wasn’t premised around, for instance, deals to secure oil reserves for American and European companies.

And as for Aaron’s post: It is the kind of polemical moral argument meant to kick up a discussion, rather than a serious suggestion that we all donate our life savings to Oxfam and start living on $5/day. And as a conversation starter, it is quite effective. Kudos.

Q said:

how on earth do you throw money at a problem like [deaths from obesity]?

A good start would be forming national and international agriculture and food policies decreasing the price of real food, giving it a chance against the processed chemical mixtures most westerners eat. After that, we can start in on advertising directed at children, better research into food’s effect on the body, etc. Not that this is likely to happen, given the immense power of the big agriculture lobby (ADM, et al.) in America.

posted by Jacob Rus on December 8, 2007 #

Organic Holiday Cookies made from scratch are available for Christmas time, visit www.wildfloursbakery.com. I think they only ship baked goods in the usa though…

Additionally their slogan is, “Ending world hunger, One Bite at a Time”, and are donating 10% of sales to Gleaners Community Food Bank and Other Charities…

The Cookies are just delightful, it is rare to find made from scatch, delicious Christmas Cookies and Wildflours has them. Check it out, also they care Gluten reduced and other organic products, cool place…

posted by milano stevanovicci on December 8, 2007 #

Aaron, I think it is time to connect you with Lilos blog. Please follow her actions in future, and feel free to contact her/me if you want. I wanted to present you my tool earlier, but I guess the mails I sent to you were too „wild“: Once again, the Aaron in this story has nothing to do with you. I started to write about this character years before I stumbled over your blog. But when I did so - and started to realize half a year later,when returning, that you seem to be out for the same, I thought your group would be the right one to create the tool open source. Until now, I could only find investors, who want to earn money with it. But it will be free though, as we start with the universtiy now. Lilos actual blog is just a try-out for the bigger project, but it happened, that I need it, because a lot of very special people will work togehter with me, who are not yet used to new media, and I want to lead them into the project step by step.

I have exactly your view - but I think we ( all of us) will have to be „tricky in a nice way“, to attract people, otherwise they are not able to take this step. The most fascinating way (as to my theory) will be, to engage them for and enable them to create/support aid-projects they are part of, either by taking part, or by creating them from the start - this is possible : if it starts „gamebased“. Like my project – in a virtual world, and starting with their own personal needs. („You can not reach the many, without the one“ (Plato)) I just read your post and answer immediately: That I wanted to talk about Open Library in my next post, was due to the clareness of your presentation. (link/mailinglist) - It is a great project: It focusses on aims beyond financial aspects - shows that such projects have to be not only open source but on purpose designed in a way that enables any user to go deeper. I wanted to explain step by step, how to approach virtual architecture as powerfull addition to such 2-d-web-„tools“, using Open Librabry as first and quite difficult example, which I realized, as soon as I started to design. Virtual worlds offer some not yet fully taken possibilites to create: Attraction, View, Explanation, Engagement, Interaction…and in special: Selection, the possibility to present the most valuable selection, embedded into „guiding architecture“ at a changing virtual representation-structure, like exhibitions in a real museum … Open Library is so powerful, because you and your group love books - and have thought of the dream of how to be able to “work” or just “act” with this love - in addition and even leading back to “reallife librabries”- you did not think about any financial aspects - you want to engage, motivate and enable humans to interact, get committed and go deeper. You engaged, for what you love – and there is always a possibility to engage for what you love in order to help others at the same time – actually this ist he most fulfilling way to engage. These should be the goals of new media projects. And there should be a creative method to motivate and engage others for the creation of such projects. The interaction possibilities of virtual worlds are perfect for this. There is a special project for the „One Laptop Per Child“-project included into the „big picture“, that is related to Lilo’s storytelling …you will be able to follow the project now.

posted by Lilo Merlin on December 8, 2007 #

As I see it, the concept of giving money for the aid of the poor is already working in a variety of forms: from UNICEF to the global brands opening production plants in underdeveloped countries, paying minimum-possible wages and offering a maximum competitively priced product to it’s western customer. Arguing the donation of one’s complete extra income is proving extreme, and a bit difficult, since there’s only the emotional note to rely on. The same reasoning could lead to the decision of donating more than your income on a regular basis. And since a considerable percentage of participants chose to be imprisoned in order to save other people’s lives, the decision would stand out, too!

posted by cosmin on December 9, 2007 #

I have a suggestion in mind for the problem of hunger. Imagine if the President of United States would declare that we would unilaterally feed every starving person in the world. At 10 million people in the world , this comes to 3.65 billion dollars annually at a dollar a day. This might seem like a huge number , but put it against the annual defense budget which is of the order of 532.8 billion dollars. Which means that for less than 1/100 of the defense budget we can eliminate starvation. Such a proposal does not need to be imposed on the citizens of the United States. I believe that it would be whole heartedly accepted by them.

posted by abhinav on December 9, 2007 #

When Africa has to worry about the social and economic problems of the “welfare state”, i think you won’t be able to call them a third world country any more. i think we do have a moral and ethical duty to help the best way we can, when we see tragedy in the making. i do not think the best way is always complete self sacrifice. Whether you admire or depise Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, do you really think their causes would have been be best addressed by their giving all their disposable income to various charities, thus leaving nothing for them to invest to create the empires they now have? having amassed this large amount of capital, they are putting it to use in a way that is much more profound than silly cakes i cooked as an elementary schoolgirl in the sixties, giving the proceeds to CARE. Sure, that was an admirable thing to do, for me, mostly, to advance my education in morals and ethics. But i doubt it saved very many lives. Guilt cannot overwhelm our better sense, and is ultimately very destructive to the guilty and the source of the guilt. Better to put the mask over your face first when the plane goes down, but never forget your moral duty to save those that could not.

posted by Wendy Russell on December 11, 2007 #

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