Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Judgment Day

People don’t like being told that they’re bad. And they especially don’t like it if it’s going to cost them a lot to be good. Finding other ways out is preferable, even if it requires some violence to the truth. Today we look at some ways people try to evade responsibility.

[Please read the previous post before continuing.]

A large number of people insist that “things aren’t proven” or “aid doesn’t work”. In his 1996 book Living High and Letting Die Peter Unger reports a study where he found that, including in administrative expenses and other overhead, $200 could feed a malnourished child through the highest-risk childhood years. UNICEF just recently released a new report finding that, for the first time, the number of children dying before 5 has fallen, thanks to their intervention. And Oxfam, to take just one example, through its development projects in Cambodia has helped over 35,000 people come to support themselves. Doctors Without Borders reports that they treated 10 million people last year, treating 26,000 people from cholera, for example, and treating 63,000 children for malnutrition. Even the most vocal critics of aid, like William Easterly, who has written many books and op-eds attacking government aid programs as unhelpful, has to concede that private projects like Oxfam and UNICEF are successful and positive. Nobody, of course, provides any real argument against these things. They just say it’s “too unclear”.

If that’s the real issue, then donate to an organization like Poverty Action Lab at MIT. PAL does controlled randomized trials of the success of aid interventions. Your money won’t go directly to help people, but it will help to test other people’s aid interventions and improve their effectiveness. A recent report [PDF] finds that mass deworming programs dropped infections by 23 points and increased school participation by 25% (thanks, in part, to spillover effects), apparently caused children to grow taller and healthier, and cost only $5 for each disability-adjusted year of life saved.

Barry Kelly insists that he has no duty to help others and thus is not culpable for their suffering. Of course, this is an irrelevance. Nobody is trying to put him on trial — just arguing he should do more to help.

But Barry goes one step further: he says that he should not help because giving his money to starving people would lead to “lack of incentive to compete, lack of investment base for risky & experimental ventures, and congealing layers of bureaucracy feeding on income redistribution.” Taking this at face value for a moment, it is not clear to me why why saving people from starvation would cause the first two — wouldn’t there be a huge incentive to compete for saving lives and trying new experimental techniques in doing so? Perhaps Barry means that the first-world might have less competition in a field like, say, luxury watches. I don’t see this as a tragedy. It amazes me that someone would admit that they prefer to have millions of people starve to death than to have a complicated bureaucracy.

In response, Barry explains that “there needs to be a cost-benefit analysis”. He does not explain what he wants to analyze. Should we make a little chart with the benefits of competition in the luxury watch market on one side and the benefits of saving people from starvation on the other?

He also argues that we should do nothing about starvation because many people die in car accidents. I am not sure how this is relevant, but I deplore the deaths of people in car accidents and personally do not drive because of it.

Sohail provides the amazing argument that one shouldn’t donate to UNICEF because “They have a business model that revolves around needy people. To keep the model going, you need needy people.” It is not clear how this principle is supposed to work. Are the people at UNICEF supposed to be quietly sabotaging their efforts in order to preserve their jobs? Since non-profit employees generally take large salary cuts and do unusually-onerous work, this seems wildly unlikely. If they wanted a safe job they would surely join the for-profit sector. Sohail provides no evidence for this amazing claim.

MC argues that people will starve since he no longer purchases their products. But certainly fewer people will starve if he spends his money directly on keeping people from starving as opposed to having people not starve incidentally because he is purchasing TVs from them. Is he claiming that the people not starving right now somehow have a special right not to starve? It’s hard to see why that would be the case.

That Hypothetical says that “Development economics is a complex subject.” I’m not sure how this is relevant. Perhaps in the ancient society the King has a lot of scholars working for him making the issue of how to decide which person to choose into some complex subject. That doesn’t change the moral issues.

Mike Bruce says that if we all spent our disposable income on helping starving people, we might face economic collapse. This seems absurd but also certainly isn’t a question anyone is facing. Even if all the readers of this blog spent all their disposable income on preventing starvation, that would be inconsequential in economic terms.

There are actual arguments against the issues raised in the last post. These are not them.

You should follow me on twitter here.

December 10, 2007


There are actual arguments against the issues raised in the last post. These are not them.

I notice that you didn’t answer mine.

This whole argument of yours is the aid equivalent of the ticking time bomb in manhattan argument for torture: you imagine a simplified situation and draw moral conclusions from it which are simply not valid in the real world. I think you can do better.

A better way to think about aid (as so many things) is to think at the margin: what variables change which way if you supply a little more food? Very likely population changes upwards. This is bad. Certainly incentives for the locals who grow food, or warehouse it to profit from lean times, change downwards. This is not a silly thing to worry about.

Things which promote lower fertility, like literacy, and supplies of condoms, and factory jobs for women, seem much less fraught with possible negative consequences. But you’re completely unable to analyse them if you simply count up deaths on your fingers.

Funding the Poverty Action Lab is a good suggestion, too. If you’re a US or EU citizen, perhaps the best thing you can do is anything towards reducing the agricultural subsidies. Buying food from these places instead of shipping it to them would be a good idea.

posted by improbable on December 10, 2007 #

I agree with improbable.

posted by Q on December 10, 2007 #

Ha! It’s interesting how you continue to argue emotionally. Such argument is still absolutist, because it has no end, there will never be “enough”. In much the same way that politicians ratchet up surveillance and control centralization measures (as opposed to security measures) and justify it with fear-oriented platitudes like “keep out the bad people” and “think of the children”, you attack my general statements on the broad problem of aid and poverty in Africa, and the rejection of the idea that we should donate all our non-essential income to other people in particular, with the emotive image of starving people. You used the words “starving”, “starve”, “starvation” no less than 13 times in your post above.

I believe it to be pretty well known that reason is the wrong tool to argue against emotion, just like emotion is the wrong tool against reason. I also believe that money invested in the lives of other people needs to be spent with care - implying reason. You point out some excellent uses of money at the start of your article - aid I certainly don’t object to, and aid that doesn’t involve all non-essential income - and it’s clear that reason and cost&benefit is being applied, in those cases. We have to do so, since we don’t have infinite money. And besides, if we gave all our non-essential income, we would have nothing spare with which to form the fabric of Western society, including its economic surpluses and medical advancements. When you mock my suggestion that cost/benefit analysis needs to be applied, to invoke that faculty of reason, I think you reject reason as a guide to your action.

And I think that’s the worst thing about your line of argument.

posted by Barry Kelly on December 10, 2007 #

I don’t think I’m rejecting reason — I’m addressing these (somewhat) reasoned arguments in a reasoned way. Starving isn’t an emotional word, it’s the best descriptor I have for the class under discussion. Sometimes you have to use emotionally-laden stories to make moral arguments and the last piece definitely was making moral arguments, but this is to aid reason. Emotion is not the opposite of reason but can often be an aid to thinking rationally.

posted by Aaron Swartz on December 10, 2007 #

BTW, I find this profile (pdf) from The New Yorker — author: Ian Parker — of (in)famous philantropist Zell Kravinsky absolutely fascinating.

posted by FrF on December 10, 2007 #

A better response to objections about one type of helping is to suggest another way to help. I think Engaging in a debate like this was a mistake. I hope the way you’ve framed objections to direct aid isn’t keeping you from exploring real issues and also real solutions to those issues, as it’s already hindered discussion of those issues.

You say the complexity of development economics doesn’t change the moral issues, but that’s only true if your moral issues are a simplistic “good” vs. “bad”. Obviously direct aid is better than nothing, but we have more than those two choices available, and in many cases direct aid is clearly not the best solution. Our alternatives to direct aid include projects like the Grameen Bank. How does that compare to direct aid? Rather than arguing about “help” vs. “not help,” we should be dimiss “not help” as unworthy of discussion and look at the pros and cons of various ways of helping.

posted by Scott Reynen on December 10, 2007 #

@FrF You beat me too it. This post made me think of that profile of Kravinsky. Definitely thought provoking, especially around his belief that his children were no more special than anyone elses. On one hand a logical assertion, but goes against a strongly felt emotion of protecting one’s children above others.

posted by elm on December 10, 2007 #

I like that their is a debate about aid to Africa. Wether it’s good or not should be talked about. What I find lacking in this debate is not great arguments for or against, but the African voice. Either they don’t talk about AID, or we don’t listen. I think any disscussion about aid has to include the people we are trying to aid.

On another note, I believe that our aid for food, and medicine is useful for now in a crisis state, but if want a sustainable system of help then we need to concentrate our help into education, and ideas, otherwise no one will be able to be an African doctor or and African farmer.

Catch a fish for a man, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.

posted by Alex on December 10, 2007 #

As the holidays approach and every chartiy sends out solitications, I’m curious what organizations you like enough to support with all that Reddit money?

posted by Tom S. on December 10, 2007 #

I agree with Scott that suggesting better ways of helping is a good idea. (Although in one comment you can’t see the whole person, of course.)

But I diagree that “Obviously direct aid is better than nothing”, this is not obvious to me. Contact with the modern world has brought a lot of poverty to societies which were not so very poor when isolated from us. Malawi is an example where this seems to have happened (as far as I can tell) mostly through positive actions, like medicine and food aid, not negative ones (like AK-47s).

There are lots of good ideas out there. For disaster relief, this scheme in Malawi which sets up ATMs to distribute dollars not grain sounds wonderful to me. The little guy with one truck will buy another to ship food from the coast. And he’ll still be doing business after the white 4x4s have gone home.

For general development, well it’s all the things I said above: let’s buy things from them. TV sets if they make those. Fresh fruit if they don’t. Coffee. Go and travel and spend money in local establishments. Sponsor literacy projects. These things seem certain to be net positives.

And also, you can almost certainly earn money faster than you can beg it from your friends. So spend your own money, and spend your effort worrying about where it’s going. Bill Gates deserves infinitely more respect than Bob Geldof.

posted by improbable on December 10, 2007 #

IF you go to Africa, you can find lots of clothes for sale- clothes that were sent as aid to the country. However, if you want a suit, you have to import one at great expense. There used to be a thriving industry of tailors in africa and good suits could be had at reasonable cost— but the influx of donated clothes drove them out of business.

Charity does not work economically, and from the statemetns you made int his post it is clear that you do not understand economics. Almost all fo the “social responsibility” efforts in the world are run by people who do not understand economics and they end up subisdizing and creating more of what they are trying to prevent.

Sending a town food and sending them teachers of agriculture are totally different things - the former creates starvation and the latter ends starvation. Literally, somalis were driven off of productive lands and herded into “camps” and starved so that Said Barre could get more money.

Sending aid money and giving microloans have opposite effects- the former creates poverty and the latter ends it. One african nation went from a land that couldn’t feed its population to one that exported corn to all of its neighbors simply by ignoring the world monetary funds insistence that it not use fertilizer in its agriculture.

The only solution to help people- the only one that works, and the only one that is sustainable is free market capitalism.

If you want to help africance, fund microloans or otherwise work to overthrow the governments that are the source of the problem.

Don’t call on our government to prop up dictators abroad who starve people… as most of the “help africa” plans do.

posted by Joe on December 10, 2007 #

Aaron: I enjoyed reading your posts because they reminded me of a more innocent time (aka the 90s), when I was young and still believed in all that goodness. Then I went and studied Economics.

Just a few Q&As that maybe, maybe will help clarify Barry’s point(s) - some of which I agree with. I am not going to cover every aspect of this (e.g. the psychological effects of aid or how aid facilitates dictatorship), but stick to what I believe are the basics, the core arguments, and they just happen to be related to Economics.

  1. What are the reasons for the prevalence of starvation?
  • I don’t really know, nor do I think anybody does because this question is related to a whole lot of complex issues.

  • However, starvation seems to be correlated with low per capita income, low levels of education, lack of adequate health care and “non-democratic” government (debatable, I know).

  • All these are structural, “macro” factors.

  1. What are the economic implications of “aid”, as in a non-reciprocal transfers of wealth? (I will assume for simplicity that the aid is monetary.)
  • The recipient: Experiences a loosening of her budget constraint (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Budget_constraint), an increase in income. At the same time, her level of productivity (labour output) remains the same. (This is called a ceteris paribus condition, it is a tool for analysis and has nothing to do with the fact that higher income can lead to improved health or more time available for productive undertakings.) One could also say that now the person receives more money for the same amount of output or productivity, or: their wage has risen. I know this argument sounds a bit dodgy when one is talking about the absolute poor, however, the principle can still be applied. A higher wage implies that in order to entice the person to sell even more of their productivity on the market, the wage rate paid for that additional productivity needs to be higher again. Therefore, aid may increase the so-called “reservation wage”. In conclusion, the recipient of “free” income (=aid) may be less likely to seek out other sources of income than they would be without that aid, therefore decreasing the potential for economic activity. This is not to say that aid makes people lazy, especially when we’re talking rock bottom poor. But think about it.

  • The sender: Experiences a tightening of the budget constraint, resulting in lower purchasing power. I think it is prudent to take a little detour at this point and look at how wealth is created in a modern economy. The simple fact is: Production of “the bare necessities” is too efficient at this point to keep all of us employed and happy. That’s why developed economies move towards services and high tech. So… Imagine there are two people in your economy. One produces food, the other, say, computers. Both of them make more than they need to purchase their food requirement and have plenty left over to buy computers. Now imagine (and I know you can tell where this is going) both of them stop buying computers and instead send all that extra to starving people. There would be no demand for computers, computer guy would be out of work, food guy would have to feed him (taxes!), and neither of them would have anything left to send to their starving fellow humans. The standard of living in industrializes, developed nations has increased because we are able to produce and consume more than the absolute basics.

There is more: Assume humans are fundamentally greedy. Maybe to different degrees, but let’s face it, one of the best motivators is a prospective gain for ourselves. If we expected to give all our money away, maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t work those 70 hour weeks. Think about it.

—> Giving “aid” to individuals does not tackle the problem at it’s root (i.e. the macro environment).

—> The type of aid suggested in the previous article would have detrimental effects on productivity in both the recipient’s and sender’s economy.

And this is where cost-benefit analysis comes in. One may think that a human life is invaluable. However, to come back to the traffic example, we know that streetlights prevent deaths and still would refuse to invest 100% of GDP in streetlights. Wouldn’t really be all that practical anyway. There is a vast literature out there on the valuation of human life; this is applied in health care (e.g. NHS is willing to pay up to £30k for one more of full quality life) and transport decisions.

So: the benefit of aid would be the aggregated value of all the lives saved. The cost would be the cost to the sender plus the effects of economic distortion caused by ill-adjusted incentives. And these consequences need not be abstract. Weakening a developing economy is exactly the opposite of that you want to be doing, as the poverty = low GDP was what caused people to starve in the first place!!!

One has to consider the costs and benefits of an intervention before making a decision, otherwise we are guilty of exactly the same immorality that we were trying to fight. All we can hope to achieve with irrational interventions is to prevent someone from dying by making somebody else die instead. (How’s that for emotional?)

And I agree with that thing about the fish.

posted by Eva on December 10, 2007 #

My formatting is all over the place in that one, apologies.

posted by Eva on December 10, 2007 #

I too was surprised by how much Malthusian spirit your original post evoked. I have a different critique.

A recent, credible scientific study suggests that generosity may be partly genetic — depending on the amount of activity of a gene linked to social behavior in humans and at least one social animal (the vole). The free abstract is at http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1601-183X.2007.00341.x (Note: the full text costs $3 — so much for the generosity of the publisher, who did not fund the research but can collect the toll regardless.)

Social factors clearly influence generosity as well — and generosity affects the quality of life of all of us, so it does matter. But people have different dispositions, and will usually end up doing what they want to do anyway. The result is the world we have today. The issue is what to do about it.

The original essay by Louis Pascal was commendable in its major intent, but it did remind me of a newspaper story a year or two ago, about a mathematical genius who made a fortune in real estate (apparently due to his mathematical skill plus getting in at the right time, vs. the usual method of personal relationships plus the right time). He so much wanted to help the poor that his effectiveness suffered because he didn’t have decent business clothes, since it would be wrong to buy them when poor people needed the money more. He had millions of dollars, but was using it less effectively due to an issue with spending a few hundred.

Giving to Oxfam is great. But most people are not going to give $30,000 of their $50,000 annual salary as Pascal suggests, based on a syllogism about a king, ten prisoners, and a gallows. So let’s look at two other ways to maybe save the 500 million people who are set to starve to death in the next 50 years.

  1. The war in Iraq has been estimated to cost the U.S. $2 trillion, when the full costs of disability for U.S. citizens have been paid. It’s clear to almost everyone that the whole war was an unnecessary fraud, that it has left this country far worse off, and that no good end is in sight — yet Congress is likely to vote another $40 billion, because that much money going to well-connected insiders at enormous profit margins is too much for our system to resist. A few hundred more top people devoting their lives to preventing unnecessary wars, or funding others who do, might have made the whole thing go away before it started — and could do the same now with Iran. Two trillion dollars would provide $4,000 of resources each toward preventing the deaths of all the 500 million scheduled to starve.

  2. Long ago when I was in 7th grade I looked around and realized that if all the unpopular or outcast kids disappeared tomorrow, they would quickly be replaced — by other classmates not currently unpopular. And if the new ones disappeared, they would be replaced in turn. The social dynamics of the classroom as a whole included some outcast slots, and strong pressures that they be filled.

So the question is, how does it happen that many human societies routinely create outcasts who have nothing much wrong with them (including most of the 500 million who without intervention will starve)? If we could see what’s going on here, we might come up with strategies to prevent or at least reduce it.

For example, on a personal level, how could we live so that we don’t contribute to ostracizing people who have done nothing to deserve that — in our immediate circles, and worldwide? And politically, what policies or other measures could we support toward this end?

We might start by exploring how modern poverty is created, and maintained by specific government and business decisions. It does not just happen. Nor does it mean that certain groups are lazy.

posted by John S. James on December 10, 2007 #

Perhaps the most powerful argument against saving poor people from starvation (one I’m willing to entertain but probably not accept) is that they are then more likely to reproduce. If it is the case that their immediate environment is unable to support them, this may not be a very happy outcome.

It is horrible, of course, to even suggest that genocide by neglect is a solution to over population, but it is the only argument that stands - either you ‘play god’ by saving people (but committing their offspring to a life of misery) or you do the same by simply killing them by denying them help. No luxury watches involved, and logically, it’s quite difficult to reject any one side.

posted by Tom Berger on December 10, 2007 #

Let’s try a re-framing. Sorry if I ramble a bit; I don’t have time to be more cogent today.

Poverty is normal. Although outright starvation is not normal, sustenance farming and occasional famines are. As is giving your produce and daughters to the local lord. Affluence is recent and strange. A diamond-shaped society, with most people in the middle, is recent and strange.

How can we spread it?

One thing that seems to have worked well is manufacturing and trade under the effective rule of law. See also East Asia.

Maybe the best plan is to (1) support projects like the OLPC and Project Witness and (2) keep buying crap you don’t need. Your profligate waste is the wealth and development for people in Malaysia.

(I’m as wasteful as the next guy, but it’s sometimes appalling just how tacky and pointless a lot of the things Americans buy are. You have to wonder what they’re thinking about us when they assemble those talking Santa statues.)

Aside: What if you had to choose between your own life, and all remaining elephants, say? I literally don’t think I could live with myself after letting an entire order perish from the earth.

Anyway, it does seem that people normally have as many offspring as they have the means to, always pushing themselves to the very limit. For some reason, people in developed nations don’t seem to do this. I don’t think it comes down entirely to contraceptives, because some groups (unfortunately I don’t remember which) regularly practice infanticide to keep their populations at the right level; so this is an open option even if contraceptives are not available.

So I do buy the argument that supplying people with food who are on the brink of starvation isn’t going to help, because it will stimulate population increase. Although this conclusion does feel rather cruel, even as I come to it.

(Although one might say that we can just keep giving more aid, when the starving people we saved start to have starving children. Maybe we can.)

But let’s figure out how to bootstrap more and more of the world into economic development. Helping people get rid of feudal-type rule, and fixing the existing bugs in our way of globalization, seem like good steps to take.

How does this sound for a goal? A relatively small number of people living off a relatively small portion of the Earth, performing creative and service jobs while automation takes over almost all of the basics. The only conscionable way to achieve this, starting with the low population, is by ramping up technology and development (or whatever it is) until most of the world starts having small families like we do now.

So maybe you should donate your funds to the NSF.


posted by David McCabe on December 11, 2007 #

Okay, let me try…

The question (unless I misunderstand) is: “Why aren’t I helping starving people in the third world?”

1) Morality is a cultural/evolutionary construct that has no objective definition. If I define morality as an agreement between equals not to harm one another (which I think is the actual, unspoken, definition of morality), then I’m under no obligation to act on the behalf of starving third-world persons (and certainly that is exactly how most people behave, even if they don’t describe their actions in those terms).

2) In the real world, no one acts in a completely logically consistent manner. Pointing out flaws in reasoning is only useful when backed up by an emotional plea — and still both the plea and argument can be dismissed (for any or no reasons). You cannot demand that people think or behave in a certain way (well, you as a private citizen, the state can go a little farther).

3) In many of these countries (or at least the surrounding regions) not everyone has a distended belly and flies in their eyes. There are often a wealthy few followed by a vast gap and then the poor. Shouldn’t the responsibility of helping the poor fall more on the shoulders of their neighbors/brothers? If there is any kind of moral imperative, it certainly should include them — but is there any evidence, for example, that Africa’s rich are trying to stop hunger in their region?

4) Although you say there is no evidence, there are arguments over unintended consequences of food aid. The arguments could be enough (even if the arguments against aren’t sound) to deter someone from assisting on their own, especially since they cannot judge how effective a program is on their own.

After reviewing my own arguments, I’m now going to avoid helping starving people in the third world … in the hopes of annoying you, personally. So now it is your fault. :-)

posted by David Rouse on December 11, 2007 #

David wrote:

Anyway, it does seem that people normally have as many offspring as they have the means to, always pushing themselves to the very limit.

No, this is inaccurate. People have as many children as makes economic sense for themselves, which for peasant farmers means as many as they can, because at large percentage of those children die at a young age, because children make great laborers, good even at a fairly young age for tasks like watching sheep and babies, and because families are structured such that adult children take care of elderly parents.

When industrialization hits, babies stop dying (that is, the infant mortality rate drops from 50+ percent to something much lower), and particularly when large numbers begin moving to cities, to work in factories, etc., birth rates adjust dramatically within 2 generations. This pattern, quite visible among my ancestors (my grandmother had over 100 first cousins, I have something like 20-25, and my children and grandchildren will have far fewer), and in many parts of the developing world today.

posted by Jacob Rus on December 11, 2007 #

Ahh, so that explains it. Thank you.

posted by David McCabe on December 11, 2007 #

Just imagine that that last sentence of mine isn’t a fragment. :)

posted by Jacob Rus on December 11, 2007 #

David Rouse:

You have an awfully particular definition of morality.

Morality is a cultural/evolutionary construct

And therefore it is meaningless? I don’t follow.

Pointing out flaws in reasoning is only useful when backed up by an emotional plea — and still both the plea and argument can be dismissed (for any or no reasons).

This is a pretty dubious line of argument.

Shouldn’t the responsibility of helping the poor fall more on the shoulders of their neighbors/brothers? If there is any kind of moral imperative, it certainly should include them — but is there any evidence, for example, that Africa’s rich are trying to stop hunger in their region?

Where exactly does Aaron exempt them from moral imperative?

The arguments could be enough (even if the arguments against aren’t sound) to deter someone from assisting

You describe a tragic society which is far too uncritical. Which indeed suggests that appeals exactly like Aaron’s must be made more frequently and more visibly. If these someones are so easily swayed by unsound arguments against change, why could they not equally be convinced by good arguments for.

posted by Jacob Rus on December 11, 2007 #

Tom Berger wrote:

It is horrible, of course, to even suggest that genocide by neglect is a solution to over population,

Yes, and it’s not a remotely effective solution either. Putting girls in school has a much larger impact.

posted by Jacob Rus on December 11, 2007 #

Just to clarify what I was saying above:

The “goal state” I mentioned is my thinking for one or two or three centuries hence.

posted by David McCabe on December 11, 2007 #

on the population theory: i used to believe as many of you do about populations in poor countries. you had to let them go, or not provide resources to stimulate possible pop growth. it seems intuitive, but we’ve abandoned plenty of people, and it hasn’t worked. my now ex husband arguing with me when we met made the point that the only way to lower birth rates is to raise quality of living and extend life spans. i was stumped, annoyed. i went and looked at a lot of data current and historical. every damn thing bore him out. i had to review my philosophy about the nature of humanitarianism. indeed, the best way to boost fertility is to let people die at a high rate.

on the other hand, i’m so with free marketers on subsidies. and i’d like to see imported crops subjected to tariffs when there’s a native equivalent- not so popular, but more powerful countries can’t help but getting predatorial. that’s just the nature of competition. that could go to subsidies within developing nations on things like fertilizer and seed. what’s good for the goose is not what’s good for the gander.

Barry Kelly: there is enough. the frustrating thing is that since the green revolution there has been enough food. there’s just about enough drugs, and certainly the resources to make them. there’s enough knowledge, plenty of education. there’s natural resources, if anything, too much. So why hasn’t it gotten out there? it’s illogical to assume that it could be the fault of the non-recipients.

Joe: I’ve been. The clothes thing was really sad and shocking. but aid doesn’t create poverty- that’s obviously temporally impossible. at most you could claim it perpetuates it. but it doesn’t. like everything else in africa, it’s complex. sometimes aid helps, sometimes it hurts. sometimes it pulls regions through a bad time so they can get on their feet again. some aid supports dictators. some aid destabilizes them. back to my favorite example- zim. aid to one group is likely to undercut mugabe, aid to the other might very well keep him in power longer. free market is not an incantation that makes everything better. and free market isn’t the cause of all ills; sometime it works, and we should give it its head. sometimes it doesn’t, and we should step in.

it’s obvious that things get better around the time women get power and education. but i don’t know which way that causal arrow points, or if there’s a factor that causes them both. it’s not the sort of thing you can try out in a lab.

education is an endpoint for a lot of these situations. people need roads and cell phones. they need relatives that travel and strong remittance lines. developing countries are perfectly capable of building schools and putting people in them, provided the logistics are there. i mean, fuck, they are trying so hard right now. they have invented education routes most westerners would never have imagined. we don’t need to go tell them Education Is Good and march them into education camps. corruption and political instability are the opposite of infrastructure. and all of these problems arise when infrastructure collapses. i’m not saying collapsing infrastructure is an exclusive cause, but it certainly occasions all of the above and more.

but …aaron’s post were certainly oversimplified and flawed in practicality, morals aside. the analogy was reductionist past the point ofincoherence, etc etc etc blah blah blah. except i’m not sure i saw him endorsing more than the thought experiment and a couple charities he believes in. the thought experiment worked beautifully. putting the moral scale in your mind forces you into arguing the morals, but mostly more than. you start discussing actions, arguing plans, bashing ideologies together with the thought of suffering people you don’t know eight thousand miles away. at the very least, you have to consciously reject them. thought experiments you react violently to are likely to be good ones. by the time you’re saying “this is impractical! we must do it this other way! bob’s idea was stupid, and he’s stupid for thinking it! i’m going off to get the data to back me up!” Louis Pascal has already won.

posted by q on December 11, 2007 #

Interesting what brainpower is invested to find arguments against helping.

It’s easy, if you have Internet access, are sophist, or realist. It’s wasted, if you ask me.

Stop arguing - start helping, yes, on a personal level! Or simply admit you do not want to.

How did this start? Monetary help. I show you you won’t, come on, feel a little knocked, that was, where Aaron started, you remember?

Carefully worded to enroll what we can read here, I suggest, at least I thought it was predictable.

Maybe Aaron wants to collect all arguments against helping, he never wanted anything else, he wants to watch you?

I do something similar since years: Tell people, that I want to save the world. It’s true. What’s so terrible about wanting it? Something must be. My favourite response?: It’s ridiculous. I like short cuts, otherwise these guys start talking about their car or something equally interesting some minutes later.

No, it’s my decision to live, I would choke otherwise. I see my mission in making this world a better place. Not more, not less. Funny is, I see your mission is the same. Some are out for small improvements, some for bigger. Love your family - better place, love your mistress - better place - off your family - worse, love your job - better place, if you are hospital nurse, difficult to say in general, if you are farmer, worse, if you are arms dealer. If you are well-educated, and you make an effort of showing this, seemingly forgetting that nothing is as easy as collecting wise data today, HELLO, this is the Internet!!!… If you are well-educated, you probably think you are intelligent - test it, you would suffer from lying at yourself then, otherwise you are educated, but not intelligent.

It’s easy!

“All humans are equal”

If you say you admit this, you have to want to save the world. Basta.

And if you do so, tell the world - it is a really good way to get to know your adverse. You save tons of time.

You do not trust organisations?

Go down the street and help somewhere close to you, if you are afraid an organisation will spend your money wrong. There are people near you who need help too. Forget Africa, I and some others will take care. You are one of those who are perfect to help close to you then probably, a very special mission, congratulations! There are enough who would prefer to spend money.

Or create an aid-project and control the business model.

Donate for a webcam in Addisabeba, that shows where and how and even through whom some other’s money helps. Write a self-help-book and earn money you can help others with, about how happy watching Addisabeba-channel can make western civilisation - you suddenly realize how well-off you are. Maybe this can convine some others, to install their own channel, or this could be your chance!. If your prospering “Where-does-half-of-my-donated-money-get- food-for-the-poor-channel” needs employees, relax ! Again only half of it will vaporize, if you are lucky, you can donate the rest directly when you visit your firm. Worth to consider, that it is more important that half of the money ends as help, than that there is no help, because half of the money could get lost, until another you has an idea how to improve the aid-system. -sarcastic.

New media will improve a lot as to this. We are under control - and we can get our help under control. We can help directly soon. By the way, this is what I prepare. Read it and forget it. -direct.

Maybe we can convince cinemas to show trailers with starving kids, telling that half of your popcorn’s cost will be spent for Unicef, and reopen the doors.

But oh, I forgot, all arguments for feeding the starving are reversed, beacause this supports non democratic governments. A really good argument, at the first sight. That something is complicated does not mean, that there is no solution.

I hope you get me when I switch from being direct to being sarcastic, UPDATE: I added it sometimes.

Adopt children from these countries. -direct.

What is the strongest human wish for life ?

Could it happen, that money does not make happy?

Did you know that people in Nigeria are the most happy on earth?

True, direct and sarcastic.

@David Rouse: Did you know that painting and dancing are cultural, let us say evolvements too? We are the creators, so we decide. We can waste our time on investigating what may be genetic and what aquired - or we think how we want to be. Imagine, there is free will!!

Have there ever been so many and so long comments? WHO gets emotional here? I do, I was angry, I got a terrible headache - so I started to write. I feel better now. WHY do you write such a long list? to the one who feels no moral, David.

If starving people get food, they will get condoms too, to anotherone up there. Besides the fact, that I directly want to tell you shame on you for being afraid, that “they are more likely to reproduce”.

Contempt is a cultural/evolutonary construct too, one of the damaging. I should feel sorry for you.

But this is, why I do it my way, there is no way to argue with links or posts or numbers. This is the result.

PS: I wish my English was as good as my German.

posted by Lilo on December 11, 2007 #

corrections:donate money, happiest…and probably a lot more..

posted by Lilo on December 11, 2007 #

Emotion is not the opposite of reason but can often be an aid to thinking rationally.

Aaron, I followed your writing for many years, because I’ve always found it to be refreshingly clear and logical. So this statement, and the direction you seem to be going with this piece, is very disappointing.

Emotion can never, never be an aid to reason or logical thought, for the very clear reason that, by definition, an emotional statement is designed to push your opinions in a particular direction — irrespective of the evidence.

For integrity of thought, emotion must always follow after reason — one should think dispassionately about a subject and weight the evidence. Once you come to a conclusion, then you can feel good about yourself — because you know you’re doing what’s correct.

Be wary of arguments laden with emotional terms and hot-button phrases — they are designed to get you to switch off your brain.

posted by Ben on December 11, 2007 #

Ben insists that “Emotion can never, never be an aid to reason or logical thought, for the very clear reason that, by definition, an emotional statement is designed to push your opinions in a particular direction — irrespective of the evidence.”

Surely this cannot be true. By this logic, arguments can never aid reason because they are designed to push your opinions in a particular direction — irrespective of the evidence. Surely that’s absurd. Reasoning involves balancing a number of forces going in a number of different directions and I see no reason why some of those forces can’t be emotional. This is especially true in moral reasoning. (António Damásio’s book Descartes’ Error provides a neuroscience argument for the necessity of emotion in reasoning.)

I am, of course, opposed to hot-button emotional arguments that lead you to stop thinking. I’m interested in how emotion can be used as an aid to reason — a way to get people to think more, not a way of bypassing thought.

Take for example, the classic Wason four card task:

Here are four cards. Each card as a letter on one side and a number on the other. You can only see one side: right now the cards show A B 2 1.

Which cards do you turn over to verify that cards with vowels on one side have an even number on the other?

People have a really hard time answering this question. (They pick A and 2, because those seem to be the ones described by the rule.) But they find this question quite easy:

Here are four people at a bar. One is drinking beer, one diet coke, one is obviously over 21 and one is obviously under it.

Which people do you need to check out to make sure no one under 21 is drinking alcohol?

(They pick the beer-drinker and the under-21 kid, since those are the people you need to be suspicious of.) Logically, they’re the same question. Practically, people find the second a lot easier to solve.

I think there are a number of emotional things that can aid thought in this way.

posted by Aaron Swartz on December 11, 2007 #


I believe the current hypothesis for explaining the Wason test is that the two versions hook into different parts, or modules, of the brain — one for social reasoning, one for abstract reasoning. I don’t see emotion helping out here — it’s more about pattern recognition activating the right brain circuits.

And of course the social reasoning circuits of the brain can sometimes give a logically incorrect answer, too. Which is why we should strive to hone abstract reasoning.

Emotion is essential for deciding what kinds of things you care about, for sure. But it is worse than useless when it comes to determining the correct course of action in any given situation, or the truth value of any given assertion.

By this logic, arguments can never aid reason because they are designed to push your opinions in a particular direction — irrespective of the evidence. Surely that’s absurd.

That’s not a good or fair analogy. Arguments that rely on evidence and logical reasoning from stated assumptions are not “irrespective of the evidence” — precisely the opposite.

If one cares about saving people from starvation, then one should care about effective means of doing so. A set of emotional images of grateful children receiving aid handouts, while heart-warming, is massively insufficient evidence for deciding one way or the other.

posted by Ben on December 11, 2007 #

q and Lilo, thank you for your words.

It’s not a question of solving all the problems right now. Don’t worry, your 50$ check to UNICEF (or whomever) isn’t going to do that. It’s probably not about reaching for the solution at all, I think our lives are too short for that.

But, if I can help one person, I’ve made the world a better place. No amount of consumerism will ever do this. The money you paid for your TV or t-shirt aren’t going to help anyone in the “third world.” They received their pittance back when they made it. Buying more stuff doesn’t increase their take, it just prolongs the inevitable end of that company, that plant and puts more money in the shareholders’ or owner’s bank account.

If, by helping my neighbor, I cause them to produce more children then those children are my neighbors now, too. I will help them if I am able. This giving is not based on an economic decision past the acknowledgment that I have excess (which itself is probably an economic decision). My work produces monetary profit for myself and my family, I want to use that to give someone else comfort.

either you ‘play god’ by saving people (but committing their offspring to a life of misery) or you do the same by simply killing them by denying them help

I think this is not the question we should really be trying to deal with. Like I said before, our 50$ (or 500000$) donations aren’t going to be the end of anything. Similarly, my inaction will not be the end of it in the other direction. I believe that the means are the ends. Charity does not seek to bring about the end of poverty, it seeks to bring comfort to those stuck with it.

We cannot even hope for the end of the suffering Aaron is talking about unless we consider the ending of this suffering something worth doing. That ending is the process we’re trying to engage in. In the words of Martin Luther, “sin boldly.” If you’re going to screw up, at least make sure you’re headed in the right direction when you do. If you’re going to screw up charity, do it by giving too much (time, money, food, clothes), not too little.

The call out to emotion is attached to reason not for justification as much as it is for attention. It is very reasonable for us to ignore this issue altogether—the issues are too complex, someone else will do it, nothing will help, etc. But, in an appeal to emotion, the reader is forced to stop and think about it. This isn’t science, we’re not in a lab, there is no way to separate my mind from my emotions. So I exercise restraint and go forward with the expectation that I am not controlled by either and both may contribute to my decision to act.

sorry if this is a bit scattered, this is something my wife and I have been wrestling with for awhile so I’ve had thoughts stored up.

posted by Adam on December 11, 2007 #

The original hypotehtical doesn’t hold water for me. First, how can we compare victims who have no control of their destiny with victims who have significant if not complete control of their destiny?

Further, where does it end? If I don’t crusade against cigarette smoking am I also in violation?

I’m also disappointed that Barry got so much criticism. His commentary has been valid and illuminating.

posted by pwb on December 11, 2007 #

Somewhat related http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/62

posted by Conny on December 11, 2007 #

Something on this page is forcing the page width to be very wide, making the page difficult to read. Perhaps our host would be kind enough to track it down.

posted by David McCabe on December 12, 2007 #

The best way to encourage people to donate more to aid is to act like a pretentious little American twerp.

posted by Steve on December 13, 2007 #

depends on how many twerps you reach, and how many people :-)

When I say you and I within the following, I do not adress a certain “you”, just the opposite position to my view, I am all but a saint, but I follow my view.

If i where you, I would have answered: “Yes, I am a murderer, luckily I will not be judged for it.” Some believe they will, but have chosen the big fogg too.

As I am I, I answer: “Yes, I am a murderer, so I try to do my best to stop this, because I feel that this is wrong”

(I feel(!) AND what I go for due to this reason for deciding, is logical, but my goal is to do the best I can, I could fail with my plan then, but reach my goal )

The question “where does this end” shows the basic misunderstandings, which the attempt to reach pure rationality regularly produces. Interesting to watch the meta-structure of Self-Excuses.

Basically, whatever could „end“ at the goal, not theoretical discussions besides and beyound.

Whatever tendece your rational argumentation focusses on, it is rooted in and interweaved with feelings. If you would follow back (without collecting arguments, just follow back the single thread (=honest): WHY do you try to argue (besides the point) ?) you would find a story of decisions to find excuses, based on emotions)

The answer is exactly what Aaron said: you do not want to be told you are bad. Plus: You think to be bad is bad and you do not want to be bad. more: you would want to be able to say you are good. It would be interesting, why you think to be bad is bad ;-) (The one who would be really really evil would be so, because he has NO reason, all others have a story they believe in, what they do could though be valued evil in it’s outcome. direct - or indirect - but I do not judge (!) I just watch, sometimes emotional,but the next day more relaxed - and then I focus on solutions)

BECAUSE you try to argue rational, what can not really be argued about, you (have to) miss the point - on purpose, hopefully unconscious (see suffer from lying to yourself)

“Human Rationality”, ( should admit the use of both parts of the brain finally, it is even quite appropriate, as they interact in one head) would not try to walk along all possible threads, except it feels offended - for example by the truth it does not want to face.

visualize, there is a cake at the end of the room. someone asked you to bring her the cake in this room. why run into every room of the tower of arguments, to see if there might be reasons not to ask fort he cake? except because you do not want to bring her the cake. If you return to her, you will have to lie - or tell the truth. Or you try to find arguments, why she should not ask for the cake. That is what you are doing.

I quote Aaron, who pretends to quote W.B. Ellis in order to quote L. Pascal.: “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.”

posted by Lilo on December 14, 2007 #

I noticed you mentioned Peter Singer, but didn’t talk much about him. Maybe you should have mentioned his simple example of encountering a child drowning in a shallow pool. You have the option of saving the life of the child, and all you have to sacrifice is some of your time and getting your shoes and pants wet.

I was able to get the point immediately since I had taken a course in ethics (where we discussed Singer). I don’t think many of the people who have responded have ever taken a course in ethics. There are a lot of thorny issues in this world, and no easy right answers.

If some people seem to have a difficult time with accepting what was proposed, maybe they should read a little bit of Singer (or other ethics). Look under utilitarianism.

A lot of people seem to be confusing ethics with economics. One does not have to sacrifice either. People keep making the absurd claim that you are somehow violating the “principles” of economics, it’s inviolate “truths”, and would be committing a sin, sacrificing one’s principles, being a hypocrite, if you didn’t follow that simple first rule of economics. Hey, economics is not a holy faith. We can’t seem to get the free market right (we aren’t even close, even in the land of the AEI).

Arguing this is very tiring. No one is forcing you to do anything (maybe, thinking). People don’t seem to be arguing against the notion of giving to charity, but against the notion of it being compulsory to give, and to give very generously. “Hey, I do give to charity, but I’ll decide how much and if, alright. But, just to be clear, I do give to charity (see, I am a saint).” But, why shouldn’t you be a despicable person if you’re living a king’s life, while millions of people are starving around the world. At least have the balls to admit it (but don’t be proud of it).

posted by Prabhat on December 15, 2007 #

Daniel Goleman: Why aren’t we all Good Samaritans?


(A related talk.)

posted by matt on December 19, 2007 #

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