I highly recommend Leif Wenar’s essay “Poverty Is No Pond” – especially to those not yet familiar with, but interested in, the empirical complexities involved in giving to overseas poverty-fighting charities. Wenar’s main aim in his essay is to criticize Peter Singer’s 2009 book The Life You Can Save for (i) being overly optimistic about the quality of information available on the effects of giving to various charities, and (ii) failing to emphasize that every charitable donation also comes with some risk of harming people living in extreme poverty. I’ll only briefly address (i), and then turn to and focus primarily on (ii).
Imagine that you have been left a large legacy, and would like to donate it to a charity, with a view to doing the most good possible.
It’s natural to think that one set of charities you should consider are those which cheaply save people’s lives, and perhaps particularly young people’s lives. For then you can count the good in the rest of those people’s lives as a good you’ve brought about. Continue reading
A common theme running through debates on combating global problems like poverty and common change is the idea that something must be done. Usually, this is taken to mean that some prosocial behaviour must be actively encouraged and sought out: for example, encouraging people to recycle, or having public health campaigns to encourage people to vaccinate. These solutions typically require individuals going out of their way to do what is often a costly behaviour, and consequently, have only limited success. But what if prosocial behaviour could also be encouraged by making use of the passivity of human nature? What if people could do good by doing nothing?
Following six months in the UK with no access to a television, I’ve had the opportunity to rediscover the delights of prime-time news media exposure since returning to Australia.
If I had to point to the (world) issue that is foremost in the media’s minds at the moment, I would probably gesture wildly at the current concerns over the conflict with ISIS (or ISIL) in the Middle East. Indeed, it seems so important to the public that it is one of the few causes that currently has complete bipartisan political support; and to such an extent that the current Treasurer has been (subtly) reprimanded by Prime Minister Tony Abbot for daring to question the Opposition’s commitment. Continue reading
Like Prot – the lovable character played by Kevin Spacey in the underrated movie K-PAX – you’re an intelligent benevolent extraterrestrial who has just been beamed to Earth. Sadly, unlike Prot, you have no return ticket. The good news for you is that just moments after hopping off of your beam of light, you found a briefcase stuffed with $3 million. Being benevolent, and having concern for the inhabitants of Earth, you decide to give nearly all of this money to charity. Being completely new to the planet, however, you do not yet have any special concern for anyone here – no friends, no loved ones. Having this equal concern for everyone, you want simply to do the most good possible, and so you decide to give this money to the most cost-effective charities you can find.
Exit science fiction scenario.
One important difference between each of us and this Prot-agonist is that we do have friends and loved ones; we have rich shared histories with them, we care deeply about them, and, crucially, the level of concern we have for them is not on a par with the general concern we have for strangers. If your fiancé were drowning in a lake to your north, and ten strangers were drowning in a lake to your south, and you could either rescue the one to your north or instead the ten to your south (but not all eleven!), you’d probably head north. Whether this constitutes morally good behavior on your part is a matter of controversy among contemporary ethical theorists. But let’s assume the commonsense view that it’s not wrong of you to save your fiancé over the ten others. This degree of special partial concern is, we’ll suppose, justified.
This week Richard Branson announced that Virgin would no longer be tracking people’s holidays. The move was apparently inspired by Netflix, who have similarly instigated a “no holiday policy” policy, which permits all salaried staff to ‘take off whenever they want for as long as they want.’ According to Branson, the idea came to him via his daughter, Holly, who sent him the following cheery email about Netflix, sounding suspiciously like a copywriter from Virgin’s media team:
Dad, check this out. It’s something I have been talking about for a while and I believe it would be a very Virgin thing to do to not track people’s holidays. I have a friend whose company has done the same thing and they’ve apparently experienced a marked upward spike in everything – morale, creativity and productivity have all gone through the roof.
“CDC estimates Ebola epidemic could be over in Liberia and Sierra Leone by January!”
So ran the headline of exactly no news outlets. Instead, a typical headline ran the following sort of dire prediction: “Ebola cases could reach 1.4 million within four months, CDC estimates.” Only a few went with what is arguably the fairest sort of headline: “CDC offers sharply differing forecasts for Ebola epidemic.” I would suggest that, while on its face the more dire headline is somewhat deceptive and driven by bad journalistic practices, it is all things considered preferable to the alternatives. Continue reading
It’s still summery, and so here is a little story for the beach or the side of the pool
‘There are challenges, certainly’, said the Boss. ‘But we’re confident that we can meet them. Or at least’, he went on, looking over his glasses for signs of dissent, ‘for a critical mass of stakeholders’.
A graph appeared on the screen at his side. He traced its lines with a red laser dot.
‘Here’, he said, ‘we have the expected rise of temperature with time. And here’ (he stabbed with the dot, as if doing the killing himself), ‘we have the consequent reduction in human population – assuming’ (and he held up a schoolmasterly finger), ‘we don’t have any HR66.’
He sipped some water, and waited for this to sink in. It did.
‘But don’t worry’, he said. ‘There’s good news. We do have HR66. Not enough for everyone, sadly, but enough to ensure that the human baton is passed on. And enough, I’m glad to say, for everyone in this room.’
There was a ripple of relief.
‘And their families, of course’, the Boss continued. ‘Families are very important to us. But all this assumes that you want to have the HR66. No one will make you. But, frankly, what’s not to like? You take a single dose, and you survive. If you don’t take it, you don’t survive. It’s as simple as that. It even tastes of candy floss. It has only one side-effect, and that’s a wholly good thing. It increases – increases, mark you – your IQ. Very, very significantly. By about 100 points, in fact. Not only will you be alive; you’ll be a genius beside whom Einstein would have seemed a hopeless retard.’
One more press of the button, and up flashed the logo of the corporation that manufactured HR66. The Boss didn’t think it relevant to mention his shareholding.
‘Naturally’, said the Boss, ‘we have to vote for this in the usual way. Yes, humanity’s facing apocalypse, and there’s one, and only one way out. But we’ve still got to do things properly. But I expect that we can move to a vote now, can’t we?’
‘I’m sure we can’, agreed the Deputy. ‘You’ve all seen the motion. All those in favour….’
The Boss and the Deputy, up on the podium, stared. Everyone else turned. A little man in tweed lisped through a badger’s beard. ‘I’d like some clarification, please.’
‘But of course, Tom’, said the Boss, magnanimous and desperately alarmed. ‘Anything you like.’
No one really knew how Tom had got into the government, or why he wanted to be there. He had no strategically significant connections, no dress sense, no publications other than some monographs on moths and mediaeval fonts, no assets other than a dumpy wife, some anarchic, unwashed children and a small cottage on Dartmoor, and no entries in the Register of Members’ Interests apart from ‘Masturbation’. This entry had caused a terrible storm. He’d been accused of injuring the dignity of the House, but, after expensive legal advice had been taken, it had been ‘reluctantly concluded’ that there was no power to force him to remove it.
‘I’d like to know’, said Tom, ‘who’s going to get the drug. And why them rather than anyone else.’ Continue reading
Epigenetics and Blaming Pregnant Women: Hasty Conclusions, Control, and Simplified Burden of Responsibility
In a recent (13.8.2014) article in Nature , Sarah S. Richardson and colleagues maintain that careless discussion of epigenetic research on how early life affects health across generations could harm women.
Authors discuss the extensive history of placing the burden of responsibility of a child’s health on the lifestyle of the pregnant mother – and the means for controlling women’s behavior. Authors describe how, for example, evidence of any fetal harm easily lead to zero-tolerance regulatory frameworks and severe informal and formal consequences (e.g. social condemnation for an occasional sip of alcohol despite the ambiguous evidence that very moderate and occasional drinking should harm the fetus), and how the “lack of emotional warmth” of the “refrigerator mothers ” was considered to be the reason to child autism as late as the 1970s. Going even more backwards in the history, various defects were attributed, for example, to the company the mother kept during pregnancy.
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Luke Malone has published an extremely moving, disturbing, and distressing article in Medium, entitled ‘You’re 16. You’re a pedophile. You don’t want to hurt anyone. What do you do now?’ (warning: Malone’s article contains a graphic description of child abuse). The article focuses on ‘Adam’, a young man who, aged 16, was horrified to discover that he was sexually attracted to children. Disturbed by his sexual desires, and desperate to avoid acting on them, he suffered depression and initially used child pornography as an outlet for his feelings. (He subsequently stopped doing this.) Adam describes how he eventually went to see a therapist, who was unsympathetic, inexperienced in this area, and ultimately of little help. It turns out that, despite the fact that paedophilia is recognised as a mental disorder, there are major obstacles to helping people who, like Adam, are desperate to avoid harming children. Malone summarises some of the main problems: Continue reading