If Oxfam ran the world
- Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence by Peter Unger
Oxford, 187 pp, £35.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 19 507584 6
The basic life chances of human beings vary dramatically around the world. According to the 1996 Report of the United Nations Development Programme, the life expectancy of a child born today in Sierra Leone is 39.2 years, the life expectancy of a child born in Japan 79.6 years (US 76.1, UK 76.3). In the developing world, daily calorie supply per capita ranges from 3223 in Barbados to 1505 in Somalia. The availability of these calories is not equally distributed in any nation, which means that there are many who suffer acute hunger. In Hong Kong in 1996, 100 per cent of the population had access to safe water, in China 67 per cent, in Haiti 28 per cent, in the Central African Republic 18 per cent, in Afghanistan 12 per cent. These facts suggest that there are big problems of human misery in the world, problems that should be addressed by theories both of personal morality and of global justice.
Peter Unger argues that we are culpably indifferent to this misery, and that our daily thinking about our duty to others is marked by self-serving irrationality. We typically believe that we do have a moral duty to rescue others who are at risk, especially where this can be done without great cost to ourselves. For example, most people would agree that a bystander has a duty to rescue a child who is drowning in a shallow pond (an example originally introduced by Peter Singer). On the other hand, we typically deny that we have a moral duty to send money to save children’s lives at a distance, even though most people could do this with less effort than they would expend in saving the drowning child. This arbitrary distinction between the near and the far, Unger argues, can’t ultimately be supported by any good ethical argument.
So, too, with another distinction we are fond of making to let ourselves off the moral hook: between doing harm and allowing harm to occur. If a trolley-car is about to run over six people and, by flipping a switch, we could divert it onto a track where it would kill only one person, we would no longer feel that inaction was a secure moral refuge (an example introduced by Judith Jarvis Thomson). But this suggests that the ‘out’ we allow ourselves when we fail to do all we can to save people who are dying in poor countries is also irrational and self-serving; for we tell ourselves that we are not doing any harm, we are simply failing to intervene to prevent a harm that is occurring anyhow. Unger’s vigorous investigation of irrationalities in our daily thinking, through these and related examples, suggests convincingly that we owe others far more than we typically think we do.
This, then, is a book on a topic of great importance, written with much moral passion by a skilful and ingenious philosopher. And yet its conclusion suggests that something is amiss. For Unger argues that a relatively affluent person, ‘like you and me, must contribute to vitally effective groups, like Oxfam and Unicef, most of the money and property she now has, and most of what comes her way for the foreseeable future’. Unger’s entire argument about our duty to give aid culminates in this recommendation; so we must take it seriously. Suppose all the people to whom it is addressed followed Unger’s advice: what would the world then be like?
Oxfam and Unicef would suddenly become very rich, receiving both an annual fraction of people’s incomes and significant amounts of their land and other property. Since Unger instructs us to choose these two above other charities such as religious groups and universities, for reasons I shall discuss, those other organisations would become impoverished. Religious groups would no longer maintain the charitable efforts they now support. Many universities and research centres would close their doors, no longer offering future world leaders training in economics, law or the foundations of democracy, and no longer conducting basic scientific research on issues from Aids to agricultural development. Nor would national and local governments be able to maintain such welfare efforts as they now fund, since so much property would have been given away. Within a few years, governments from India to Britain would be in disarray, as Oxfam became the owner of increasing amounts of everything. Although they would retain de jure authority, it is likely that governments would need to turn an increasingly large proportion of their operations over to these organisations (as, even now, NGOs operate the public education systems in some parts of the developing world).
Vol. 19 No. 19 · 2 October 1997
In her review of my Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (LRB, 4 September), Martha Nussbaum notes that I address the reader with the claim that an affluent person, ‘like you and me, must contribute to vitally effective groups, like Oxfam and Unicef, most of the money and property she now has, and most of what comes her way for the foreseeable future’. She refers to this as ‘Unger’s solution’ to the heartbreakingly serious problems plaguing impoverished people in the poorest countries in the world. She tries to reduce this ‘solution’ to absurdity by developing a vision of how the world would be if everyone were to comply with my injunction. Obviously the result would be chaos, as she observes at great length. But this is a bewildering misreading of my work. The injunction she cites was addressed to the conscience of the individual reader in the world as it is – a world in which governments do very little to save dying children in impoverished regions and in which organisations such as Oxfam America, US for Unicef and Care together receive less money from private donations than Harvard University does. The injunction was, of course, conditional on the wholly realistic assumption that even after my book had its full foreseeable effect, this state of affairs would continue: that for the foreseeable future there would be no radical institutional changes, that most affluent individuals would continue to donate next to nothing, or even nothing at all.
My question was: in this actual situation, what should you, a person interested enough to be reading my book, do? My answer: give most of what you have in order to help save children who will otherwise die of preventable disease and malnutrition. The book offers several salient arguments in support of this but not one is so much as mentioned, much less addressed or discussed, in the review.
I never pretended to have articulated a programme for saving dying children by means of co-ordinated collective action at the institutional level. Doubtless it would be vastly more efficient to proceed at that level; and perhaps some day the world will be receptive to rational reforms of the global economic system. But until this Utopian condition prevails, there is much that a single individual can and should do.
Nussbaum also criticises the book for being insufficiently engaged with issues of theory. It doesn’t offer ‘delicate theory-building’, doesn’t explain why we might or might not ‘choose to be utilitarians rather than Kantians’, and fails to say whether our goal should be ‘to maximise the sum of satisfactions … to maximise human functioning and capabilities’ or whatever. But my concern in the book was explicitly not with theory-building, delicate or otherwise. Indeed, the strategy of my work was to avoid drawing my conclusions from all such evidently controversial theories, and instead to show that our own deepest moral beliefs themselves commit us to the costly conclusions for which I argued. It would of course be wonderful to solve all the problems of international distributive justice in a way that is economically rational, culturally sensitive and based on a defensible account of the human good. But my ambitions didn’t extend nearly that far, and it is fantastic that Nussbaum takes me to task for having failed to solve all the relevant problems which, as she notes, many excellent thinkers are working on.
As is indicated in Oxfam America’s latest annual report, Nussbaum and I may well be the two American philosophers who most strongly support that organisation. It’s with considerable sadness, then, that I read her distorted account of my book. Her focus on a fantasy world run by Oxfam is an irrelevant distraction from the serious problems with which Oxfam is concerned.
New York University
Vol. 19 No. 20 · 16 October 1997
Martha Nussbaum writes that Peter Unger’s ‘reliance’ on Judith Jarvis Thomson and me for ‘core examples’ diminishes the originality of his book (LRB, 4 September). Her review shows, however, that she has failed to see where that originality lies. While Unger does start from an old example of mine, as he himself says at the outset, this example and the argument I built on it has – twenty-five years later – left many people unconvinced. Unger extends the example in ways that I never imagined, making the argument infinitely more difficult to escape.
The suggestion that Unger’s originality is diminished by his reliance on examples from Judith Jarvis Thomson is even more startling. A significant body of philosophical literature has arisen around the ‘trolley problem’ devised by Thomson (who, incidentally, got the core example from an article by Philippa Foot). Unger has effectively destroyed this body of literature. Thomson and others who have discussed the trolley problem rely on our common intuitions about a series of cases, and then draw moral conclusions from them. Unger has shown that these intuitions are affected by ethically insignificant factors in the way the examples are framed, the order in which they are presented and so on. No one will ever again be able to defend the use of trolley problem examples – or arguments based on intuitions in specific cases of these kinds – without dealing with Unger’s critique.
Nussbaum does not like Unger’s style. I find it original, amusing and engaging, but I can easily see that some would find it extremely irritating. Less understandable, however, is Nussbaum’s failure to discuss the central arguments of the book she is reviewing. Instead she goes off into a long account of ‘what if everyone did what Unger is suggesting?’ This is transparently irrelevant to his arguments, which are based on the assumption – obviously true for the present and the foreseeable future – that a modest donation to an overseas aid organisation, of the kind that a middle-class person living in a developed country can easily afford, can do a lot towards saving lives. Nussbaum’s argument is on a par with the argument that it is wrong to work late in order to avoid driving home in rush-hour traffic, because if everyone did that, the rush-hour would simply come later. I thought philosophers had long ago understood that the argument cannot be applied in so simplistic a fashion. Nussbaum has missed an opportunity to engage with the argument of one of the most significant works of ethics published this decade.
Vol. 19 No. 21 · 30 October 1997
Peter Singer’s response (Letters, 16 October) to my review of Peter Unger’s book is strange, for he defends the aspects of the book that I praised and says nothing in defence of those that I criticised. I did not hold the non-originality of Unger’s examples against him, I simply pointed it out. I said that Unger’s ‘discussions of the distinction between duties to rescue and duties to aid, and his general diagnosis of irrationalities in our thinking about people at a distance, are both ingenious and cogent,’ and added that ‘Unger is a resourceful thinker who complicates the examples in interesting ways and adds others of his own.’
My complaints against the book lay elsewhere. I objected to Unger’s crude discussion of philosophical method, to his failure to grapple seriously with the arguments of others, to his failure to engage with non-utilitarians or to defend his own narrow utilitarian framework, and, especially, to his total failure to confront institutional and political issues that must be taken account of in any good analysis of duties to aid. I mentioned seven questions, all commonplace in recent political philosophy, that need to be addressed in any such work, and noted that Unger is silent about six of them. The non-addressed questions include such basic ones as: what would a good theory of global justice look like, and how would it describe the basic entitlements of individuals and nations? What should be the goal of our efforts: to maximise the sum of satisfaction? To maximise human functioning and capability? To maximise the access of individuals to certain basic resources? To ensure to as many people as possible a certain basic level of satisfaction, or of capability, or of resources? To maximise the situation (on any of these dimensions) of the least well off? (Those are two of the six.) Unger makes claims that he cannot make plausibly without consideration of such familiar questions.
Unger makes, very seriously, a practical recommendation – we should all give most of what we have to Oxfam – that, if followed, would be disastrous. This fact is hardly irrelevant to the assessment of what he has accomplished. Philosophy of this sort cannot afford to be naive armchair rumination. Irresponsible speculation brings philosophy into discredit in just those circles where good philosophy may possibly do some good (a fact that Singer, a practical philosopher very concerned with fact, must know well). Even when ideal theory is in question, philosophy must confront economic and political realities. Many fine modern writers on international justice and the relief of hunger are aware of this. Unger is not.
University of Chicago