Monday, March 09, 2009

First World as problem

It turns out that the brilliant idea I had to study nineteenth century French Jews is both futile and immoral. This fits well with this week's theme on WWPD: guilt, or the Humorless Age. (An unappetizing-looking recipe for kale soup is now #8 on the NYT most-emailed list, down from spot #1.)

So. Peter Singer - who, disclaimer, has obviously written more and about more than will be covered in this blog post - argues that "we should give a lower priority to areas of study that have no obvious connection with world poverty or with, say, climate change or avoiding war or, indeed, with any similarly large and pressing problem." This means, he writes, that subjects like "Italian Renaissance art" - presumably this goes for representations of Jews in French novels - need to be shelved as subjects in academia, since "we live in a world in which 27,000 children die every day from preventable causes," and these endeavors do not solve the problem.

On the one hand, I already feel guilty about bad-mouthing seasonal, leafy vegetables, so why not add on a bit more guilt? On the other, I'm not quite ready to agree that the humanities are the root of all evil. So, possible counterarguments:

-Is a lack of Western funds the main obstacle to solving the world's problems? Some would disagree. I don't know enough about the topic to weigh in, but it seems worth looking into.

-Of the offending fields, Singer specifically singles out "art, languages, history, mathematics, or philosophy." Are humanities students (along with mathematicians) the ones who need to be redirected, more than those studying business, PR, or sports management, not to mention all the sciences not directly or even indirectly intended to save the children? What skills does he imagine the expert in Renaissance art has that would be especially useful in solving world poverty, such that he must switch majors? (Or, dare I ask, is Singer's plan that humanities students, whose skills are perhaps not transferable, simply lose funding or not go to college in the first place, and instead get envelope-stuffing-level jobs in do-gooder fields?)

-People come about solving problems through all kinds of ways. Had Singer never studied philosophy and read the Great Books, he might not have become an advocate for solving the world's Great Problems. Restricting learning to a few disciplines, and redirecting those fields entirely towards humanitarian crises, will alienate all but the most naturally do-gooder students, anyone whose curiosity lies elsewhere when they are 18 and deciding what subjects might interest them. All kinds of students who would not have thought about Great Problems might come to think about them from studying all kinds of subjects. (Studying French literature turned me into a Zionist, so who knows what education will do!)

-For Singer, luxury refers not just to $1,000 handbags and $200,000 cars, but also to buying a bottle of water (Key Food seltzer, say) when tap water would have done just fine. Yet - and on this point, all credit goes to Jo - if we all dropped everything and gave all the money we spend on "luxuries" to charity, the US economy would collapse more than is already the case. This would make it awfully difficult for the manager of the local Key Food to save starving children in Africa, what with his having lost his own job, what with no one buying more food than necessary for subsistence.

Singer almost addresses this argument when he writes, "Living luxuriously, it is said, provides employment, and so wealth trickles down, helping the poor more effectively than aid does. But the rich in industrialized nations buy virtually nothing that is made by the very poor." Again, if he defines as a luxury every purchase beyond gruel and sack-cloth, it's hard to imagine how Singer thinks first-world economies would still have enough money to give after about five minutes under his plan. It's not that buying a cappuccino benefits the very poor through trickle-down economics because the world's poorest necessarily work in coffee production. It's that if no one in the States bought anything, ever, how would we have anything to give? Is 'first world' some essential quality, one that would persist even if all incentives to earn money disappeared? Perhaps not.

-Finally, Singer's fundamental argument - that charity must come first, because who, if faced with a starving child, would hand over their extra cash to fund a wing of a museum - tugs at the heartstrings, but ignores a good part of why the rich want to see improved conditions for the poor. If by 'life' what was meant was simply basic nourishment and an end to preventable death, it's fair to say that excitement about life all around - and not just in the first world - would deteriorate. Is it more important for Person A to have a shot at life than for Person B to enjoy an opera or an Apatow? Put like that, it seems simple, but much of what motivates charity work is the sense that one is lucky to live as one does (thus 'First World Problems') - once even the littlest luxuries are banished, that sense is likely to be greatly diminished.

But it isn't even just about luxuries in the sense of lattes, movies, and such. If I understand the argument correctly, devoting one's life or donations to any cause outside of Singer's list of core issues means acting immorally. So if you spend your days trying to end racism, fighting to legalize same-sex marriage, or anything else one might call a 'do-gooder' job, but that does not feed the children, it's as good as pedicures and flat-screens. The well-meaning ladies who provided 655 comments to a Jezebel post entitled "How Do We Solve The Plus-Sized Clothing Crisis?" - sample sentence from post: "While Gap often stocks up to size 20, is the brand still relevant (is there anything you'd want to buy)?" - might, according to the Singer line of thought, want to rethink their understanding of the word "crisis." P.S.: what's wrong with the Gap? Is that not where the young people shop? I plead ignorance.

So, long story short, let the self-flagellation begin.


PG said...

I am a little puzzled as to why you are taking an act utilitarian like Singer so seriously. As he demonstrated by putting his Alzheimer's-afflicted mother in a fancy nursing home instead of politely euthanizing her and sending the money to Bono, even Singer doesn't take himself that seriously. (Though he does dress horribly enough that I believe he isn't spending his money on new clothes, even from the Gap.)

Anyway, if one takes Singer's positions all together, the best thing to do is not donate your money to relieving hunger, but to setting up as many Planned Parenthood clinics in Africa as possible, where they can insert IUDs and perform abortions so that the minimum number of wretched are born in the first place. If life is just for the avoidance of suffering, why not prevent the suffering as early as possible?

Withywindle said...

Incidentally, how many non-novels are you reading, to get a sense of how many of the changes are within the novel genre, and how many are part of general changes in newspapers, poems, essays, etc.?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Responding to the Singer piece was meant just to be part of the blog's Humanities Anti-Defamation theme. But it's tough to discuss just that piece without delving into his whole philosophy, or what I could gauge of it after Googling him and reading a couple of his articles.


So far it's mostly been non-novels, newspapers especially, although for the time period I'm looking at, there was plenty of fiction in newspapers.

PG said...

Did you read his infamous Nerve article on bestiality? It's Singer's no-actually-don't-take-me-seriously piece, like Posner's "Wouldn't it be better to sell babies than to abort them" article, except Singer's arguing "Wouldn't it be better to have sex with animals than factory farm them?"

Anonymous said...

Don't give up, whatever some head "in the wrong place" philosopher says. Your thesis could hardly be more esoteric than "Initial boundary value problems for hyperbolic systems of conservation laws" ("hyperbolic" does not mean "exaggerated").

I assume you went to graduate school because you were interested in the subject, not because you wanted to get rich. Live in the moment. Nobody knows what the job market will be like in two years.