Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Chaos Theory

with 3 comments

I don’t know how much I’m going to be able to say here today.  Yesterday it was some ridiculous kind of hot, and this morning it’s still pretty awful, and my eyes are getting that weird allergy reaction they have every once in a while.  I managed to get my Gregor work done for the day, but now I can barely see.


Let me try to hit the high points.

When I say that what Peter Unger is doing in the book Living High and Letting Die is not philosophy,  I was going by the traditional definition of philosophy:  the application of reason to human affairs.

Philosohy used to include not only what we call philosophy now–metaphysics, ethics, political theory and that kind of thing–but biology, astronomy, physics and chemistry as well.   The earliest studies in all these subjects were areas of philosophy.

But the operative word, I think, has got to be “reason.”  The application of reason to human affairs.  When you tell me logic does not matter and it’s irrelevant to know if any moral precept is “true,”  then I don’t see  how you can be said to be applying reason to human affairs.

I’m saying Unger specifically, and not Singer, because I haven’t read enough of Singer’s stuff to know whether Singer also want to ignore knowledge and an examination of whether moral precepts are true.  In the essay “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” he simply assumes that some things are true–such as that relieving suffering must always and everywhere be our primary goal, that fixing starvation now must supercede any other consideration in a situation where famine exists, and all the rest of it.

I’m not even saying that he’s necessarily wrong about these assumptions–or that he’s wrong about them all the time–but since he gives me no basis for them, I also can’t judge the criteria by which he is determining them.  And “starvation is bad!”–which he actually says at the beginning of that essay–isn’t a criterion.

The thing that did strike me, though, is the extent to which both these men are completely clueless about even basic economics.

Singer does manage to mention in passing that it might be the case that if rich countries gave away 40% of their income every year, it would so damage their economies so that they would actually be sending less money to the poor than they would be if they only sent 25% a year–but then he blows it off by pointing out that they barely send 1% now, so this isn’t anything we have to think about.

If you live in the real world, however, this is something you have to think about, because it applies to individual actions as well as governmental ones.  If everybody did what Unger wanted them to do, for instance–no big house, no nice new car, no vacations, no private schools or colleges for the kids–there would soon be widespread unemployment and a financial crisis at home.

This may be why Unger suggests, in his second to last chapter, that when books are written “for the general public” that promote his plan, they not mention things like such draconian self-privation, since it’s the kind of thing that will put people off, or make them stop listening to you whatsoever.

My guess is that neither Singer nor Unger is really interested in getting the West to send tons of money for famine relief–some, yes, certainly, but nothing like that strip-you-life-down-to-almost-nothing level they both suggest.

My guess is that what both these arguments are really aimed at is property rights–the idea that any of us has the right to own anything beyond what is needed for our basis survival if somebody else somewhere in the world needs it.

I think that’s why both these works concentrate so heavily on disasters in the third world. 

First,  because the first world is now wealthy enough that we hardly need to resort to reducing everybody to penury to ensure that all our citizens have access to the minimal levels of food, clothing and shelter needed to survive.  There are homeless people on the streets of American cities, but they’re not there because you insist on buying Manolo Blahnik shoes.

Second, because the third world is far enough away that most readers will not have access to any detailed information about the conditions there.  Unger dimisses worries about those conditions as “distorted futility thinking,” that is, wrongly imagining that your aid will do no good.

But Saddam Hussein took the food from the oil for food program, meant to keep his citizens from starving, and passed it out to himself and his cronies.  The program did not feed the starving, it just kept a dictator in power longer than he might have been. 

If what we’re actually talking about her is relieving the suffering of starvation, then these kinds of things matter.  In fact, they’re vital.

But once you start investigation them, “the west is bad because it wallows in luxury while the third world starves” looks less and less like a rational assessment of what’s going on in the world.

Finally, there’s that matter of the difference between ordinary and heroic virtue, that I meant to get to yesterday and never did.

Christ gave his life to save Mankind from Hell, according to Christianity, and if we want to be imitations of Christ, then we must push ourselves at least as far as martyrdom for the Church or for our friends.

But no ordinary Christian is required to go so far.  And ordinary citizens are required to go even less far than ordinary Christians.

The  hypothetical both Unger and Singer are enamored of goes like this:  you’re passing along on a road and see a small child drowning in a shallow pond.  If you don’t immediately go and save  him, you’re a bad person.

I don’t think much of anybody would disagree with that assessment–but the law wouldn’t hold you to it.  If you cared more about the state of your dress pants than you cared for saving the child, you would be doing nothing illegal to pass him by and let him drown.

And the assessment does not survive when you up the ante.  If you can only save the life of the child by risking your life, you’re still a better person if you give it a shot than if you don’t, but most people would not actually expect you to do it.

And if you could only save the child by your own certain death, nobody would assessed you as morally bad for not doing it. 

Even on the level of casual, undigested and unthoughtful common opinion–which Unger says is what he’s relying on–the hypothetical would not get Singer or Unger where he wants to go.

And now I thnk I ‘ll go off and call the nursing home to find out about my mother, and listen to music of some kind or the other.

Last night, I listened to Cannonball Adderly before going to bed, and I still think it’s a miracle I got to bed.

Did I ever mention that I like saxophones and trumpets almost as much as I like harpsichords.

I just don’t want to learn how to play those.

Written by janeh

July 25th, 2010 at 8:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Chaos Theory'

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  1. Thank you. That is a useful definition of philosophy and philosophers.

    As for food aid and economics, with a little bad luck, Western famine relief can actually make things worse. Two examples:

    After independence, India had a policy of subsidised food for urban consumers while insisting that all food grown be sold to the state at a fixed low price–and, accordingly, a series of famines. And when people started dying, the US sent food. This went on until LBJ told the Congress Party we wouldn’t play any more. India then permitted farmers to sell food on an open market, and has had no more “natural disasters” of this sort for more than 40 years. Arguably, if an earlier President had taken such a line, thousands or tens of thousands of lives could have been saved–but that would have been less compassionate.

    Current US policy on food aid has been in place for a generation: food aid has nothing to do with international politics, and goes to any country facing famine PROVIDED the food is distributed to all the hungry, and not just to the politically reliable. Someone we can trust has to be able to check. That, and that alone, is why there is famine in North Korea. The US and several other countries stopped sending food when it was only given to Party members. Otherwise, the juche philosophy would “only” have reduced the populace to extreme poverty. But sending food which only went to those loyal to the regime would lock in the worst governments on the planet, and so up the long term body count.

    But this, of course, introduces reason into the subject.

    You may well be right about the political object of the “philosophical” argument. Surely an Aristotle would observe that there is no famine in countries which have strong property rights, and think this relevant. It’s a recurring sub-theme in ATLAS SHRUGGED, too. The moochers always want to respond to the immediate situation, and never to discuss how their policies created the situation.

    Brass and drums for me–which is why so much music composed for stories of adventure.


    25 Jul 10 at 9:45 am

  2. I agree that these philosophers ignore economics. They also ignore logistics. There is a difference between a field of grain and a loaf of bread 1000s of miles from the field. Relieving famine may well require building ports and roads and all the infra-structure necessary to support the transportation.


    25 Jul 10 at 6:35 pm

  3. And if you have to build ports and railroads, the famine will be over, one way or another before you’re done. True. But more often in recent years–meaning the previous century or so–the famine has hit places WITH a decent transportation net–which let the tax collectors take the food out (India, China, Russia) or let the government remove the population from the farms (Turkey, Zimbabwe and Etheopia.)

    And never forget the immortal words of Adm. Ernest King: “I don’t know what this logistics is that Marshal keeps talking about, but I want some of it for the Navy.”


    25 Jul 10 at 8:13 pm

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