Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Distance Matters

The issue of proximity in terms of moral responsibility is an important one. In his essay Famine, Affluence and Morality Peter Singer puts forth the argument that in the modern, globalized world because we are able to have knowledge of events around the world, and because we can be in contact with people in areas affected by events such as famine who know what should be done to mitigate the harms done by said events, we cannot use proximity as an excuse for inaction. This is problematic because the issue of proximity is more than just an issue of knowledge, it is also an issue of getting the resources to those who need it, and distance always increases the amount of resources needed to get the aid to those who need it. Thus, as long as there is harm which can be mitigated at a close proximity we are morally bound to mitigate that harm first because our mitigating attempts will be more successful.

Singer argues that both the knowledge of global developments and the ability to give money to those in the region who know how to deal with the problem expand our moral duties. While this is true in the abstract it is not true practically speaking. The issue of knowledge is the first problematic aspect of his argument. Assuming that we have knowledge of a harm occurring does not mean that we have knowledge of how to mitigate said harm. Singer seemingly deals with this issue by referring to people in the region who do know methods of mitigating the harm, but this presupposes that we know which people in the region know the correct way to mitigate the harm. By supposing that a specific organization in the region has a better handle on the situation we are making a moral decision based on faulty epistemic assumptions. These events general occur in far flung regions of the world and in cultures quite different from ours. While I personally have more than a passing knowledge of the famine in East Bengal I would still be at a loss as to say which organization would best allocate my funds. This is however not the case for local organizations dealing with hunger in the Bay Area. Because of my proximity to harms in the Bay Area and my knowledge of the groups dealing with the problems I can make an informed decision on where to best put my resources.

Some may argue that even if this is true we still have a moral duty to give because anything will help more than nothing. Again, this is problematic. To use Singer’s example, imagine I am walking by a pond and see a child drowning, I have a moral duty to save the child if I can do so “without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance.” But imagine further that I am between two pond, one but ten feet away and one two hundred feet away. In the pond nearest me there are five children drowning and I know where lifejackets which could save them all. In the far pond there are ten children drowning and a man who tells me he knows how we can, together, obtain lifejackets to save some number of the children. If I help the children in the closer pond then I can save all the children in the close pond, but I do not know how many children in the far pond will be saved, but I know it will be less than if I help. However, if I help the children in the far pond, I know that the children in the close pond will die, and I still do not know how many of the children in the far pond will ultimately be saved. This is a result of the fact that I must first get to the far pond, thus expending some of my resources, my energy and my time, thereby lessening the efficacy of my help.

Singer’s essay deals with issues in the real world, not simply at an abstract level. In the real world there are harms which I can mitigate in my own community, many just as bad, if not to as great an extent. Because of this by giving money or other resources to mitigate far off harms I am necessarily sacrificing something of comparable moral value and doing less good than I could have otherwise by mitigating harms closer to me.

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