Applied Philosophy

This weekend the New York Times magazine has an article by Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, on the subject of philantropy, poverty and ethics.

Singer is known for his position that all human lives have the same value, a position that sounds entirely uncontroversial until one starts to explore its ramifications. Consider for example the case of real estate investor Zell Kravinsky.

Kravinsky gave almost all of his \$45 million real estate fortune to health-related charities, retaining only his modest family home in Jenkintown, near Philadelphia, and enough to meet his family’s ordinary expenses. After learning that thousands of people with failing kidneys die each year while waiting for a transplant, he contacted a Philadelphia hospital and donated one of his kidneys to a complete stranger.

[…] Kravinsky has a mathematical mind — a talent that obviously helped him in deciding what investments would prove profitable — and he says that the chances of dying as a result of donating a kidney are about 1 in 4,000. For him this implies that to withhold a kidney from someone who would otherwise die means valuing one’s own life at 4,000 times that of a stranger, a ratio Kravinsky considers “obscene.”

I have to say that I have never found Utilitarianism convincing (and you don’t want to get an Utilitarian started with his mental experiments), even though I admit that there is hardly any known better premise on which to reason about Ethics.

The article has a lot of interesting information, including the following argument, which I had never seen before in these terms:

Thomas Pogge, a philosopher at Columbia University, has argued that at least some of our affluence comes at the expense of the poor. He bases this claim not simply on the usual critique of the barriers that Europe and the United States maintain against agricultural imports from developing countries but also on less familiar aspects of our trade with developing countries. For example, he points out that international corporations are willing to make deals to buy natural resources from any government, no matter how it has come to power. This provides a huge financial incentive for groups to try to overthrow the existing government. Successful rebels are rewarded by being able to sell off the nation’s oil, minerals or timber.

In their dealings with corrupt dictators in developing countries, Pogge asserts, international corporations are morally no better than someone who knowingly buys stolen goods […]