Problems with Singer’s line of thinking
The argument itself is not the problem. Rather it is the way of thinking associated with it, which generates a form of “Shallow Pond thinking” which treats the issues of global poverty as simplistic as in the Pond Analogy.
- Transferred to the global context, the analogy neglects the agency of the global poor and their capacity to help themselves, unlike the drowning child.
- In its application, Singer’s view robs global poverty of its varying contexts- which demand different responses.
- The non-existence of institutions in the analogy cannot be transposed into real life, where the acts of doing good could undermine efforts to reform institutions best suited to solving the issues.
- The analogy has a simple, easily quantifiable outcome- saving the child- and this has the implication for doing whatever form of charity is easiest to quantify and measure. Reality doesn’t always match with that. ( To some extent I think this is probably quite true- see the talk about Qalys in the previous article.)
- A Western Saviour complex emerges out of the analogy in portraying the global poor as powerless and the donor as saviours. This runs into 3 problems.
A) Poverty alleviation goes beyond just saving lives, it’s about making small changes that require more than that.
B) It ignores the relationship between the rich of the world and global poverty, i.e. the former have a major role in causing the latter. Viewed through this perspective, it is hardly appropriate to consider oneself a “saviour” when one caused the harm in the first place. C) The underlying paternalistic impulse could actually be damaging to the cause advocated, e.g. through overemphasising the achievements of Western actors at the expense of local efforts.
- Saving the child in the Shallow Pond doesn’t require very much of you to save, and in fact Singer explicates this in various texts. This gives rise to the problem of not acknowledging real concerns and leads to simplistic thinking; all you have to do is give. For example few of the members of GiveWell, an organisation which analyses the efficacy of various charities and is high praised by Singer, have had any experience in on the ground in development or have studied it as a degree.
- The existence of political considerations (absent in the analogy) is a problem which makes attempts to solve poverty inefficacious and unrealistic.
The article could be summarised in a short phrase: “Singer, there’s more you can acknowledge!” Some of the points raised are interesting, and provides food for thought going forward, whilst also acknowledging the positive influences of Singer’s argument.
I think that the reason why all of these concerns are raised to begin with, however, stems not from a problem of Singer’s argument itself but rather from Singer trying to make the argument analogous to solving global poverty, and not just “donating funds in the case of a crisis”. It seems to me that if we choose to talk of alleviating an ongoing crisis right now, then the problem of agency should have no weighting in the discussion as such a crisis does indeed rob those suffering of their agency. Neither do the points about White Saviour complex, or institutions, or simplistic thinking have any relevance insofar as the task is relatively straightforward; humanitarian crises require money over anything else in order to get the basics sorted out and anything beneficial on top of that seems to a luxury we often don’t get.
Thus the author is correct. There has to be much more nuance on Singer’s behalf in trying to apply his 1972 article to eradicating global poverty. Yet the concerns raised don’t seem to be unique to Singer or Effective Altruism, but rather are applicable to overarching approaches to solve poverty in general.