Two weeks ago, I suggested that Peter Singer erred by suggesting that “economic development is impeded more by a lack of appropriate motivation than a lack of appropriate knowledge and incentives.” I predicted that he’d be due some grief from Bill Easterly. Such is the power of Trade Diversion that that has now come to pass in the pages of the Wall Street Journal:
Suppose you see a small child drowning in a pond. If you save him you will ruin your expensive suit. Do you save him? Of course you do. Now think about the world’s extremely poor children who are going to die unless you give enough to a charity designed to help them, such as Unicef or Oxfam. Do you save them? Not often enough. In “The Life You Can Save,” Peter Singer argues that the two situations are ethically equivalent. Such immediacy is compassionate and inspirational — you want to give more after reading Mr. Singer.
Unfortunately, there are several differences between these two situations. The most important is that you know exactly what to do to save the child, whereas it is not at all clear that you (or anyone else) knows exactly what to do to save the lives of poor children or how to get them out of extreme poverty. Another difference is that you are the one acting directly to save the drowning child, whereas there are multiple intermediaries between you and the poor child — an international charity, an official aid agency, a government, a local aid worker.
The full review goes into more details, but Easterly’s argument is simply that Singer doesn’t address these two problems adequately to compellingly show that greater giving is a moral obligation akin to saving a drowning child.