Duties to the (not so) distant

Greetings, friends!

I feel like every time I write, I give an excuse as to why I’m late in writing (perpetually, it seems, at this point). I was thinking about this while getting entranced by some (amazing) jazz at a show last week. I might have also mentioned this already in a previous post. Quite succinctly, I won’t be writing unless I feel that I have something valuable to share – I’d quite like to refrain from what an old english teacher, James Pinto (phenomenal teacher, would absolutely recommend his English 325 class to any U-M students reading this 🙂 ) referred to as ‘navel gazing.’

This past week, two of my classes have wonderfully coincided (not planned) within the topic of ‘foreign aid.’ My introduction to this topic (well, introduction within the realm of these classes) was brought on by Peter Singer and his 1972 paper, “Famine, Affluence, and Mortality.” For an explanation that’s not fully devoid of the philosophy that Singer utilises, you can see the TED talk here. Singer starts out his argument via his ‘drowning child in the pond’ thought experiment: If you were on our way to work, and noticed a child drowning in a pond on the side of the road, you would most likely save the child. This would require that you soak whatever clothes you’re wearing, and that you would probably be late to work. Saving the child’s life (obviously) justifies the inconvenience of getting your clothes wet and being late to work.

Singer frames his argument using this drowning example by saying that if we are witness to undue suffering (e.g. we see a child drowning), and if we have the power to stop that suffering without making sacrifices that put ourselves at an equal or worse undue suffering (e.g. getting our clothes wet by pulling the child out of the water), we ought to (i.e. we have a duty to) stop that suffering. To elaborate, Singer also says that distance or proximity to the suffering that we see neither adds nor subtracts moral imperative to do something about this suffering. Nor does the presence of others (at any number) have an effect on our own responsibility to alleviate this suffering. (Can you see where this is going?)

Using these last two clarifications as leverage, Singer extends his argument to the global realm, saying that we ought to donate any ‘extra’ money to foreign aid (e.g. our favourite charity) instead of using that money to, say, buy a new pair of shoes or a new car. His argument is important because it removes the altruistic nature of charity work. With the framework of altruism, one can refrain from giving to charity and not be at fault, but with Singer’s argument (at least the one he made in 1972 – he’s slightly eased his stance since then), if you refrain from giving to a charity and instead buy a new car, you may be morally at fault.

Singer’s argument has faced ample backlash, in many forms. One of the most prominent ideas presented against Singer is that once we give £200 to our favourite charity, that money never actually reaches those in need, rather the money goes into the hands of corrupt state leaders (look at the case of Equatorial Guinea), or gets lost to the ever-expanding black hole of bureaucracy and administration. Many simply say that Singer’s argument is too simple — he doesn’t consider the context around which aid is given, and he doesn’t know how much aid can actually hurt a country (see this article about “Why Foreign Aid is Hurting Africa”). By giving money to unjust states, are we further perpetuating the injustices that these states commit, casting their citizens into further poverty? Perhaps. However, we still must face the fact that suffering exists – how can we combat the suffering if not with money? (I’ll leave this question here without a complete answer. Some researchers at Oxford came up with the “Multidimensional Poverty Index,” which shows how lack of money isn’t the only thing that contributes to poverty.)

Furthermore, we might realise that the countries that are in worse-off states at this moment did not put themselves there — rather the responsibility for their demise rests completely in the hands of the most wealthy countries today. I was reading a paper that distinguished between the concept of ‘humanity’ and ‘justice’. The former is (this author argued) what Singer’s arguments rests upon, that it is simply inhumane for us to let a drowning child die, and this sort of inhumanity can be expanded to suffering across the ocean. However, to think that we are simply ‘being humane’ (which is not a bad thing at all), implies that we ought to do so because we are good humans (which we should be), but not because we are required to as a matter of justice, or fairness. The ‘humanity’ argument, in this sense, is too weak (in my mind) to ground any sort of requirement that will truly motivate anyone and everyone to work towards ending inequality and suffering (in the global scale). When we change our perspective just a little bit, and consider our duty to alleviate inequality (perhaps by giving aid, or perhaps not) in the eyes of justice, then the duty becomes stronger.

To clarify with an example, take the idea of colonisation – a country with a fair amount of money and resources decides to claim the territory of a far off land as their own. They claim the resources (and oftentimes the very people that live there) as their own, and reap whatever benefits they gain from from that land and people (e.g. harvesting (via slavery) and selling resources like oil or metal). The colonising country then realises (too late, of course), that they probably shouldn’t be doing this sort of thing, so they decide to give the land back to the people from whom they stole the land, and give them independence. This now-free country, of course, is left off in a terrible state, and needs some assistance. The colonising country has even more wealth than it had before colonising this nation, so they decide to use that wealth to loan money out to this struggling, newly-free nation, so long as this new country can pay back whatever aid they have been given.

With this situation, it is clear that some sort of unfairness exists — why would an aid-giving country be giving money to another state from which they had essentially stolen? As a matter of fairness, or fair play, it seems as though we ought to give back the wealth that we have taken from other countries, without any strings attached. Furthermore, with the concept that Rawls calls the ‘veil of ignorance’, we very well could have belonged to the state that had been colonised, and when making a decision based on justice, we ought not to consider the fact that we belong to the ‘rich’ country and not the ‘poor’ one, but simply make the decision as if we didn’t know to which country we belonged. Surely this would require that we compensate, and not give ‘aid’, because ‘aid’ implies charity, not fair redistribution.


I want to leave you with one more concept (of many) that I’ve learned this week about international aid. This comes from some daydreaming in class (two-hour lectures are long!) supplemented by further reading in the matter… I’ve realised that we have been having this entire conversation about aid while attending a top university in London, one of the biggest cities on the world, and that which contains vast amounts of wealth. In other words, we are considering these situations from a vastly privileged point of view. Danger is apparent in this situation, for mistakenly assuming that we (as philosophers, or as engineers (shoutout to the U-M CoE)) know better than anyone how to solve the world’s problems. We face the risk of becoming what William Easterly classifies as ‘planners’. Oftentimes it is those who work in aid who become the ‘planners’, when in reality we are meant to become what Easterly calls ‘searchers’.

Planners think they know exactly what is wrong, and what to do to ‘fix’ the situation (I cannot stress enough how innocently apparent this mentality can be in the young engineer’s mindset). Searchers realise that the world oftentimes contains so many unknowns (even as of yet) that we cannot know the full truth, that we must consult whatever vast amount of possible resources we can in order to fully understand the situation in which we are trying to work. In aid specifically, when the planners come into the scheme, oftentimes doubling as those with the money (perhaps, say, workers from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)), they think that they carry the solution to the problems they see in ‘poor’ countries, and they fail to consult the local views on the matter. (They end up doing much more harm than good by perpetuating problems with their ‘well-thought-out’ solutions.) While I was sitting in class, I realised, why aren’t we consulting, for example, philosophers from Equatorial Guinea when we have spoken so often about the aid situation that deals exactly with that country?

I think two quotes from Easterly’s book, “Reinventing Foreign Aid”, come in handy here. My goal, in a quasi-conclusion, is to become the ‘piecemeal engineer’ in the social setting, to design policy and implementation not considering only my thoughts but local views that will undoubtedly bring us closer to equality and fairness in a grossly unjust society in which we live today.

‘‘The piecemeal engineer knows, like Socrates, how little he knows. He knows that we can learn only from our mistakes. Accordingly, he will make his way, step by step, carefully comparing the results expected with the results achieved, and always on the look-out for the unavoidable unwanted consequences of any reform; and he will avoid undertaking reforms of a complexity and scope which makes it impossible for him to disentangle causes and elects, and to know what he is really doing. Holistic or Utopian social engineering, as opposed to piecemeal social engineering . . . aims at remodeling the ‘‘whole of society’’ in accordance with a definite plan or blueprint.’’

‘‘It is . . . precisely because the authors of the report see economic development primarily as an intellectual or artistic exercise by leaders and governments that they fail to do justice to their examination of existing realities in underdeveloped countries. . . . Development depends not on the abstract national goals of, and the more or less enforced decisions by, a cadre of planners, but on the piecemeal adaptation of individuals to goals which emerge but slowly and become clearer only as those individuals work with the means at their disposal; and as they themselves become aware, in the process of doing, of what can and ought to be done.’’


Some updates for you all – I’m leaving for Birmingham this afternoon to go on a weekend with the Jazz Society! Hopefully I’ll snap some pictures and I’ll get to sharing them here. Classes are going well, too. Some have asked that they see what I’m taking for this term, so here goes:

Global Justice and Health

Politics and Ethics

Health Policy and Reform

Key Principles of Health Economics

(might still audit a course called “Madness”).

I’ve also had some recent developments as to what I want to do for my dissertation, as well as what might be happening after this fellowship finishes up. Alas, these are items for another post!

Much love to you all.

Spill-over Thoughts on Death, Camp Kesem, and Cancer

Dear friends,

I’ve just finished an essay for my Illness module, and I chose to write about death. Specifically, I tried to answer the question, “Is death tyrannical?”

This question was inspired by a short fable written by Nick Bostrom, called The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant, where Bostrom writes mainly about how he views ageing to be the fictional dragon-tyrant of his story. I took the metaphor a little further and asked myself if death itself could be tyrannical. I thought I would have enough space within the word limit to work in most of my thoughts, however I was surprised as to how little space I ended up having. Hence, I had some spill-over thoughts that didn’t make it into my essay, but I thought were worth sharing.

I won’t bore you with what I ended up writing on for the actual essay, but there was one topic I wanted to write about for which I couldn’t find a good spot, and that is my time with Camp Kesem. I have written about camp in an older post, but I don’t think I devoted too much time to explaining the matter. In short, so you don’t have to go back to that post, Camp Kesem is a student-run organisation that provides a week-long summer camp for kids whose parents have been affected by cancer. The kids go free to camp, and the counselors raise the money necessary to put on a fun-filled week of camp. We use this time to let the kids get away from their lives at home, to be the centre of attention, and to give them a second family to turn to in good times and in bad. A fun little quirk about this camp is the fact that we all go by fake names – my name’s Spice, and there are names ranging from Gumbo, to Private Hurley, to High Ballistic Squid, to Snoopy, and Bud… We just like to have fun, I guess.

Naturally with a camp hosting kids who have all had to experience cancer in their lives, it’s not uncommon for a camper to have lost one or both of her parents to this malady. These kids have to deal with death at an age when they have absolutely no reason nor necessity to think about what death means to them. This forced encounter with mortality is but a nightmare for some kids, especially when they’re old enough to have been able to fully, autonomously loved their parents, yet young enough to not know why they only come home to one parent after school. Perhaps it may be that all they can feel is sadness, and when that sadness is not justified in any way, but only hurts so deeply as what a lost loved one can cause, this child may feel total agony.

In Bostrom’s fable, there comes a time when a little boy shows up at a town hall meeting, where the meeting is in place to discuss what the society should do with the dragon-tyrant who keeps killing people daily. Some say that the dragon should stay, because having the dragon (ageing) in this society is an unfortunate yet necessary, defining part of humanity. But the boy has a different opinion, as shown in this excerpt:


“I want my granny back,” said the boy.

“Did the dragon take your granny away?”

“Yes,” the boy said, tears welling up in his large frightened eyes. “Granny promised that she would teach me how to bake gingerbread cookies for Christmas. She said that we would make a little house out of gingerbread and little gingerbread men that would live in it. Then those people in white clothes came and took Granny away to the dragon… The dragon is bad and it eats people… I want my Granny back!”


Oftentimes, we may feel angry at death because it may be so cruelly ripping away our loved ones from our lives, when we mean to make plans with them, when we hope for a future together. This is so utterly painful, especially when those who death takes from us have not completed what we believe to be the proper ‘shape’ of a life (e.g. when a child outlives her parents).

As is the state of biomedicine, we don’t have yet the technology that can stave off death forever. Hence we have to come up with some way to console ourselves in learning how to cope with this inevitability. Some turn to religion, others to philosophy, some simply turn to a community such as Camp Kesem.

In the middle of the week at camp, we have a day that’s called “Empowerment,” where the campers and counselors alike get to share their experiences with cancer. This day tends to lead to a lot of self-reflection, bonding, and shed tears. Of course, if a family member dies, we are totally justified in missing them, in crying over them, in being angry or emotional as to why they may have had to leave our lives early. Death of a family member terribly, utterly sucks. (There’s no place for an elegant word in the former sentence.)

I was trying to figure out, then, how to find some sort of good in death, or some sort of way to lift anyone up who has lost a parent, grandparent, or other loved one to cancer. Where is the good in death? Perhaps, I thought, when death is inevitable, it allows us to cherish who we’re with for the time we’re with them. But when they leave us, we feel a giant void in our lives that should be filled by one person only, who cannot ever come back to fill that void.

When mourning the loss of a loved one, we look for them, and they are nowhere to be (physically) found. However, we forget to look in one of the most important places we could look, which is inside ourselves. Genetically speaking, we are literally half of each of our parents, but moreover, we forget that we are, in some aspect, a representation and embodiment of what came before us. Our parents are as much a part of us as we are a part of them (as hard as that may be for some readers to realise or believe). So at Empowerment, I felt compelled to remind my fellow campers and counselors alike – that no matter how much we miss our parents, they’re still with us, within ourselves.

Here’s where I believe the tyranny of death doesn’t reach: after death, humans tend to show up in other things around them (this sounds creepy but it shouldn’t), whether it be a piece of music they composed, something they wrote, or, most importantly, their kin and their friends. The beautifully innate social nature of humans tends to be exemplified in death, and I believe that this is at least some sort of good, some sort of freedom, that we can find through experiencing death in our lives.