Rational culture of benevolence (was Ethics, responsability...)

Arjen Kamphuis (mountain@knoware.nl)
Sun, 22 Mar 1998 04:38:35 +0100 (CET)

At 07:45 21-03-98 EST, GBurch1 <GBurch1@aol.com> wrote:
>Back in the dim mists of pre-history (two weeks ago) Lee Daniel Crocker and
>Arjen Kamphuis were discussing what to me seemed to be the merits of
>philanthropy, "altruism" and "volunteer work" in the third world. For
>instance, Arjen posited that "one has a moral responsibility to minimize
>suffering" and Lee wrote that "It would be a sin for you to throw away your
>skills to go playing in the third world unless that's actually where your
>skills are . . . [C]omparative advantage will put people where their skills
>make the most difference--and therefore, money," making the point that most
>volunteer work seemed to be little more than wasteful, ineffective gestures.

I'll agree that the effectiveness of foreign aid may leave something to be
desired (understatement), but saying that you should be in the place where
you make the most money is (IMHO) a simplification. The amount of revenue
generated primarily tells you something about how value is perceived by
people who already have a very high standard of living and control over
many resources.

My customer may be willing to pay an enourmous amount for an advice that is
sometimes simply common sense (IMO), while getting finance for low-tech
improvements that can save several lives per year in a small community can
be very hard. By reducing the problem to a purely economic one you are
saying that $10.000 spent on preventing some manager looking foolish in
front of his peers is somehow better than half that ammount spent on basic
medicine simply because the manager is in a position to pay and most
Africans are not.

I always was thought that judgements as to what is 'better' were way beyond
the reach of economics.

>The first
>is "Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence" by David
>and the second (mentioned in another post by me this morning) is "How the
>Works" by Steven Pinker.

// snipped a lot of good writing //

I'll have to get hold of those books somehow, and some time to read them ;-)

>This analysis bears out Lee's observations. Rendering aid to the starving
>be the "right" thing to do in a selfish way, but doing it in the most
>EFFECTIVE way is also the most rational thing to do.


>A first-world kid who
>has never wielded a hammer, floundering around trying to
>build a school in Zambia, may well be a waste.

Or it may be a very educational experience of a type 1st-world universities
don't offer. Down in the mud you learn a lot about organizing projects and
effecient usage of (very limited) resources. But most of all you can learn
to keep yourself and others going under difficult circumstances.

Most '1st-world kids' don't do the actual hammer wielding of course but
contribute their western knowledge or academic skills (that is, if they are
serious about their aid). The people living in third-world countries are
perfectly capable of digging a canal, designing a integrated irrigation
system however may be beyond their capabilities (not suprising since many
of them never had the opportunity to master reading and writing).

>A skilled carpenter's donation of a season of
>such work, though, may well be perfectly rational, as would
>supporting that effort with a donation of capital by the first-world kid,
>whose talents are more effectively employed as a computer programmer.

I won't argue that the kid will become a better programmer through these
kind of experiences but there's more to life than pumping C++ code. A
change in environment, broadening her/his horizon might make for a
stronger, self-sufficient and more balanced person. The effectiveness of an
employee in the function of programmer is only partly due to his/her
programming abilities, being able to teamwork and function under stress are
just as important.

>Employing this analysis, one can distinguish between empty gestures and
>meaningful participation in a rational culture of benevolence.

As long as we try to take 'the full picture' into account and not just the
dollars that our bookkeepers can track down; Agreed ;-)

> "Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must
> be driven into practice with courageous impatience."
> -- Admiral Hyman G. Rickover


Arjen Kamphuis | "Here Be Dragons", read the ancient maps
mountain@knoware.nl | in all the white spots that seemed large
enough to hold the fabled creatures.

let's go dragon hunting.

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