Wednesday 18 November 2015

Fun with Singer

I'd talked with Peter Singer back in September at the Christchurch WORD festival. Our conversation is now up! I've embedded the audio below, but use the link if it doesn't work. I really enjoyed the event. A few of the highlights:
  • Around the 10 minute mark, I noted the push-back from parts of the NZ NGO community against measurement and testing effectiveness and asked whether that were just a NZ thing. Singer talked about the practical difficulties of measuring effectiveness and the importance of getting the donors onside. NZ's problem's been a bit different: good chunks of the government are on-side, and they're a big donor.

  • At around the 17 minute mark, I proposed setting up a register of effective charities, and shifting their tax treatment such that donors would get a full dollar tax credit for each dollar so-donated rather than just the $0.33. He liked the idea in principle. I like the implication that we shift to letting people direct their donations rather than having the government do it. Singer liked the implication that we would be doing more to help poor people in poor places rather than focusing on relatively poor people in New Zealand who are, globally, relatively rich. 

  • At the 21 minute mark, I followed on more directly: if we could cut funding from New Zealand public health so that the least effective third of what it does were eliminated, with the money going instead to preventing blindness and repairing fistulas in the third world, should we do that? He said he'd push the button to divert those resources. I would too.

  • At the 33 minute mark, I asked Singer about the utility of false beliefs. New Zealand's churches seemed able and willing to step up to help New Zealand take on more refugees than anybody else, really. Altruistic atheists just don't seem to be able to get that kind of coordination. Singer said that there is obviously some utility of that sort, but you need to take it up a level and weigh it against the disutility you get on other parts of the bundle. I think that was a bit of a cop-out because it's easy to specify as thought experiment cases where there are net increases in utility. I pressed him a bit: if I enjoy utility from false beliefs, is that ok? He reckoned it ok so long as it didn't have spillover costs. Into the experience machine we go.

  • At the 39 minute mark, I had my absolute most fun. As best I can tell, free range lamb raised in New Zealand loves having had the chance to exist. Lambs are joyful. They play and frolic and have a bad day at the end, but I'd sooner get to have that existence than no existence. Then, if those who care about animal ethics all flip to vegetarianism rather than eating free-range Canterbury lamb, they do substantial harm. Demand for ethically raised meat drops, so the supply of it drops, and the balance is tipped toward factory farming. By the 42 minute mark, we got to the nub of it. And Singer saw exactly where I was going to push things and so pre-empted it by just laying it out and agreeing. If we take his position on potential children's utility and the ethics of aborting one that would have a less-good life in favour of a later one who would have a better life, then potential beings' utility counts. And once that happens, the lives of potential joyful lambs matter too. Said Singer: 
    "I think that there is a defensible argument for saying that if the purchase of Canterbury lamb is a necessary condition for lambs to have what is for 99% of their existence a really good life and even the bad days are not like a day of being tortured for 24 hours... I do think that that ... would be a defensible diet."
I had a ridiculous amount of fun. Later, at dinner, I had the lamb. He didn't.

Other people got Singer to sign their copies of his book. I got this instead:
Huge huge thanks to the Christchurch WORD festival for letting me have this much fun.

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