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Haiti at Fault

February 18, 2010

At the risk of alienating my meager audience, I have to laud Peter Singer for his excellent article in The Guardian calling out our misconceived sense of self-worth after shelling out billions for Haiti.  His argument focuses on one of my favorite topics: misperceived (or not perceived at all) opportunity costs.

Why do people give generously to earthquake victims, but not to prevent the much larger number of deaths brought about by extreme poverty, insufficient food, unsafe water, lack of sanitation, and the absence of even the most basic healthcare?

Media saturation obviously makes a critical difference. Scenes from Hurricane Katrina, the Asian tsunami, and now the Haitian earthquake were shown over and over again on all television news broadcasts. An earthquake in a remote part of Pakistan that killed 80,000 people received relatively little television coverage, and a much less generous response. The daily deaths of children in poor countries from diarrhea, measles, and malaria are part of the background of the world we live in, and so are not news at all.

Though I don’t always agree with Singer, I do love his philosophical style.  I may not agree that human beings have the faculty or responsibility to go beyond their own individual interests, but I can recognize that he did provide the first compelling reason to consider the ethics of non-humans by surpassing the self-interest implicit in the notion a “universal maxim.”(1)  I may not agree that a group demand for some justification or reason for one’s actions provides a compelling ethical responsibility, but there lies deep wisdom into how thinking beings operate: with concern for how they are viewed by other thinking beings.(2)

Most relevant to disaster relief, I fully agree with his assertion that people tend to ascribe fault or exculpate the culpable on the basis of whether they could see themselves in the sufferer’s position (a natural and somewhat useful evolutionary tactic, in my estimation).

Perhaps people respond more generously to the victims of natural disasters than they do to those in extreme poverty because, after a natural disaster, we tend not to blame the victims. We seem to accept that to be struck by an earthquake, a tidal wave, or a hurricane is just bad luck (unless, as the American evangelist Pat Robertson suggested after the Haitian earthquake, your ancestors made a pact with the devil in order to free themselves from colonial rule).

Still, many people profess to believe that poverty is the result of not working hard enough, or of having too many children. But the circumstances that produce extreme poverty are not, except in rare cases, under the control of such poor people. They may be, to some extent, under the control of governments, and undoubtedly bad government is a major contributor to poverty. But then, bad government can also contribute to the toll exacted by a natural disaster.

Two years ago, a team of geophysicists led by Eric Calais of Purdue University predicted that the fault that produced the recent Haitian earthquake was at high risk of doing exactly what it did. They urged the Haitian government to take steps to strengthen critical buildings, including hospitals and schools. Failure to do so contributed to the toll.

Again, we all can identify with being subjects of bad governance–an external and “uncontrollable” force–and therefore forgive the sufferers, while shake our collective fists the anonymous force that produced and contributed to the suffering.  And to some extent, that’s precisely what we should do.  In that vein, there’s one more step that pragmatists and universal moralists alike an agree with:

10% of the money raised by relief efforts should be set aside for mitigating damage from future earthquakes: training builders, improving engineering, and making the public more aware of the risks and how to reduce them…every $1 invested in preparing for natural disasters saves $10 in future damage.

Such a proposal blames government prospectively, while mitigating the suffering that will be experienced by the humans who individually have little control over what their governments do (even if such individuals were in favor of every proposition that contributed to their collective suffering).

On the other hand, the problem of the general blame-shifting tactic may be that it is subject to extreme political abuse where politics itself is the problem, especially when part of the polity has an excess of experience pinning the tail on the donkey.


(1) See Practical Ethics, Animal Liberation.

(2) See The Expanding Circle.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Curtis permalink
    February 20, 2010 1:32 am

    Couldn’t the reason for increased giving be more the concrete nature of the problem? As in, the earthquake/hurricane/tidal wave caused X amount of damage, or knocked over such-and-such building, or is depriving Y of food. The nature of “extreme poverty” does not give rise to a causal connection. We have no reason to think our money will go toward anything that won’t simply become a problem again tomorrow, whereas with natural disasters, we think (rightly or wrongly) that our money will make a difference in people’s lives for days/months/years to come.

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