Saturday, July 09, 2005

L&S: Of Drowning Babies and Starving Vampires

James just recounted Peter Singer’s parable of the drowning baby. Short version: you’re walking across campus and you see an infant lying face down in a shallow pool. Most people have a moral intuition that one should rescue the infant. Doesn’t this imply (the argument goes) the existence of positive moral obligations or positive rights?

The parable is rather famous, and I referred to it obliquely in my article, “The Political Economy of Non-Coercive Vampire Lifestyles,” forthcoming in the volume The Undead and Philosophy. The article asks what implications follow from treating vampires as possessing moral personhood. Here’s the key bit that invokes Singer’s drowning baby parable:
If a pint of blood could save the life of a human child, while causing the donor only temporary weakness, the moral correctness of the sacrifice would hardly be in doubt. With vampires on equal moral footing with humans, a similar sacrifice would be justified to save a vampire child.

But isn’t there an important difference between the obligation to help a particular individual in danger, e.g., by rescuing a child drowning in a shallow pool, and the obligation to help many anonymous people on a regular basis, e.g., by making frequent donations to UNICEF? Singer and Unger both argue otherwise, contending that the two scenarios are morally equivalent, or at least similar. Both affirm a simple principle: “If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we ought to do it.” That principle, when applied to the vampire dilemma, would mandate regular contributions of blood to vampires in need.

The claim is not just ethical, but also political; for while voluntarism might be nice, it is not necessary in the welfarist mindset. Both Singer and Unger affirm that full implementation of their principle would mandate massive increases in government aid to foreign nations to abate starvation and disease. … But the same principle that justifies massive aid to needy humans in foreign countries also justifies massive aid to needy vampires at home. Both blood and money donations meet the requirements of Singer and Unger’s principle, so long as the amounts donated per capita aren’t too large. We could easily imagine Blade-style mandatory blood banks as the logical implication of welfarist policy if we accept the notion of vampire personhood.
Interestingly, part of James’s response to the drowning baby parable relied on the difficulty of implementing the principle when the demands are too great – e.g., when one encounters a whole field of drowning babies.


Anonymous said...

I do believe in foreign aid but not in the "feed the starving masses" way. More schools need to be set up to educate and train the hapless people around the world so that they can fend for themselves with skills demanded by a capitalistic world. Capital needs to be provided for entrepreneurs and small business people at initially low interest rates so new businesses can get a toehold. It is that old story about teaching a man to fish as opposed to feeding him a fish to stave off hunger for a day. You forget that lesson at your own peril. You Libertarians denigrate Johnson's Great Society programs, but poverty reached an all time low in this country. I also say spend many more millions to teach and offer birth control to those people who can't afford to feed and clothe themselves let alone properly care for a baby. Societies are act foolishly to leniently allow kids to be born to mothers who can't even afford to pay the obstetrician and maternity ward costs. Nobody gives you a car for free neither should you expect a "free" baby. And is it fair to children to malnourish them and give them no prospect for a decent life? Bte, what are you going to do after you rescue the drowning baby from the puddle? Adopt it? I don't mean to be cruel, but I'd rather have a pet poodle, make that a collie than some brain-damaged infant.

Ben said...

Hum, the vampire analogy is obviously flawed. Vampires are predators to human beings while babies and third world citizens are not. There are clear drawbacks in making your predators subsist. For the same reason that it is considered OK to kill your enemy in war even though he is human, it is reasonable to keep your blood to yourself when it comes to help vampires.

Glen Whitman said...

Ben -- you'll need to read the rest of the paper to see why I disagree. But the short version is that it *is* possible for vampires and humans to live together non-coercively. Vampires need humans to live -- but then again, so do I. If it weren't for farmers growing food and selling it to me, I'd die. The libertarian alternative to the mandatory blood-bank is the voluntary blood-brothel.

Ben said...

Maybe it is just because I haven’t RTFA but I can’t stop being suspicious of the choice of vampire when I can easily think of other possible roles to the main character of the metaphor. I guess I would be more convinced if you would provide a character for which we don’t have other reasons to leave to perish. To me “treating vampires as possessing moral personhood”is either imposible or requires that we think of them as “people with medical need of blood transfusions”. Wouldn’t it be more honest to use this definition instead, thus getting rid of the negative vampire connotation? I think the metaphor depends on the stigma of the vampire and the stigma requires that the vampire not have moral personhood. Using a stigmatic personage while asking to modify in our head, the characteristic that makes it stigmatic is contradictory.

Glen Whitman said...

Ben -- the whole first section of the paper (which I realize you haven't had the chance to read) makes the case for vampires' moral personhood.

As for why I've chosen to use vampires... well, the vampire part came first. I wanted to write a paper for the Undead and Philosophy volume, and watching Buffy had gotten me thinking about the possibilities for peaceful human-vampire coexistence. If I'd left out the vampires, the paper wouldn't have been part of the book.

Also, the thrust of the article is to argue *against* the stigmatization of vampires, and to suggest that a libertarian system makes such tolerance more likely.