White Privilege in Miniature, Research Time, 28/09/2016

I wrote last week about the Shallow Pond Problem. It’s a common problem in contemporary moral philosophy – a seemingly straightforward way to apply abstract principles to large, complicated political issues.

That’s what you want philosophy to do, right? Take complicated practical matters to the most abstract level, where you can apply simple concepts and arguments to the problem and get clear answers for intractable problems. 

Looks innocuous, doesn't it. But don't be fooled by its simplicity. Or
maybe I should say, don't let yourself prefer the simple.
The Shallow Pond goes like this. You’re wearing an expensive suit while walking past a shallow pond. In the pond, you see a child drowning. Obviously, the ethically correct decision is to wade into the pond and rescue the kid. It ruins your suit, but ruining your suit is acceptable collateral damage for saving a child’s life.

That’s the simple setup. Here’s the application to complex real-world problems. Because your slight sacrifice (wrecking your suit) is obviously a worthwhile price for a great good (saving a drowning child), then your slight sacrifice (donating all you possess but a subsistence income) is obviously a worthwhile price for a great good (donating it all to charities that provide live-saving care to the desperately poor).

I've known professional moral philosophy academics who find this argument seriously compelling. Peter Singer first put forward the argument in a professional philosophy journal, but it’s inspired other philosophy professors to become activists / lobbyists on behalf of global poverty relief.*

* Though like most human projects, corruption and hypocrisy have followed. 

How effective those projects actually are at work doesn’t undercut the moral imperative, which is entirely conceptual. 

From the first time I heard the argument, I had deep suspicions about it. But I couldn’t always put my finger on it. I think back to my earlier days in the academy, and I remember one common factor in all these times that I felt suspicious of a straightforward, clear argument. But I couldn’t argue against it myself because I couldn't root my suspicions in reasons. It was just a feeling at the time.

I learned how to explain and understand my suspicions as reasons when I learned one deceptively easy way to argue against such seemingly obvious conclusions. It’s deceptive, because I don’t think a lot of folks realize how easy it is to undercut an obvious conclusion.

He's a good writer in that he can easily suggest complex ideas in very
simple writing, but I want Appiah to dive into the complexity!
I know he can.
Cut up the premises.

Last time I talked about Kwame Anthony Appiah’s arguments around the Shallow Pond, I did it in a spirit of disappointment. Because it was an annoying example of the academic’s mistake – considering replies to others’ objections to your ideas as actual elaborations of your idea.

I wanted to read cosmopolitan moral / political attitudes and principles in application to policies and examples, or work through other social problems with a cosmopolitan lens. I wanted to see the idea become complex, not defend itself against arguments that are from a whole other world.

And I mean that seriously. There are many ways you can divide philosophical thinking into categories. However many ways you feel like splitting them up, however many principles you can think of for categories. 

But for the same of understanding what I (and Appiah too) think of approaches like the Shallow Pond problem, let’s think of methods and goals. Two categories of philosophical thinking:
1) Simplifying complex problems to develop obvious, straightforward answers.
2) Developing concepts adequate to real-world problems, so we can better understand very complex situations.
I don’t consider simplifying complex problems as a sensible way to live. Thinking that complex problems always have easy answers gets people into ridiculously horrible messes. 

That's really all Appiah’s response to the Shallow Pond problem is. Incredulousness. Do you really think you can solve world poverty by throwing money at it? It seems like you can, but in a world as complex as ours, everything short of real systematic change is nothing but a patch that falls away after a while.

Speaking of global transparency and corruption, Trump-connected
consultant Paul Manafort is only the most recently-visible one of
literally tens of thousands of people who become multi-millionaires
skimming the money from the activities of massively corrupt
national leaders and wealthy businessmen around the world.
Look at one project in Pogge’s Global Justice Program – advocacy for global financial transparency to stop illicit financial outflow from poor regions of the world. Whether through outright corruption or corporate tax cheating, more than a trillion dollars leaves the holdings of local economies in poor regions of the world. Ending global poverty has a simple answer – keep that money in the local region.

But think about what you’d have to do to achieve that. Yes, you can build a system of international law and well-funded international agencies to support it. Yes, you can advocate for laws against such financial chicanery in the countries most victimized, and local agencies that enforce those laws.

You also have to change global corporate culture so that people don’t naturally gravitate to behaving as tax cheats and money launderers in the first place. So that everyone in the culture feels shame when they fail to pay taxes or pay their hosts and collaborators their fair share. 

Donald Trump bragged that not paying his taxes and stiffing his business partners made him a smart businessman. He’s an ordinary part of an international business culture where this stance is also ordinary. Imagine what you’d have to do to change that entire culture.

So yes, the statements are easy. But understanding what it would take to achieve them is tremendously difficult. How to build airtight laws, how to shepherd those laws through the legislatures of many different institutions and governments (which requires understanding the cultural, moral, and political dynamics of billions of people), how to isolate a moral principle in a society and develop activist techniques to push that principle out of popular favour.

Thinking complicated problems are easy to solve because stating the solution is itself easy. It's a key sign that you haven't dealt with very many actually complex problems in your life. If you want a definition of white privilege that won't get anyone's ethnic hair up on their backs, explain it in this abstract way.

The statements are easy. But the world is complex. I prefer to work in the thought that adapts us to the complex. We can get the work done that way.

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