Robin Hanson replies to my take on single moms

Now Bryan is clearly right — this is in fact a choice. But Karl is also right — it is a choice made in the face of relatively strong desires. The key question is: how weak do temptations have to be to make the choices they influence unworthy of charity? We feel only weak inclinations to help people who choose poverty, and could easily have chosen otherwise. But we feel much stronger inclinations to help folks who could have avoided poverty only via quite unusual levels of self-control and determination. Where in this spectrum does the temptation to single parenthood lie?

Central to Byran and somewhat shockingly to me – Robin’s – thinking is whether or not the single parents deserve charity.

On Facebook I think Robin framed the question as “how weak do temptations have to be before they make people less deserving of charity”

My clear answer would be that there is no level so low. Human suffering is bad. Reductions in human suffering are good.

Why humans are suffering is of concern to us in knowing when our interventions might be productive but it doesn’t affect whether they are warranted.

In the extreme, take the example of Fred, who is suffering because he constantly turns on the water in his bathtub too hot. When asked why, Fred answer I don’t know, I just do. Hot baths always seem good right before I step in, and then I burn myself.

The key question here are

1) Is there anything productive we can do to help Fred

2) Will our resources be more productive in helping someone else.

However, the seeming absurdity of Fred’s behavior is itself not and issue. It feels like an issue because our sentiments are proxying for (1) and (2). Trying to help someone who could help themself is usually unproductive or at least less productive than trying to help people who can’t help themselves.

However, using our intellect we ought to be able to see through our sentiment and realize that these practical questions are what lie at the heart of it all.

In my mind this is all important because as Bryan can well attest to, for the most part people are born and they are what they are. Importantly, they didn’t ask to be born and they didn’t ask to have the preferences or constraints that they have. This was all imposed on them.

You can’t have a philosophy that blithely imposes life upon people and then ignores the consequences of that imposition.

All that being said, I agree with Robin’s conclusion that helping the global poor has a higher marginal product than helping poor natives. This is why free trade and open immigration are our most powerful anti-poverty tools.

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