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Back to Teaching First Year Philosophy: "Don't tell me about my affluence and imperialist privilege you stupid philosophy instructor!"

The school year has started up again and, lucky enough to have found some contract work, I am back teaching undergrads about philosophy and trying very hard not to sound like a jaded academic.  The best thing about teaching undergraduates is that you get to see how "common sense" morality and capitalist ideology is still a significant filter in the way they approach theoretical concepts… and if you're lucky enough to succeed in getting a few of them to question these assumptions, you sometimes end up learning something in the way that their often sudden moments of insight are fresh and exciting. Otherwise you just keep relearning how being selfish is "human nature", why people who are doing mental labour are more hard-working than people who do the majority of the world's manual labour, and that a lot of your students desperately believe that they will not be a failed academic like you when they finish their glorious university career.

One of the most interesting exercises we sometimes give first year philosophy students––an exercise aimed at making them think through common sense assumptions and to teach them something about how philosophical arguments work––is a summary of Peter Singer's seminal argument about famine and affluence.  Then, after providing them with this summary, we sit back and watch them try to debate it out so we can eventually tell them something about how argumentative logic is supposed to work, point out the predictable fallacies of their counter-arguments, and try to get them to map an argument they generally do not like and thus force them to think about things they do not want to like.

Austrialian born liberal with some good points wandering about in a documentary about philosophy

For those outside of philosophy who are unfamiliar with Singer's Famine, Affluence and Morality, the core argument goes something like this… Say you are walking by a small pond and see that there is a child drowning: if you are wearing very expensive shoes and would thus ruin these shoes by entering the pond to save the child would you sacrifice the shoes to save the child?  The majority of people would agree that it would be morally reprehensible to allow the child to drown, expensive shoes or no, and would instantly claim that they would wade into the pond and save the child.  Singer then argues the following: there are people dying of hunger in the third world and just because we aren't walking past the "pond" of famine we are still aware that they are dying and thus it is not a morally significant fact that we can't see them; it is morally reprehensible that we live in affluence when other people and that we would spend our money on expensive shoes when the same money could feed a starving child for a year.

To be clear, I think Singer is an inveterate liberal.  The moral solution to the problem he rightly pin-points is to donate the price of expensive shoes, or expensive what-have-you, to charity organizations like UNICEF or OXFAM.  Philanthropy does not solve world hunger; NGOs are usually bound up in the imperialist project; a "rescue" discourse is often tantamount to imperialist intervention; an ethics of consumerism will solve nothing.  At the same time, however, the way he outlines the problem of first world affluence in the face of the misery of the peripheries is stark enough to really jolt university undergraduates who aren't used to thinking in this way.  Moreover, it is very useful in revealing the influence of bourgeois ideology on the way first year philosophy students think.

Indeed, the best thing about asking undergraduates to think through Singer's argument is that it demonstrates just how outraged people can get when they are asked to consider their possible privilege.  "I'm not a bad person for wanting to buy nice things," is the general knee-jerk response, "How dare this stupid philosopher make me question the fact that I might want to buy nice shoes or what-have-you!"  And from this outraged response, which we use to teach our students about fallacious counter-arguments, follows a whole host of problematic ideological assumptions: people starving at the peripheries of world capitalism aren't the same as a child drowning in a pond because there is no connection between their poverty and our affluence––hell, they're only starving because maybe they don't work hard enough!

The best bad response I heard this week in response to Singer's argument was: "when we buy expensive shoes we are paying the wages of the people who make the shoes and so it is a moral act to buy expensive things."  And so the fact that the bourgeois way of seeing the production process is treated as dogma is telling… It really does teach you something about how to make sense of the labour theory of value because it is pretty easy to ask the people making this argument how you can possibly be paying someone's wage for a product that was assembled and placed into market before you showed up to buy it––if this person's wages have already been provided ahead of time (and usually, due to imperialism and the export of capital, at a sweat-shop price) then how can you possibly imagine that you buying this product is going to be transferred back in time to the poor worker who assembled the product?  And those attempting to answer these reprehensible attacks on Singer's argument––who want to defend Singer's position––fall into the same consumerist trap by disappearing into the consumerist ethics of "fair trade" ideology.

Then there are the random "besides the point" arguments that imagine they are clever by thinking up things they believe Singer never imagined: "hey I got this rope on me so I don't need to ruin my italian shoes and the child will grab hold of my rope" (really? have you ever engaged with a one year old?); "Singer is stupid because no child would be drowning in a small pond unless its parents left it there so it's the parents fault" (and so then it is okay to let it drown?); "what if you expensive shoes allow you to get a good job so that you can give more money to charity" (well this is a problem with the whole charity narrative, but come on… returning to the original analogy, even if your shoes would get you a good job you probably would wade into that pond!).  We always have to wonder why people are so obsessed with trying to disprove Singer's argument rather than take it further––why there is such a desperate attempt to avoid accepting the fact of first world affluence in the face of third world poverty.

Thus, the reason why Singer is such a useful teaching tool is that his argument about famine and affluence causes students to critically think through the fact that they are living in a context of affluence––something they don't like doing.  They have been socialized for years to think that they are outside of more general social relations, to imagine that the fact they can sit in a university classroom is not dependent on all of the invisible labour of people who will never have the same opportunity.  Provide them with a stark argument about famine and affluence, regardless of its eventual liberal conclusions (which must be combatted), and some of them are personally offended.

It's in this moment of offense that intervention is possible.  Take Singer out of the terrain of liberal assumptions in which is argument is enmeshed and the students are left this stark scenario: people are dying while we live in affluence, and yet you think it's ethical to live in affluence while the majority of the world is starving––you are even going out of your way to defend your "right", based only on the fact that you were born in a culture of affluence, to pursue some pretty stupid consumerist commitments.  And in this context, why do people feel really committed in arguing against a comparison of a drowning child in a pond, which is only figurative, and a starving child at the peripheries of world capitalism, which is viscerally literal?  And sometimes critical thought is able to pierce these core capitalist assumptions… Other times, not so much: as I've always maintained, politicization is rarely dependent on a good argument; ideology is often far too strong, able to overcome every reasonable arguments, because class commitment is not simply based on whether or not a position is rational.


  1. Kill the child, look for wallet. You never know.

  2. It was Peter Singer that led me into thinking about ethics philosophically, and finally into leftism. In fact, it was actually my first exposure to doing philosophy in a classroom setting.

    I was very lucky to attend a high school that offered a philosophy class, and luckier still to have a teacher who used an excerpt from Famine, Affluence and Morality as the basis for the first ever lecture in that class-- so thank you, Mr H. !

    And interestingly enough, one of the young republicans in the class used "But this is quasi-communism" as a response to Singer's argument, with support from most of our classmates.

    1. Hahaha: "quasi-communism"––such an excellent example of a bad argument... I've noticed that a lot of high schools are now offering philosophy classes: used to be that the majority of my students did not know what philosophy was (or generally thought it was "my own opinions, man") but now they come into university with some idea.

    2. I hadn't heard of Famine, Affluence and Morality before, but on a similar note in my first philosophy class I stumbled over "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" which I reacted to in a similar fashion to how I imagine some people respond to the Singer essay.

    3. Wait: you got to read science-fiction in philosophy class?

    4. Not exactly, no. The short story appeared in an optional section that wasn't really covered in our textbook and I stumbled across it when I was reading ahead out of curiosity. (apologies if this is a double post. I got an error when submitting the first one.)

    5. In my first year of philosophy (I was a philosophy major...pitty me if you will) One of my professors also presented the class with the Singer argument. I was appauled by the general reactionary response, being from a very poor working-class family who from a young age also identified with the poor of the rest of the world. I didn't actually try to defend the Singer argument, not because I necessarily understood it as liberal, I just thought it was ineffective. I argued that if we really cared we would be sending thousands of people to poverty stricken countries to help them develop industry and donate technology and heavy equipment so they could modernize farming techniques and the like. I think somewere along the line I said we should transform the military into a humanitarian constuction unit lol. Back then I used to think the army was the solution to everything. (Not meaning taking over countries of course, I was always completely opposed to that, but I thought it would be ok if we were sincerely wanting to help people, to have a force that could be mobilized to carry out construction, etc.) Those were the days.

    6. Got a few of those responses, actually, which were obviously, though problematic, more on the progressive end of things than the people who were offended that this was even brought up. Usually it was more like: don't give money but work for UNICEF or World Vision or what have you… still charity/philanthropy way of thinking, but definitely better than the "let them starve because it's only their fault" bullshit.

  3. I guess this is the opposite of the singer argument:

    In the case of the drowning child, Gina would probably say that he had all the time in the world to learn to swim, so let him drown.

  4. What I don't like about these kind of arguments is that it feels to me just like being told yet again that I am a terrible person responsible for everything that is wrong with the world because of an accident of birth. I am not saying that may not be, but naturally I feel annoyed about being held responsible when I can't change anything. When it comes to the liberal "give your stuff to charity" argument, well, my stuff in total is maybe worth a £2500, which on one level is a lot of money, but on another level would make hardly a dent in the world poverty situation.

    But what's the alternative argument, what can I actually do. Because a lot of the time it feels like what I am expected to do is first of all cultivate self-hate, and then hatred for the people around me for not having as much self-hate as me. And I have been down that path and it got me and the world exactly nowhere.

    Also, you have to admit that the whole argument of how spoiled we are in the "West" is constantly used as an excuse of why we shouldn't complain about regulatory race to the bottom type policies, do they make the world a better place - I have heard leftists argue that, because we in the West are spoiled we should not only let but even encourage complete deregulation of the labour market and similar because it's "not fair" that we get more than people in poorer countries. But a race to the bottom doesn't make things better for everyone, it makes things worse, the answer to that "shutup spoiled brat, you never had it so good".

    I just don't see this guilt thing getting us anywhere.

    "and that a lot of your students desperately believe that they will not be a failed academic like you when they finish their glorious university career." <--- surely most of your students won't be an academic of any kind? They'll be handing out leaflets in Time Square (lol, no wait that's English grads) or working in a discount toiletries store (nope, wait, English grads again) or working in a Supermarket (sorry, that's History graduates) or for a webdesign company (computer science represent!) for minimum wage :P

    I admit I never met someone who does philosophy, mostly because the university in my town doesn't have a philosophy department, I assume their job prospects are closer to English grads than Compsci grads though.

    1. Obviously if the argument simply leads one down the path of guilt and charity-mongering then it is useless. As I indicated, Singer's argument by itself is hampered by its liberalism. What makes it interesting, however, is that it gets students thinking about the disparity between the global centres and the global peripheries and, once you get beyond the liberal conclusions, allows for a discussion about how the poverty at the peripheries might be dependent on the affluence at the centres.

      None of this *should* make anyone feel guilty (unless they are die hard imperialists), but why should this be the first response? And if it is the first response, maybe it's worth interrogating. For example, when a discussion about patriarchy and white supremacy is brought up, often the knee jerk response by those of us who benefit from patriarchy and white supremacy is to say "hold on there, don't make us feel guilty, we aren't white supremacists and misogynists!" Does this mean we shouldn't talk about oppression? And bringing it back to the issue of world poverty and the interrelation between the poverty at the peripheries and the affluence of the centres, what about the theory of the labour aristocracy? I feel that it is often rejected by people who don't want to consider that they are part of said labour aristocracy, or at least enjoy some net benefit, and don't want to feel guilty. But the point isn't to feel guilt; it is to think about what we can do in this context.

      And yes, definitely my students won't be academics of any kind but some of them think they will. That comment, in fact, was directed at comments made by some of my students and how their plans. But in general, yes philosophy grads' prospects are probably closer to english graduates.

    2. I guess guilt is the first response because those kind of things, maybe it's different across the Atlantic, but certainly growing up it seems like politics was an endless stream of guilt trips about things I had no control over. It's kind of the adult version of "finish your dinner, there are starving children" (to which I assume every child with half a brain responds "give it to them then!!!")

      All the time there is a sense that this kind of idea is a justification for why everything good that people have in the West is because we are bad. Like, people in the West, do not generally work 12-16 hour days (although it's not as unknown as you'd think), they have higher pay, they have cool things like safety regulations (although often flouted), they have to be payed some kind of statutory redundancy to be laid off (unless they are temps, which more and more are) and so on - and to me, those are good things, but in the labour aristocracy theory basically what that means is that we should feel bad for getting more of the pie than other people - with the implication that the whole issue is "how do we split up the pie". But theres no predefined pie size in the first place, everyone should have safe workplaces, everyone should have enough to eat, everyone should have somewhere to live, everyone should have security of employment, everyone...

      It's like right now I was reading about how the government circulated a memo to bring public sector terms and conditions down to the level of private sector, and spreading all this jealousy about it - but wouldn't it be better if everyone had the good conditions, instead of saying "you people are bad for being better off" and forcing everyone to the lowest level? How does that help anyone?

      Unless people in the west are saying that people who don't currently shouldn't have those same privileges they have (and does anyone seriously say that who doesn't in the same breath say those privileges should be taken away here too) then I don't see what is wrong with it - sure then you have to say how... but I am absolutely certain that some kind of levelling the world to the lowest common denominator is not the way it would happen.

      I know you are not probably arguing for that either, but an awful lot of people do (witness "we need to implement fire at will legislation because otherwise we can't compete" type arguments) and use all the same kind of rhetoric "spoiled western people don't know how good they have it, need to be taught about the real world!" - but where does that get anyone, it plays right into their hands.

      Anyway, I am absolutely not saying don't talk about those things, I think I gained a lot already in the conversation just thinking about the topic, I just feel like there is more to be gained in making people think about how their own problems and the problems of "the third world" if you want to call it that, are interconnected, and how the solutions to problems in both "the centre" and "the periphery" are actually the same (not necessarily all, but in terms of the centermost problem) - instead of telling people that _they_ are the source of all the problems and that any problems they might feel they have don't matter because they are the problem.

    3. To be clear, my argument is not that we shouldn't have the rights and benefits that come with social democracy, but that we HAVE to be aware that the only reason this is possible under world capitalism is because of greater exploitation elsewhere. And this is why the theory of the labour aristocracy is necessary––this is also why people try to deny that it is a fact. And it is a fact that we are only able to have these privileges because the majority of the world's masses are living in abject conditions under what people like Amin have often termed "imperialist rent". The theory of the labour aristocracy is not about making feel guilty, it is just a fact. There is a labour aristocracy and it conditions the struggle against capitalism: Lenin recognized this back in the 20s and was right to worry. If we want to simply take this theory as meaning we should feel bad that we have a better life than people elsewhere than we are dodging responsibility and actually acting according to the consciousness promoted by said labour aristocracy. I don't care how this theory might make people feel because feelings don't change the fact that there *is* a labour aristocracy and to ignore this is to live in denial. Denial is even worse than guilt when it comes to political action.

      If we want people to all have the same conditions then we have to get rid of capitalism. Guilt is not necessarily a motivator here, but we shouldn't use the excuse that we don't want to feel guilty to ignore reality and pretend that our better living circumstances aren't partially dependent on worse living expenses for others. Such an attitude leads to opportunistic behaviour on the level of practice with the left at the centres, as Lenin once pointed out, generally pursuing social democracy rather than revolution. Now this means that the left at the centres of capitalism wastes its time trying to ameliorate the economic crisis by focusing solely on trying to stop cuts and trying to keep what it only could have because the majority of the world was living in abject misery.

      What we should be doing is not feeling guilty but not denying that we are privileged either and being actually anti-imperialist *and* anti-capitalist. None of this means that we all want to live in a crappy situation but that we have to recognize that the only way the entire world can live in a better situation is if capitalism is destroyed. Guilt is paralyzing, but a recognition of imperial privilege should lead one to action.

      So yes this does mean that people should think about an interconnectedness and how we should be in solidarity with the struggles in the peripheries. But the fact is most people at the centres––even the left––don't give a shit about the struggles in the peripheries except when these struggles look like their own. This myopia must be addressed and we can't pretend that the entire working class is identical. This doesn't mean telling people they are the source of the problem, because people who are exploited at the centres are not necessarily the source of super-exploitation elsewhere, but it does mean asking people how they think social democracy, all the liberal rights they have, are even possible... It means asking them to consider revolutionary action even here rather than simply assume "we have it pretty good so why bother arguing for a peoples war or insurrection here when we have all these rights and freedoms?"––which is a common argument raised by the opportunist left at the centres of capitalism.

    4. That certainly makes some sense, its difficult to connect up all the dots round the world really because there's a dearth of communication it seems.

      Like you talked about peoples attitudes to the Naxalites in one of the other blogposts and - I mean I don't really consider myself a very political person (it's complicated because I am obsessed with political things and talk about them all the time but in the end I live in a small town and none of it means anything, it doesn't seem to provide me with any avenues for actual action so I can't say that I am a political person) - but on the internet I've read various blog posts or articles and things about them from various different opinions pro and anti and ...I have no idea. It is similar to the Syria thing, you've got people saying the rebels are fighting against an oppressive regime and should be supported and other people saying they're tools of imperialism. Because when the whole thing kicked off I was a nationalist and more or less favoured the Ba'ath Party and Secular Arab Nationalism (it is you have to admit an interesting time when the natural position of nationalists in Western Europe is to support the targets of Western Europe and oppose their own governments in wars :P) I had a pretty clear position, but then as I got less clear about what I thought (I have recently had a seismic shift in my worldview which is probably not of interest to you) I became more and more confused about what information to trust, I am naturally still suspicious of anyone that is getting aid from the West though. I sort of feel like now it is impossible to trust English language information about non-English language places. It's easier for people who are part of an organisation (they just take their organisation's line) or who travel a lot (they can have direct experience of the places in question on which to have a basis for thought).

      In terms of capitalism, I admit I've always been ...almost irrationally anti-capitalist. I don't know why, it seems obvious to me that we should get rid of capitalism because I personally hate it, which again, ultimately irrational but what can I say :P All the argument from my way of thinking is more an issue of how.

    5. Yes, well there will always be contradictory positions about everything political but this is because knowledge is classed. If we employ a proper historical materialist analysis, however, and place ourselves on the side of the oppressed, then it often becomes easier to understand what side to take. The revolutionaries in India are the Naxal guerrillas waging a peoples war and the only people denigrating their struggle are pro-imperialist individuals and groups (even the Communist Party India [Marxist} fits this label since they have long supported caste oppression and benefitted from neo-liberalism within the parliamentary system), and simply examining who represents the most oppressed and in what way they represent these oppressed should tell us something. As should thinking through these issues within a framework of global to national contradictions.

      And as for your instincts on Syria, well it clearly makes sense to mistrust anyone backed by the imperialists. Does this mean we have to support 100% Assad's regime as "revolutionary"? Of course not, but we never supported Saddam Hussein or the Taliban as revolutionary either. Simply to point out that the rebellion is a pro-imperialist "rebellion" and to maintain an anti-imperialist analysis of the situation does not mean that we have to support Assad as some revolutionary. Personally I think the Assad regime, which had become a comprador regime backed by Russian capital, should fall but this is clearly a regime change in line with American capital.

      All of this is to say that connecting the dots, as you put it, in one sense is difficult. But in another sense, if we start employing social investigation, thinking through contradictions, looking at the history of struggle in a given reason and the history of the world revolutionary movement, some things become easier. For example, Arundhati Roy is no communist, and even has expressed the fact that she dislikes maoism as an ideology, but simply by investigating her social context she was forced to realize that the Naxal rebellion was just and has been openly supporting their right to rebel for several years now… This wasn't too difficult for her to realize and she has maintained that it shouldn't be difficult for most people––indeed, once you see what the Indian state sees as a primary threat, and what billions of US dollars and even Mossad advisors are being employed to suppress, who anti-capitalists should support becomes clearer and all attempts to claim otherwise, by anti-naxal individuals and groups, reveal themselves as counter-revolutionary.

      As for comments about being "irrationally anti-capitalist"... Obviously I think there are rational reasons to get rid of capitalism, but sometimes just a knee-jerk "this system sucks" can lead people towards the rational reasons––doesn't have to be ultimately irrational.

  5. As a history undergrad, this post makes me wish I had taken more philosophy.

    1. Lord why? You probably learned more useful things in history…


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