Improving the World vs Improving my Country

20 June 2005

Thanks to  Peter Singer for helping us to put on a good show yesterday.  It was certainly  an interesting, lively conversation.  The phone lines were constantly filled.  So we do seem to have touched some nerve.   Unfortunately, there were many  more callers than we had time to get to.

By the way,  Singer's  book,   One World : The Ethics of Globalization, in which he spells out more fully some of the ideas he touched on during the show, is a really good read.  It covers a whole lot of ground in a philosophically engaging and accessible way.   

I'm pretty sure that Singer is right that  both reasonably well off individuals in the developed and developing world and the governments of the developed world could and should do a lot more to help ameliorate global poverty.  I'm not sure that I agree that well off  individuals in the developed world directly  owe it to individuals in the less developed world to donate money to various charitable organizations.   Being a good thing to do and being obligatory  or a matter of duty are two different things.

In this post, though,  I want to think more about the relative merits of trying to  improve and/or  perfect one's own nation versus trying to improve and/or perfect the world at large.

Peter Singer didn't hold out much hope of improving or perfecting the world by improving or perfecting our country first.   He also seems  to think that we didn't really need to work on country first.   There are, after all, many fine international charitable organizations that are doing very good work toward ameliorating the plight of the least well off around the world. If we just give to such organizations,  we will do good.    Finally,  he doesn't  seem to think that country matters much morally anyway.   We don't owe any more or less to our fellow citizens than we owe to others in the world.  And putting a priority on  improving or perfecting one's country seems somehow misplaced and impractical,  if I read him right.

I don't really want to discuss the third point about whether we have special obligations to our fellow citizens in any great detail.   I touched on that in my last post about negotiating identities.  Secondly, I  have no argument against giving money to Oxfam and other international charities.  But I guess I disagree at least a bit with what I take to be  Singer's views about  the moral/practical priority of attempting to improve or perfect our country vs attempting to directly improve the lot of the least well off in the world --  especially for  citizens of a conssequential and powerful nation like the United States.  Not that the United States is "the evil empire."  But in a nation as powerful and as consequential as ours, even a little moral imperfection can costs the world at large a whole lot of pain and suffering.  So I think that nothing could be more  urgent than morally improving and/or perfecting our beloved, if imperfect country.    I think we Americans owe it  not only to one another, as fellow citizens, but we collectively owe it to humanity at large to perfect our country. 

One  question,  I guess,  is whether as an American,  I have  special obligations, obligations of a sort that only Americans can bear, to try to improve or perfect America.   It seems to me that the answer is obviously yes.  Who else but Americans can improve and perfect America?  Certainly,  people around the world have an interest in seeing America improved and perfected and sometimes they  can and do exert collective pressure on America to be a better world citizen.   But one thing that recent events should teach us is that some broad swaths of America are perfectly willing to stand more or less alone against the world, sometimes even if  standing alone does great damage to both our own national life and harm to the global order at large.    Moreover,   too much of our politics serves status quo interest, with no real interest in making the US a better citizen of the world community.   So any internally driven change is bound to be hard.  That was, I think, part of Singer's point.  Still, I think there are principled reasons why would be "cosmopolitan nationalists" like myself,  should feel a special urgency about perfecting our own country  -- both for the sake of our fellow Americans and for the sake of the world "community."  And again, nobody but we  who are both deeply loyal to America as such and see ourselves also as  standing with  the party of humanity at large are positioned to work, from within, not as stranger or outsider, but as compatriots and fellow travellers, for the moral improvement or perfection of our flawed but beloved country.

When I said on the air something about nations being constituted by their  citizens in the first instance  as instruments for promoting their collective security and prosperity  rather than as instruments for promoting the security and prosperity of the world at large,  Singer seemed to say that  citizen don't really have much to do with constituting the nations into which they are merely born.   And he wondered how a mere geographical accident of birth could have any moral signigicance whatsover.

But I think Singer misses an important  point about nationhood.  A  nation isn't just a place where one is born.  A nation is, or can be, a  community (or set of overlapping communities)  with (some of) which one identifies. And in  identifying with a  nation,  one shapes not only one's  own identity but also, in a small measure,  the identity of one's  nation.  The identity of a nation (at any given time)  is certainly  at least partly determined by the totality of people who identify with that nation and by their relations to one another.  Of course,  it  isn't just the current citzens and their relations that matter. A  nation is a thing extended in time, that may have begun long before any current citizen was born and may well  continue long after all current citizens have passed away.   That makes a nation  one of those "rope-like" things that I talked  about a couple of episodes back, when we were discussing intergenerational obligations. Still there's something vitally important about the present moment and the present generations of Americans.   A nation exists and has a continuing  life and character in the present only through the lives and characters of the present citizens of the nation.  As such a nation is  always in the process of becoming, always subject to being reconfigured and reconstituted.  So my nation very much is, contrary to Singer, something that I participate in the constitution and configuring of.

Of course,  as merely one citizen among others I don't have  much, if any, unilateral power over the direction  and character of my nation.    But when my nation acts and speaks on the world stage, it acts and speaks putatively partly on my behalf and in my name.    So I do not think that it is enough to concentrate my efforts on the world at large and leave my nation be as if it were nothing to me and I nothing to it.   Moreover,  in the work of trying to perfect my nation,  I can make concrete,  more or less local allegiances with all sorts of people:  with my neighbors, with my co-workers, with fellow parents at my children's schools;  with the members of various activist organizations to which I contribute or for which I work; with fellow members of the poltical part to which I belong.    In so doing,  I participate in a concrete shared  life that shapes who and what I am and that helps to endow my life with  meaning.    Living as rather than merely in  America is thus a very big deal.

I'm not trying to suggest that it is an either or thing.  Either we work to improve the world directly or we work to improve the world through working to improve our nation and its impact on the world at large.  If my nation is as consequential and as powerful as America, then by working to improve or perfect it, I thereby automatically work to improve or perfect the world at large.    But it's also true that to that African woman Singer mentioned on air, it is probably a matter of indifference whether the 10,000 dollars needed to sink a well in her village comes from  Oxfam or from some American development assistance program.    Her situation is desparate.  She  will take what help she can get from anywhere she can get it. And she will take it now!  And there is a point to saying that we shouldn't  forgo the lesser good that  can now be achieved in pursuit of some more  problematic and far off greater good that may never be achieved.   So give to Oxfam and do some good, whether or not we ever manage to achieve the moral improvement of America.

Still, because no one but we Americans can even hope to actively and directly work for the moral improvement of this consequential and powerful nation,  and because the moral improvment of our nation is itself something urgently needed both by the world at large and by Americans at large,  I think we can, with some justice,  regard ourselves as having not just a special obligation to work for its moral improvement and perfection, but also the right  to concentrate our efforts on America and to assign that task of improving her a very high priority indeed, even if that means that  we  decrease efforts that we might otherwise undertake  toward directly ameliorating the plight of the least well off in the world.  That wouldn't mean that we were indifferent or uncaring and it wouldn't justify us in entirely ignoring the plight of the distant worst off in the world.   But it would mean that we took the task of perfecting or improving what is nearer and dearer utterly seriously.

Comments (4)

Guest's picture


Tuesday, June 21, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Donations don't matter. Restructuring the system

Donations don't matter. Restructuring the system which so clearly favors the rich and tramples on the poor is more effective.
Singer had opportunities to hammer this point but never had too much time to develop his thoughts because of call number interruptions: Marginal productivities in the rich world vs. the poor world are skewed not only economically but ethically as well. The poor person can work 17 hours a day where much of the "product of their labor" is absorbed by their subsistent condition; whereas, a person who is born in America will likely have a much lower marginal productivity (most likely in a service sector job) yet be able to afford an array of luxury goods.
Lastly, the poor have more children as a condition of their poverty. They do not become poor because they have more children. Children are seen as an investment model in which they can be sent out to work in cities or work land and their income can be pooled back into the family. Of course, chances are that the child will not find employment (there are no jobs in the slums), and if it does, the income will not alleviate the subsistence condition. Empirical evidence has shown that this is so over 40 years ago.

Guest's picture


Tuesday, June 21, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

I think people should concern themselves with help

I think people should concern themselves with helping their fellow human being in general. If you buy some food and donate it to the local food shelter, then you will be helping the people in your local area. If you donate money to an organization that feeds people around the world, then your donation will help people outside of your community.
But if you donate money to an organization that helps find a cure for a disease then you will help human beings in general. I like to donate money to organizations that try to find cures/vaccines for diseases. If the organization helps find a cure then that cure can be used by all human beings in general into the future.
My family use to help feed the hungry by buying food staples in large quantities and donating them to a local charity that feeds the hungry. That generosity stopped when the clients of the organization became belligerent to the help that we provided. They did not like that we donated food staples, but instead wanted something more luxurious. The reason we donated food staples is because more people could be fed with the same amount of money.
Then I started donating to churches, but no one really knows what churches do with all the money they receive. Now I donate money to charities and organizations that help find cures for diseases. One vaccine could make a difference to billions of people as seen in the example of the polio vaccine created by Jonas Edward Salk.

Guest's picture


Monday, June 27, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

This question has nothing to do with any particula

This question has nothing to do with any particular show's topic. And I'll bet someone has asked this before. But I'm curious: Why do you call Ian Shoales "The Sixty Second Philosopher" when his commentary is always at least 120 seconds long? Don't get me wrong, I love his segment! I wish it were 500 or more seconds long!

Guest's picture


Wednesday, September 14, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

I don't feel Americans have any obligation to take

I don't feel Americans have any obligation to take care of or increase the standard of living of any other country. That is not our role and should not be the role of any country. Do we ask other countries to help raise our standard of living? No. We don't. And some might say that it is because we are the richest and most powerful, that we don't need to ask for help.
But in essence, if you claim that the rich should help the poor, the rich have no claim to their own money and resources, and that there is a "greater good" that the rich have an obligation to...then you are of the socialist philosophy.
And that I believe is morally wrong.
I find nothing wrong with people voluntarily spending their money on charities. I suggest if you do donate, that you research whatever charity you are giving to and find out whether their cause actually makes sense. In the case of Oxfam, if you dig deep enough you may find that you think "fair trade" is simply a way to hurt american businesses and in the long-run hurt our economy.
The point is, there is no legal or moral obligation for Americans to help the poor of other countries. And as a laisse-faire capitalist, I don't even believe individuals have a legal obligation to help the poor in our own country. Our government's obligation is to protect the individual rights of every citizen, their right to property, and to ensure that our economic system is free enough to allow any hardworking citizen to create his/her own success and wealth.