Thursday, April 22, 2010

Practical Ethics and Your Wardrobe


Imagine you are hiking alone in the hills and you suddenly come upon a baby drowning in a shallow pool of water. Without your help, the child will surely drown, but saving the child will almost certainly irreparably damage your new Nike Air Force 1s and probably your Juicy Couture yoga pants.

What do you do?

This is the question posed by Princeton professor Peter Singer in Astra Taylor's newest documentary Examined Life (2008), which draws noted living philosophers out of their cloistered towers and into the streets (or, in Michael Hardt's case, the lake) to talk about the life of the mind and the philosophical excursions that occupy it. According to Singer (and probably your own moral compass, unless of course you are a sociopath), the answer to the hypothetical question posed above requires little thought: you sacrifice your signs of conspicuous consumption and save the child. This, Gentle Reader, is elementary, and not at all Singer's real concern; it is a slow pitch ethical softball meant to prepare the ground for the following, more thorny question:

If I told you that the money you spent on those shoes and those pants could have been used by Oxfam International to save not one but all thirty of the children who die every day in Africa from treatable diarrhea contracted from unclean drinking water, would you have saved those children?

Well, would you have?


Good Girls Studio said...

YES! If there was a disclaimer like that before making any purchases I think we might all take a second look at how we utilize out checkbooks! Great eye opening post!
Happy earth day!

pineapplemint said...

First of all, no one should ever go hiking in those shoes.

I think the answer for most people is actually no, though undoubtedly you will get nearly all positive YES responses. Even though we all know that it actually takes very little money to vastly improve someone else's life, rarely do we actually do anything. And man, Juicy Couture sweats are so great! Ahem.

Stephanie said...

It seems like such an easy answer: yes! but at the same time our society isn't going to stop buying items.. especially status items anytime soon. We're pretty much founded and run on a consumer culture.

Great post.. getting me thinking first thing in the morning.

Happy earth day!

WendyB said...

Is the question about charitable giving when phrased that way rdirected at people who NEVER give? Because personally, I give to so many causes that at some point I have to draw the line no matter how poignant/inexpensive the plea. I wonder if a lot of charitable campaigns are designed for people who never give, which of course is a nice big market for the charities to target. But then I sort of think they need a new pitch for people who give a lot because there are those of us who get to the point of thinking, "I need some pants so I can go outside, you know." Okay, just rambling now.

HUzzah! Vintage said...

@pineapplemint I take it you've never been running in the Hollywood Hills? Air Force 1 central.

@WendyB: You've anticipated Singer's very next move!: he asks, 'what if there were several babies drowning and several able-bodied adults standing around nearby? Could you then justify saving just one? Just two?' As with any question of great import, the answer isn't easy.

Purple Deer said...

Good post. It's pretty depressing this fashion world we live in. We skin cute animals, spend ridiculous mounts of money for something we could get almost anywhere for much, much less, we loose touch with what really matters, and we also feel low self esteem due to whatever the labels decide what's "thin". Yet we all keep tossing our money at them.

Let's try not to forget we're humans. And if that was your child, or yourself, you would not care one way or the other about shoes, clothes, etc. Bravo Gina.