Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Whether to Take Peter Singer to McDonalds

Greetings from Hong Kong!

I'm highly allergic to shellfish. I'm allergic enough that cross-contamination is an issue: If I'm served something that has been fried on the same surface as shellfish or touched with an implement that has touched shellfish, I will have a minor allergic reaction. Shellfish is so prevalent in the southern coastal Chinese diet that I have minor shellfish reactions at about half of my lunch or evening meals, even if I try to be careful. I've learned that there are only two types of restaurants that are entirely safe: strict Buddhist vegetarian restaurants and McDonalds.

I was discussing this with my hosts at a university here in Hong Kong. One of the hosts said, "Well, we could go to that Buddhist restaurant that we took [the famous vegetarian philosopher] Peter Singer to". Sounds like a good idea to me! Another host said, "Yes, but that restaurant is so expensive! Too bad there isn't another good Buddhist restaurant around." I suggested that McDonalds would be fine, really. I didn't want to force them to spend a lot of money hosting me.

It occurred to me that they should have taken Peter Singer to McDonalds, too. Singer is as famous for his argument against luxurious spending as he is for his argument in favor of vegetarianism, and one of his favorite examples of needless luxury spending is high-priced restaurant meals. The idea is that the money you spend on a luxurious restaurant meal could be donated to charity and perhaps save the life of a child living in poverty somewhere.

So here's my thought. Suppose that the two options are (a) an expensive Buddhist restaurant, maybe $300 Hong Kong dollars per person for 10 people, $3000 Hong Kong dollars total ($400 US dollars), or (b) McDonalds for $500 HKD total ($65 US dollars). The money saved by choosing option b, if donated to an effective charity, is within the ballpark of what could be expected to save one person's life [update: or maybe about a tenth of a life; estimates vary]. On the other hand, the flesh from a steer can generate about 2000 McDonald's hamburgers, so ten people would be eating only 1/200 of a steer. Clearly one [or one tenth of a] human life is more valuable than 1/200 of a steer. Therefore, the university should have taken Peter Singer to McDonalds and donated the savings to an effective charity.

Of course, there are other costs to McDonalds (other wasteful practices, environmental damage in meat production, etc.) and possibly other benefits to eating at the Buddhist restaurant (supporting good farming practices, possibly putting the profits to good use) -- but it seems unlikely that these differences would cumulatively outweigh the central tradeoff of the unsaved human life vs. 1/200 of a steer.

If I ever have the chance to take Singer to dinner, I'd like to try this argument out on him and see what he thinks. (I wouldn't be surprised if he has already thought all of this through.)

Our own dinner decision resolved in favor of the cheap student vegetarian cafeteria nearby, which I think maybe they had been hesitating about because it didn't seem fancy enough a venue for a visiting speaker. But it was perfect for me -- a rather "utilitarian" place, I might say -- and probably where they really should have taken Singer.

[image source]


Robert Long said...

Hi Eric,

Interesting post! I do think that, as you suggest, there is a fair amount of effective altruist thinking on this issue. For instance, the following piece by Katja Grace--she seems to share your basic instinct about tradeoffs:


"For instance, if instead of eating vegetarian you ate a bit frugally and saved and donated a few dollars per meal, you would probably do more good (see calculations lower in this post)."

Daniel Filan said...

Why do you think you can save a live for US$360? I'm pretty impressed by the organisation GiveWell, that tries to quantify which charities are best at alleviating third world poverty, and they think that it takes on the order of US$3000 to save a life. See http://www.givewell.org/giving101/Your-dollar-goes-further-overseas

Daniel Filan said...

For more details on GiveWell's cost-effectiveness calculations, see http://www.givewell.org/international/technical/criteria/cost-effectiveness

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks! Robert, I appreciate the link. Interesting reasoning there,

Daniel: I've heard numbers ranging as low as a few hundred up to a few thousand, so that's why I used "ballpark" language. I have no grounds to dispute GiveWell. It doesn't really make a difference to my argument, though. I'll update to be clearer.

Richard Y Chappell said...

I agree with all this in theory, but alas in practice academic departments aren't set up (or, probably, willing) to donate their savings to charity, so Singer might reasonably conclude that a fancy meal is the best feasible use of the money that is in this particular 'pot'.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Fair point, Richard! It will surely depend on the willingness of an administrator somewhere to be creative and flexible.

David Killoren said...

Even if you have a department willing to donate the savings to charity, McDonald's would still be the wrong choice by Singerian lights, I'd think. It would be better to have everyone over to a faculty member's house, or to the department lounge, or someplace else on campus, and provide a very simple vegan meal like rice and steamed veggies. Cheaper than McDonald's, better for you, and steer-free.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That seems right, David. I was assuming an artificial set-up in which the expensive vegetarian place and McDonalds were the only options. I am kind of curious how Singer approaches the issue of dinners as a visiting speaker. It is possible that something like Richard's view is right and charity is rarely a realistic option, so that Singer sees the transfer of a substantial sum of money from a philosophy department to a vegetarian restaurant as a net benefit.

Callan S. said...

Well how about this - what if McDonalds was holding a gun to someones head so if you don't eat there and donate that money to save a life, then bang.

While the Buddhist restaurant, in it's good farming practices, slowly improves peoples lives, with an effect that slowly but surely reaches those who's lives are threatened by starvation and desease.

Clearly McDonalds is the badguy in that case - it's not even about the choice anymore it's about changing the subject to stopping their villainy.

But really how much does McDonalds improve anyones life? As in deliberately so (and thus reliably so into the future)? So it is kind of the case. You might be donating the money and saving someone, but only by helping those who do not help others. Is there a cost in that that outweighs the short term benefit? Maybe if one keeps feeding devils and donating the saved money, one will always have to keep donating that money (for having fed a devil)?

Now donate the money to me! >:)

Nicolas Delon said...

Interesting case!

IF these were the only available options AND your estimates were correct (including if we could also rule out that the damaging side-effects of his conduct), THEN Singer would most likely choose McDonalds. But it would be inconsistent only if Singer was not a utilitarian. I mean, insofar as he is okay with killing newborns in some circumstances, there are worst things he would agree to do than eat one burger to save a life. Anyone pointing to inconsistency would be missing the point. It's also well known (including from Singer himself) that Singer is a quite flexible vegetarian.

Now, the situation you describe is too abstract and constrained to be likely to happen to real life Singer, but if it did, then Singer would be in a better position to defend himself than, say, Gary Francione.

All that being said, I also think the improvised vegan meal would be the best option, if available. If not available, then shift the burden of using money optimally onto the department, not Singer.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: It's hard to weigh all these things -- one of the great difficulties of act utilitarianism. But I'm *pretty* sure that donating to you would not maximize global happiness!

Nicolas: Right, I'm not really aiming to box Singer into some kind of inconsistent position. But it is kind of an interesting practical question, considering him as a visiting speaker -- and the situation is not *so* abstract. After all, my hosts *did* end up taking Singer to the expensive restaurant!

Callan S. said...

But I'm *pretty* sure that donating to you would not maximize global happiness!

Can you take that chance, Eric!? The whole worlds happyness hinges upon your choice - how can you be certain!?

Besides, couldn't you say that about any charity? Isn't that the easier thing to say?