Monday, June 29, 2015

Home Economics Vol 1: Telescopic Morality and Peas

Raise your hands if you were ever told something like "clean your plate because there are starving kids in Africa." Keep them up if you've ever uttered the sentiment. I'd wager that if the readership here is a random selection from the population along this particular issue's dimensions, better than half of you will still have your hands up.

Assuming you're parents of course.

It isn't, after all, something you'd say to a dinner companion or to a stranger in an airport restaurant. It's specifically an injunction you make to your children. It has the overtones of being what my great pal Adam Gurri dismisses as telescopic morality, but only rhetorically. Every child who hears it almost immediately summons the obvious comeback: "if you're so worried about hungry African kids, then mail them my chicken in aspic." Children are sensitive enough to be offended when the suffering of others is deployed as a morality prop.

From the parents' perspective, we want our children to be properly nourished and to have a well-developed palate. Man does not live on peanut butter and jelly alone. Cajoling and bribery doesn't always work, but guilt can sometimes be effective. Still, there's the guilt of "you're breaking your nana's heart; you know she has a weak heart" and then there's accidentally training your children to think of destitute populations as inferiors with no agency of their own.

Part of the Mother's Problem is menu planning. The economics of the household involves a great deal of detailed private information of who eats what, whose tastes are changing because she's eleven now and she doesn't eat kids' cereal anymore, who's decided to go HARDxXxCORE VEGAN because factory farming is an orgy of cruelty, and who needs a little extra fiber in his diet because the cholesterol numbers from the last physical were alarming to say the least. This is no secret to anyone in the house. Indeed, quite a bit of talk at home is split between affirmations of affection (good or bad) and nutrition (again, good or bad). So to associate the nitty-gritty decisions made in front of the hearth with the thorny institutional problems of global poverty is an error of rhetoric that eventually, if not immediately contributes to the injustices of international paternalism.

By all means, get your kids to eat their peas (and if you're a kid, do your suffering mother a favor and eat your peas), but please reconsider using the suffering of others as a crowbar to pry open recalcitrant jaws. A better, more just world will include the children of poor countries having better access to trade opportunities. Training another generation to think of the destitute as little more than charity cases is a lousy way to improve political and economic institutions.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?