Friday, March 20, 2009

On Revered Humanitarians Entertaining Colonialism

This clip from Tyler Cowen's interview with Peter Singer strikes me as a bit unsettling.  It's a terrific episode and I recommend people watch/listen to the program in its entirety.  In this particular moment, however, I think we see the worst of the Cowen-esque economics-profession "imagination" as well as the narrowness of Singer's utilitarianism.  

In this brief exchange, the fearless Cowen asks whether the best way to solve Africa's problems would be to go back in time and make sure European colonialism never lost its grip.  The argument is simply that regardless of the occasional hurt feelings ("humiliation," as Singer puts it) and bloody resistance movement, the total amount of suffering pales in comparison to places like today's Congo, or Somalia, or Zimbabwe.  While Singer is at first hesitant to go along with Cowen, in the end you'll find he comes remarkably close to fully accepting the truth of the premise.  

A few thoughts are in order here.  First, if only it weren't for those hurt feelings...

Second, I think that a Deweyan (or even Socratic) ethical theory, while sometimes inadequate, might be helpful in problematizing the utilitarians: just means can only produce just ends. Colonialism might not have directly led to suffering on the scale of modern Congo or Darfur, but it's just shocking to me that Singer failed to mention that these bad consequences were in large part the result of colonial practices themselves.  Why not, we might ask, turn the clock back to pre-colonial times?  


Blogger The Sheriff said...

So tacitly then, the question seems to be a choice between

a)classical imperial colonialism.
b)neoclassical structural adjustment and market-debt-aid politics.

I don't see that much has changed as regards the west's relationship with africa (and most of the global south) for that matter. Many of the most egregious genocides and military actions are now passe, but we still govern, manipulate, and extort the continent for all it's worth, if not more.

I think that is a stupid, awful question that the more I think of it the more it simply apears to be fifteen different equally bad assumption and presumptions...yarghl.

3:07 PM  

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