I let everyone know that I’m building my first app, called Source, in the next few months, to help surface existing global relationships. I mentioned that the idea came from a technical aside in paper I wrote for Dr Jay Aronson’s Global Justice class at Carnegie Mellon in Fall 2009. Below is the first iteration of the idea for Source, from a paper titled “Making the Invisible Visible” (October 11, 2009) on philosopher Peter Singer’s challenging “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”. I’ve left in Jay’s comments because they’re great:
A Technical Aside [JDA1]
Imagine if a credit card could show its owner this utility in concrete terms. Swiping for a latte, it would inform me that $3.95 could pay for three mosquito nets in the Central African Republic. Charging for a hardback copy of Dreams from My Father, I would see that $15.95 could buy a woman in East Palo Alto, CA a interviewing suit. Then it would display an option for me to contribute to others rather than buying for myself. This would allow for the realization of Singer’s formula.
On the resource side, perhaps this same smart credit card would display the countries which contributed materials to a given product—say Dreams from My Father—originated (paper: Brazilian rain-forest; ink: India; binding: Canadian old-growth). Each country would have two ratings next to its name: one to five trees for its environmental record and one to five hearts for its human rights record. This would allow consumers to choose what kinds of countries they support with their money. This would allow realization of Pogge’s negative duty.
These could also be iPhone [JDA2] apps which used the barcodes of items to get their information.
[JDA1] I doubt credit card companies would go for this, but I LOVE idea!!! Kind of like nutritional labeling for money!
[JDA2] There is a website that lists the costs of all parts of the iphone and I think where they come from…
Singer’s argument is that people should contribute to ending global inequality until they themselves are at the same level of misery as the people to whom they are giving. He formulated this argument during massive flooding and tragedy in East Bengal, India in November 1971:
I and everyone else in similar circumstances ought to give as much as possible, that is, at least up to the point at which by giving more one would begin to cause serious suffering for one and one’s dependents—perhaps even beyond this point to the point of marginal utility, at which by giving more one would cause oneself and one’s dependents as much suffering as one would prevent in Bengal. (Singer 390)
I disagree fundamentally with the extremes to which Singer took his argument, but like many undergraduates studying global philosophy I found it to be a mind worm I couldn’t get out. And in trying to find a practical way to implement it, I proposed the app I’m now working to build.
“As I write this, in November 1971, people are dying in East Bengal from lack of food, shelter, and medical care. The suffering and death that are occurring there now are not inevitable, not unavoidable in any fatalistic sense of the term. Constant poverty, a cyclone, and a civil war have turned at least nine million people into destitute refugees; nevertheless, it is not beyond the capacity of the richer nations to give enough assistance to reduce any further suffering to very small proportions. The decisions and actions of human beings can prevent this kind of suffering.”–Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”