Peter Singer’s moral calculus of charity

Published May 07, 2015 · Estimated reading time: 4 minutes · Share your thoughts
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A while back I read a very intriguing op-ed in NYT by Princeton ethicist Peter Singer. The article, titled “Good Charity, Bad Charity”, argues that the decision to contribute to one charity versus another should be based on an “evidence-based approach” that “[offers] the most positive impact for your time and money”. As someone in public health, I thought this was a nicely laid out and pragmatic approach to decision making with limited resources. For example, as a high-impact or “good” charity, Singer gives the example of the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, a Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) -oriented organization. Learning about NTDs related issues for years, I’ve personally observed that a lot of the underpinning drivers in research or advocacy for NTDs appeals to people’s utilitarian sensibilities: You can impact the lives of millions of people in a truly meaningful way for very little (monetarily at least).

Image created using public domain & creative commons licensed images: 1, 2, 3, 4.

However, what I think is a point that is really worth examining is the argument that Singer lays out in how we can “objectively” determine that by contributing to one initiative versus another that “we’ll be able to do more good”. Singer asks us to make a hypothetical choice between contributing to the creation of a new art museum wing, versus contributing to an organization working to reduce incidence of trachoma, a debilitating NTD which causes blindness. In a classic utilitarian fashion, he lays out our utility measurement for $100,000 invested. On the one hand the museum will provide 50 years of expected service and aesthetic pleasure, and he estimates that our contribution will improve the “aesthetic experiences of 100,000 visitors”. On the other hand contribution to a trachoma-reducing charity will spare “1,000 people from 15 years of blindness”.

The crux of the argument is that in this hypothetical scenario we are in zero-sum game where somebody’s visual/aesthetic pleasure comes, very literally, at the cost of a number of people’s eyes. Would we be, in essence, willing to have people’s eyes gouged out to enjoy a new museum wing? Singer posits to do so “You’d have to be nuts”. We are therefore drawn into a moral quandary, where one choice denotes empathy or humanity or whatever it is that makes us not want to have other people suffer. The other choice is a selfish choice. What kind of a person would choose art at the cost of people’s eyes? Except for, you know, those people that get eyeball tattoos.
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Permanent linkMarzieh Ghiasi

Who said it? the Quote Investigator

Published May 04, 2015 · Estimated reading time: 2 minutes · 2 responses so far
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QUOTATION, n. The act of repeating erroneously the words of another. The words erroneously repeated.
— Ambrose Bierce (The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911)

Most people have some sort of a niche interest… I’ve always been a bit of a quotations aficionado (quote-phile?). You can imagine how excited I was when we first got internet at home in the 90s and I discovered the The Quote Garden. Of course, on occassion I’ve had the nagging fear that perhaps Oscar Wilde was right in saying: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” (De Profundis, 1897). But I think some of us don’t love quotations for the lack of original thoughts… rather, these small bits of thoughts offered by others intrigue us and get our imaginations running. Or at least that’s how I comfort myself.

However, as a caveat to my passion for collecting the words of others, whenever I find a phrase that catches my fancy– I always have to track down the source. Call it my editor’s instinct, but I shudder at the words “Source: Unknown”. Fortunately, most quotes I encounter have sources. Unfortunately, they’re often mangled and misattributed versions of their original self. These insidious frankenstein quotes aren’t just on Facebook groups, Tumblr pages and other bedazzled corners of the web. They’re everywhere. Recently, I was reading a (legit, serious) book which had a great quote from a Rumi poem, and since I can read Persian, I decided to track down the poem in Rumi’s original texts. I tried every permutation and absolutely could not track a legitimate textual source in Persian… or any other language including English! (I’d missed that Rumi’s a cultural meme now…)

quote investigator During this little adventure I stumbled on what is my favorite recent discovery on the internet these days– Garson O’Toole’s blog “Quote Investigator”. A real entertaining rabbit hole, the blog takes a disputed quote, then methodically unravels the histories and the people to whom the quote has been attributed– then BAM! concludes with the most likely source for the quotation. This site has given me hope that there is end in sight to the travesty of quote misattribution, but has also opened my eyes to a whole history behind some of my favorite words from the past.

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Seventy-two nations’ war/Jang-e haftad-o do mellat

Published March 28, 2015 · Estimated reading time: 1 minute · One response so far
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جنگ هفتاد و دو ملت (حافظ)
دوش دیدم که ملایک در میخانه زدند
ساکنان حرم ستر و عفاف ملکوت
آسمان بار امانت نتوانست کشید
جنگ هفتاد و دو ملت همه را عذر بنه
شکر ایزد که میان من و او صلح افتاد
آتش آن نیست که از شعله او خندد شمع
کس چو حافظ نگشاد از رخ اندیشه نقاب
گل آدم بسرشتند و به پیمانه زدند
با من راه نشین باده مستانه زدند
قرعه کار به نام من دیوانه زدند
چون ندیدند حقیقت ره افسانه زدند
صوفیان رقص کنان ساغر شکرانه زدند
آتش آن است که در خرمن پروانه زدند
تا سر زلف سخن را به قلم شانه زدند

"A Hoary Man" by Ostad Mahmoud Farshchian A Hoary Man” by Ostad Mahmoud Farshchian

Seventy-two Nations’ War (Hafez)

Last night I saw angels on the tavern’s door beat
The clay of man they mold and they knead

The pure and noble dwellers of the shrine
With this vagrant beggar drunken recline

The sky could not bear its entrusted burden’s load
Unto this madman was thus the deed bestowed

Seventy-two nations war, their follies let pass
Not seeing the truth they took fable-paved paths

The divine be praised for between us peace arose
Each dancing dervish’s cup with joy overflows

Fire is not that flame in which the candle burns bright
Fire is that blaze which sets the moth’s wings alight

None like Hafez can unveil the mind
And its tangled mane with the pen unwind

Translated by Marzieh Ghiasi
March 2015

The above is my translation and interpretation of what is arguably Hafez’s most esoteric and well-know poem. I had always wanted to tackle this translation but my felt that no turn of phrase could ever do justice the original. But, with the new year at helm, I took the challenge on with the hope of capturing and transferring a sliver of meaning in my own way.

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