Monday, February 19, 2007

Don't let the poor earn money!

Huh. Women will be paid £250 to donate their eggs for scientific research, on the condition that "they are acting for altruistic reasons" and don't really need the money. There are reportedly worries that "poor women could be tempted" by the offer, though philosopher Colin Farrelly is relieved that "the amount of money involved here is modest", thus reducing the risk of poor people improving their lot being "exploited".

Ethicists do puzzle me sometimes. I've written about these sorts of cases before. Compare three scenarios:

1) The status quo: some people are desperately poor, and will remain that way.
2) Allow voluntary exchanges: some of those desperately poor people will choose to do things to improve their lot. (They might not especially wish to do those things, but they wish to remain desperately poor even less.)
3) Redistribution: provide a basic income or the like, to ensure that nobody is desperately poor in the first place.

Now, I think that option #3 is far and away the best. No-one should be so poor as to find exploitation preferable to the status quo. It's unconscionable. But it's also reality, at least for the moment. And given how awful the status quo is for them, we should surely allow them every opportunity to improve their lot. That is, #2 -- whilst unfortunate -- is a hell of a lot better than #1. So why would anyone defend the status quo, and seek to prevent the "exploitation" that's one of the few opportunities for these people to improve their situation? What's so damn ethical about keeping them miserably poor?

As a general rule, the way to respect another person is to let them decide. So think about it. Would poor women want the option to sell their eggs for a decent amount of money? I can't be sure, of course -- it may create new risks of coercion -- but I imagine most would want the option. (In a real democracy, someone would actually ask them.) So it would be awfully paternalistic to deny this to them, only to claim that you're doing so for their own sake!


  1. They get to donate their eggs only if they are acting altruistically? That's a bit like the toxin paradox, isn't it? You can have the money, but only if you don't intend to have it!

  2. Actually when you agree to donate eggs you get to take fertility treatments and so forth to make the eggs right for donation. You may well damage our health in some way. (eg inability to have children potentially.)

    The concern could be that most people will not be informed enough and will do somthing like cause 10,000 dollars of damage to their health for 100 dollars now because they are desperate or the money. Similar to the "you can't sell yourself into slavery" argument.

    A little like allowing or banning smoking. Although I expect a lot of the opposition may also be jsut idealistic "you can't sell yourself" sort of arguments.

  3. I guess the 250 more or less covers the costs or the time involved (ie to remove the rational financial disincentive).


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