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Rich and poor

Rich and poor
Following upon the reading from Mill, our next text is by the contemporary utilitarian ethicist, Peter Singer. Singer teaches at Princeton, and has distinguished himself in the field of applied ethics—which is, as the name suggests, the philosophical effort to apply ethical thinking to specific moral issues. (If you wished to study applied ethics at UHD, you could do so in Introduction to Ethics, or one of the upper-level applied ethics classes: Environmental Ethics, Biomedical Ethics, Sports Ethics & the Philosophy of Sport, etc.) In particular, Singer has made significant contributions to the contemporary discussions of euthanasia, animal rights, and global poverty/world hunger. It’s this last area into which our reading falls.

Singer’s argument is actually quite simple, perhaps even deceptively so. He begins by suggesting a very basic general moral principle: “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it” (Marino, p. 517). Effectively, what he is saying is that, in any given instance, when trying to determine what we should do, we must compare the relative goodness and badness of the consequences of our actions (or inaction). This is really just another version of Mill’s principle of utility: recall, for Mill, that we are charged with seeking to maximize happiness and minimize suffering for all concerned. Similarly, for Singer, we must seek to eradicate badness when we can, so long as doing so does not cause something worse to happen. Thus, for example, if there is only one apple, and my son already has it, and both my son and my neighbor’s son are hungry, I am not obligated to take it from my son and give it to the neighbor, since I would be causing the same amount of harm that I would be attempting to resolve. But if my son has two apples and the neighbor’s son has none, I probably do have a responsibility to give one of them to the neighbor boy—since the bad thing I’m trying to resolve (a boy having nothing) is greater than the bad thing I would cause (a boy having less than he had before but still something). But let’s take Singer’s example, since it’s often quite persuasive.

Singer imagines a situation where you are walking by a pond, into which a small child has fallen. The child is clearly in danger of drowning, and you see no one else who can help—but you’re wearing expensive shoes, and they’ll be ruined by stepping into the water. There isn’t time to take them off and save the child. Naturally, everyone agrees that you must sacrifice the shoes for the child’s sake. The child’s life is definitely worth more than the expensive shoes. If we can agree about this, however, then Singer thinks another ethical conclusion follows—one that might not be as obvious to us. If a child’s life is obviously worth more than an expensive pair of shoes, then, Singer argues, you have a moral obligation to give the money you would have spent on those shoes (or an equivalent amount, if you have enough for both the shoes and charity) to a charity that will prevent a poor child somewhere in the world from dying from hunger, malnutrition, or preventable disease. Not to use the money to give aid to the world’s poor is morally comparable, Singer argues, to choosing not to help the drowning child because you don’t want to ruin your shoes. While there are important differences between murder and neglecting to help someone in distress, morally speaking, they’re both very wrong, Singer argues.

He summarizes his views, on this issue and more generally, in this film clip. Watch it now.

Ultimately, Singer argues, not only do wealthy nations have a moral responsibility to give humanitarian aid to poor nations, but wealthy individuals (by which he means, anyone who has more money than they need to provide for their basic necessities) have a moral responsibility to give charity to poor individuals—regardless of where they live in the world.

(On the same principle: imagine you were watching real-time video footage of a pond in Africa. People pass by occasionally. You see a small child walk into frame, and then she falls into the pond. She is screaming, her arms and legs flailing: clearly she can’t swim, and she is drowning. And then imagine you see an adult wearing fancy shoes walk into the frame. The adult clearly sees the drowning girl, but then looks from the girl to his shoes, and hesitates. No one else is around to help. Aren’t you, at this point, screaming at your screen, “Help the girl! Forget about the shoes! Help the girl!”? It’s not that this adult has any special responsibility to this child; they are, as far as you know, strangers. It’s just that the adult is in a position to help. And then realize that Singer would ask us to see that we should feel the same way about children starving in Africa and around the world, and that we should be just as offended when people who are in a position to help save these children’s lives choose not to help because they want nice things like fancy shoes or expensive cars or cell phones or video game consoles or $5 lattes. And then realize that most of you are, right now, in a position to help those starving children—you are in a position to save their lives. Morally speaking, it doesn’t matter that you’re in the U.S. and they’re not.)

In a three-minute video for his charitable organization, The Life You Can Save, Singer makes a different sort of counterargument. Watch it now.

Do we have a moral responsibility to help, and not just a responsibility not to harm? Think of it this way: my guess is that many of you pay for cable or satellite television. How much does cable cost per month? What could possibly morally justify spending that money on cable—a total luxury item—instead of using it to prevent people from starving to death or dying from easily treated diseases in the poorest parts of the world? Or here’s another one (one that hits especially close to home for me): a latte at Starbucks costs about $5. If you took that money—“the price of a cup of coffee,” as they used to say—and saved it for a year, how much would you be able to help the poor annually? I drink a coffee drink each day, five days a week: that’s $25 a week, $100 a month. Over a year, that’s $1200 I could give to a charity that helped save real people’s lives (it’s also about twice the average annual income of someone living in India). But even if you only sacrificed one latte a week, that’s still $240 you could donate to charity. Three of us working together could double the annual income of someone living in a poorer nation just by “sacrificing” one coffee a week. I like coffee as much as the next guy (maybe more), but ethically speaking, how could such spending ever be justified when so many people are in such great need, and we have the ability to help?

Then think briefly about the fact that, in the United States alone, we spend about $60 billion a year on beer. 60 Billion Dollars. Billion. With a ‘B’.

I know many of us, especially in the U.S., today are often confronted with the view that, if I work hard for my money, then I have a right to spend it however I please. And there is some truth to that, to be sure. At the same time, most people agree that, even if you worked very hard for your money—pulling triple shifts and everything—you do not have the right to donate it to ISIS or some other terrorist organization; or to finance child pornography; or to buy a slave; and so on. There are moral limitations on what you can rightly do even with your own hard-earned money—and those limitations are, generally speaking, all about not using the money to cause undue harm to other people. Giving the money to ISIS is wrong, at least in part, because we know ISIS will use the money to attack innocent people around the world; financing child pornography is wrong, at least in part, because it involves the sexual abuse of a child; buying a slave is wrong, at least in part, because slaves do not submit themselves to slavery voluntarily. When people are harmed unnecessarily, generally speaking, it’s wrong. What Singer is arguing is that it is irrational to believe that this limitation only applies on how you spend your money, and not also to how you refuse to spend your money—that is, Singer thinks we have a moral responsibility not only to avoid harming other people, but also to help them when we can do so without causing ourselves or anyone else a comparable harm to the one we’re trying to address. Thus, Singer is very clear that no one has a moral responsibility to impoverish themselves or their families as a means of lifting other people out of poverty. But if you can afford cable TV, or concert tickets, or an Apple watch, or a new car, or drinks at a bar, or a weekend getaway to Galveston, or nice shoes, and so on—then you’re not poor in Singer’s sense of the term. All of those things are luxuries, and although they are enjoyable and I’m sure you’ve worked hard to have them, that doesn’t mean it’s morally right for you to indulge in such pleasures instead of using that money to address the crises of world hunger and global poverty. To choose cable over charity is to side with the guy who sees the drowning child, thinks of his nice shoes, and walks on by. At least, Peter Singer thinks so.

Singer is a utilitarian, so he believes that an action is morally right when it increases happiness and reduces suffering. Is there any good moral reason—utilitarian or otherwise—not to give what one can afford to give to reputable, effective charities?

If you’re curious about giving, I encourage you to return to Singer’s charity site, The Life You Can Save, and look around. There’s an Impact Calculator (that tells you how much can be done with various amounts of money given to various reputable, effective charities—that $1000 I spend on coffee each year, for example, could pay for school lunches for 34 kids for a full year, or give 24 households seeds and the tools necessary for farming), responses to common objections, fascinating facts (for example, while it would cost about $28 billion to provide education, sanitation, and healthcare to everyone on the planet who doesn’t already have access to such things, the world spends about $59 billion annually on ice cream), and a list of approved charities (that is, charities that do not spend most of your donations on administrative costs and advertising), as well as lots of other stuff. Even if you don’t believe in giving charity, or if you already give in other ways, Singer’s site is a great example of how moral philosophy is not just the stuff of college classes and dusty old textbooks—but can and should have an influence on how each of us lives, every day.



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