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Singer Rich And Poor Essay

At the end of the movie, in cinemas in the affluent nations of the world, people who would have been quick to condemn Dora if she had not rescued the boy go home to places far more comfortable than her apartment. In fact, the average family in the United States spends almost one-third of its income on things that are no more necessary to them than Dora's new TV was to her. Going out to nice restaurants, buying new clothes because the old ones are no longer stylish, vacationing at beach resorts -- so much of our income is spent on things not essential to the preservation of our lives and health. Donated to one of a number of charitable agencies, that money could mean the difference between life and death for children in need.

All of which raises a question: In the end, what is the ethical distinction between a Brazilian who sells a homeless child to organ peddlers and an American who already has a TV and upgrades to a better one -- knowing that the money could be donated to an organization that would use it to save the lives of kids in need?

Of course, there are several differences between the two situations that could support different moral judgments about them. For one thing, to be able to consign a child to death when he is standing right in front of you takes a chilling kind of heartlessness; it is much easier to ignore an appeal for money to help children you will never meet. Yet for a utilitarian philosopher like myself -- that is, one who judges whether acts are right or wrong by their consequences -- if the upshot of the American's failure to donate the money is that one more kid dies on the streets of a Brazilian city, then it is, in some sense, just as bad as selling the kid to the organ peddlers. But one doesn't need to embrace my utilitarian ethic to see that, at the very least, there is a troubling incongruity in being so quick to condemn Dora for taking the child to the organ peddlers while, at the same time, not regarding the American consumer's behavior as raising a serious moral issue.

In his 1996 book, ''Living High and Letting Die,'' the New York University philosopher Peter Unger presented an ingenious series of imaginary examples designed to probe our intuitions about whether it is wrong to live well without giving substantial amounts of money to help people who are hungry, malnourished or dying from easily treatable illnesses like diarrhea. Here's my paraphrase of one of these examples:

Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. The Bugatti is his pride and joy. In addition to the pleasure he gets from driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its rising market value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement. One day when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a railway siding and goes for a walk up the track. As he does so, he sees that a runaway train, with no one aboard, is running down the railway track. Looking farther down the track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the runaway train. He can't stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where his Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed -- but the train will destroy his Bugatti. Thinking of his joy in owning the car and the financial security it represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch. The child is killed. For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.

Bob's conduct, most of us will immediately respond, was gravely wrong. Unger agrees. But then he reminds us that we, too, have opportunities to save the lives of children. We can give to organizations like Unicef or Oxfam America. How much would we have to give one of these organizations to have a high probability of saving the life of a child threatened by easily preventable diseases? (I do not believe that children are more worth saving than adults, but since no one can argue that children have brought their poverty on themselves, focusing on them simplifies the issues.) Unger called up some experts and used the information they provided to offer some plausible estimates that include the cost of raising money, administrative expenses and the cost of delivering aid where it is most needed. By his calculation, $200 in donations would help a sickly 2-year-old transform into a healthy 6-year-old -- offering safe passage through childhood's most dangerous years. To show how practical philosophical argument can be, Unger even tells his readers that they can easily donate funds by using their credit card and calling one of these toll-free numbers: (800) 367-5437 for Unicef; (800) 693-2687 for Oxfam America.

Now you, too, have the information you need to save a child's life. How should you judge yourself if you don't do it? Think again about Bob and his Bugatti. Unlike Dora, Bob did not have to look into the eyes of the child he was sacrificing for his own material comfort. The child was a complete stranger to him and too far away to relate to in an intimate, personal way. Unlike Dora, too, he did not mislead the child or initiate the chain of events imperiling him. In all these respects, Bob's situation resembles that of people able but unwilling to donate to overseas aid and differs from Dora's situation.

If you still think that it was very wrong of Bob not to throw the switch that would have diverted the train and saved the child's life, then it is hard to see how you could deny that it is also very wrong not to send money to one of the organizations listed above. Unless, that is, there is some morally important difference between the two situations that I have overlooked.

Is it the practical uncertainties about whether aid will really reach the people who need it? Nobody who knows the world of overseas aid can doubt that such uncertainties exist. But Unger's figure of $200 to save a child's life was reached after he had made conservative assumptions about the proportion of the money donated that will actually reach its target.

One genuine difference between Bob and those who can afford to donate to overseas aid organizations but don't is that only Bob can save the child on the tracks, whereas there are hundreds of millions of people who can give $200 to overseas aid organizations. The problem is that most of them aren't doing it. Does this mean that it is all right for you not to do it?

Suppose that there were more owners of priceless vintage cars -- Carol, Dave, Emma, Fred and so on, down to Ziggy -- all in exactly the same situation as Bob, with their own siding and their own switch, all sacrificing the child in order to preserve their own cherished car. Would that make it all right for Bob to do the same? To answer this question affirmatively is to endorse follow-the-crowd ethics -- the kind of ethics that led many Germans to look away when the Nazi atrocities were being committed. We do not excuse them because others were behaving no better.

We seem to lack a sound basis for drawing a clear moral line between Bob's situation and that of any reader of this article with $200 to spare who does not donate it to an overseas aid agency. These readers seem to be acting at least as badly as Bob was acting when he chose to let the runaway train hurtle toward the unsuspecting child. In the light of this conclusion, I trust that many readers will reach for the phone and donate that $200. Perhaps you should do it before reading further.

Now that you have distinguished yourself morally from people who put their vintage cars ahead of a child's life, how about treating yourself and your partner to dinner at your favorite restaurant? But wait. The money you will spend at the restaurant could also help save the lives of children overseas! True, you weren't planning to blow $200 tonight, but if you were to give up dining out just for one month, you would easily save that amount. And what is one month's dining out, compared to a child's life? There's the rub. Since there are a lot of desperately needy children in the world, there will always be another child whose life you could save for another $200. Are you therefore obliged to keep giving until you have nothing left? At what point can you stop?

Hypothetical examples can easily become farcical. Consider Bob. How far past losing the Bugatti should he go? Imagine that Bob had got his foot stuck in the track of the siding, and if he diverted the train, then before it rammed the car it would also amputate his big toe. Should he still throw the switch? What if it would amputate his foot? His entire leg?

As absurd as the Bugatti scenario gets when pushed to extremes, the point it raises is a serious one: only when the sacrifices become very significant indeed would most people be prepared to say that Bob does nothing wrong when he decides not to throw the switch. Of course, most people could be wrong; we can't decide moral issues by taking opinion polls. But consider for yourself the level of sacrifice that you would demand of Bob, and then think about how much money you would have to give away in order to make a sacrifice that is roughly equal to that. It's almost certainly much, much more than $200. For most middle-class Americans, it could easily be more like $200,000.

Isn't it counterproductive to ask people to do so much? Don't we run the risk that many will shrug their shoulders and say that morality, so conceived, is fine for saints but not for them? I accept that we are unlikely to see, in the near or even medium-term future, a world in which it is normal for wealthy Americans to give the bulk of their wealth to strangers. When it comes to praising or blaming people for what they do, we tend to use a standard that is relative to some conception of normal behavior. Comfortably off Americans who give, say, 10 percent of their income to overseas aid organizations are so far ahead of most of their equally comfortable fellow citizens that I wouldn't go out of my way to chastise them for not doing more. Nevertheless, they should be doing much more, and they are in no position to criticize Bob for failing to make the much greater sacrifice of his Bugatti.

At this point various objections may crop up. Someone may say: ''If every citizen living in the affluent nations contributed his or her share I wouldn't have to make such a drastic sacrifice, because long before such levels were reached, the resources would have been there to save the lives of all those children dying from lack of food or medical care. So why should I give more than my fair share?'' Another, related, objection is that the Government ought to increase its overseas aid allocations, since that would spread the burden more equitably across all taxpayers.

Yet the question of how much we ought to give is a matter to be decided in the real world -- and that, sadly, is a world in which we know that most people do not, and in the immediate future will not, give substantial amounts to overseas aid agencies. We know, too, that at least in the next year, the United States Government is not going to meet even the very modest Umited Nations-recommended target of 0.7 percent of gross national product; at the moment it lags far below that, at 0.09 percent, not even half of Japan's 0.22 percent or a tenth of Denmark's 0.97 percent. Thus, we know that the money we can give beyond that theoretical ''fair share'' is still going to save lives that would otherwise be lost. While the idea that no one need do more than his or her fair share is a powerful one, should it prevail if we know that others are not doing their fair share and that children will die preventable deaths unless we do more than our fair share? That would be taking fairness too far.

Thus, this ground for limiting how much we ought to give also fails. In the world as it is now, I can see no escape from the conclusion that each one of us with wealth surplus to his or her essential needs should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty so dire as to be life-threatening. That's right: I'm saying that you shouldn't buy that new car, take that cruise, redecorate the house or get that pricey new suit. After all, a $1,000 suit could save five children's lives.

So how does my philosophy break down in dollars and cents? An American household with an income of $50,000 spends around $30,000 annually on necessities, according to the Conference Board, a nonprofit economic research organization. Therefore, for a household bringing in $50,000 a year, donations to help the world's poor should be as close as possible to $20,000. The $30,000 required for necessities holds for higher incomes as well. So a household making $100,000 could cut a yearly check for $70,000. Again, the formula is simple: whatever money you're spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away.

Now, evolutionary psychologists tell us that human nature just isn't sufficiently altruistic to make it plausible that many people will sacrifice so much for strangers. On the facts of human nature, they might be right, but they would be wrong to draw a moral conclusion from those facts. If it is the case that we ought to do things that, predictably, most of us won't do, then let's face that fact head-on. Then, if we value the life of a child more than going to fancy restaurants, the next time we dine out we will know that we could have done something better with our money. If that makes living a morally decent life extremely arduous, well, then that is the way things are. If we don't do it, then we should at least know that we are failing to live a morally decent life -- not because it is good to wallow in guilt but because knowing where we should be going is the first step toward heading in that direction.

When Bob first grasped the dilemma that faced him as he stood by that railway switch, he must have thought how extraordinarily unlucky he was to be placed in a situation in which he must choose between the life of an innocent child and the sacrifice of most of his savings. But he was not unlucky at all. We are all in that situation.

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You are here: Home » Health » Peter Singer on the Ethics of Giving to the Very Poor

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Peter Singer was recently interviewed by Kate O’Toole on Triple J’s current affairs program, Hack. In the interview and ensuing discussion, Singer raised some interesting points with one central theme: the rich world (that’s us) have a moral obligation to give a significant percentage of our incomes to the developing world. No ifs. No buts.

To begin with, Kate O’Toole describes a thought experiment that Singer introduced to motivate the ethical argument of his book, The Life You Can Save (he has a website of the same name). In short, the picture is this: imagine walking home one day from university with your bag over your shoulder, and you pass a local lake — you do this every day, except that this day you notice for the first time that there is a child who is stuck in the lake and is drowning not far from the edge. What should you do?

Have a think about it.

Singer’s argument is that, as you might expect, you should save the child — even though this will cost you getting your clothes wet, possibly even causing you embarrassment, and certainly delaying your evening by making you miss your bus or opportunity to go out with friends. The experiment is pertinent since he believes that this is exactly the same situation that we — in the developed rich countries — are faced with right now: we are the ones in good clothing, walking home with good education, on our way to having a good time (I have added these points) and the inhabitants of the poor countries are represented by the dying child, those with significantly shorter life expectancies, higher infant mortality rates, life-changing cataracts that needlessly cause blindness in many people, and … we could go on.

Singer’s searing question is thus: if we would act to save the child in the pond, why don’t we act to save the poor of the world?

He specifically trains his attention on the poorest 1.4 billion people who are listed as living in extreme poverty on the one hand, and the very rich (relatively) who have more ‘stuff’ in their lives than they know what to do with on the other. And if you want to say, ‘I’m not rich — I’m a student’, then I’m afraid Singer doesn’t let you off the hook — he would ask, ‘have you ever bought bottled water?’ .. if you have, then since water is widely available, fresh and clear from any tap in Australia, then you clearly have more than enough income to dabble in luxury goods, since you just spent $2 or more needlessly on a whim to buy bottled water (of all things!).

Predictably, Singer’s argument is that although we can’t reach over ourselves and save the metaphorical drowning child, we can give our excess money to those who can. He has in mind aid organisations like Oxfam, Red Cross , World Vision and so on.

Whilst I’m with Singer all the way to this point — I’m a sucker for well argued, principled and rational reflection (not withstanding that we don’t get at the basic issue of why all lives are worthwhile which is an implicit assumption in Singer’s work .. but let’s assume for the moment that they are (not that I’m suggesting they’re not, but sometimes it is good to reflect deeply on why we believe this)) — I start finding his arguments a bit hairy from here on.

For instance, he goes on in the interview to describe a distinction between the ‘Ethics’ and the ‘Practicalities’ of giving.

You see, there is the ethical argument (as described above) which drives us to see that we can’t not help (through giving), but then there is the practical argument which advises us how much to give. Here, the prescription is that one should give around 1 per cent of income if on a ‘low’ income in Australia – the logic being that this fraction is substantial, but shouldn’t incur too much cost on standard of living; then if earning up to around $100,000 income, the fraction increases to around 3 per cent; 5 per cent is for the very rich (much greater than $100,000); and then a dramatic increase on a sliding scale to a third of your income if you live in the stratospheric realms of the uber-rich (earning millions per year). Whilst this, at first pass, might sound reasonable, it doesn’t make economic or moral sense.

On the economic side, evidence on happiness suggests that after a certain level of income is met, further increases in income do not have nearly the same effect on our happiness. Whilst some have taken this to meant that relative income is the only thing that matters it is sure that humans are, generally speaking, ‘happy’ when their income provides enough for a basic level of consumption.

The implication for analysing how much one should give is that if you are earning ‘enough’ to satisfy your basic needs, then the rest (as Singer’s bottled water question nicely points out) is just a luxury and should be used wisely and sparingly. Infact, this would mean rather than giving an increasing fractional portion of our income, we should give an increasing absolute amount. Indeed, if we assume that twice the PhD stipend of an Australian grad-student (i.e. about $40,000) is ‘enough’ to live on (since PhD students universally complain of their poverty, but objectively are still well fed and nourished!) then all dollars of income above $40,000 should be available for giving. Or at the very least, should be in stiff competition with other forms of leisure.

On this front, in the interview, Singer points out that the Met Museum in New York recently spent US$43 million on a new painting. His question is, since that amount of money is surely in the discretionary spending realm (since you can’t eat, shelter under, or gain nourishment in any way from art) are you sure that that money was spent in the best way? .. He contends that it could likely save a football stadium (e.g. the MCG) worth of the world’s poor from their situation .. So, will it be the painting, or the MCG worth of lives saved? .. The painting, or the MCG..?? It is easy to see why he’s so persistent in his message.

Which brings us back to our giving. Suppose we take the audacious step to allow aid money to contend on equal footing for every income dollar above our ‘basic needs’, then who should we give it to? Specifically, should we give it the government or to a non-government aid organisation?

The main interest here, from an economic efficiency perspective, would be that we wish the institution to distribute the aid with low transaction costs (i.e. not spent on bureaucracy); that the aid would be spent with high attention to where it is most effective, or in other words, that the marginal value of your aid dollar is high; and that the aid causes long-term, rather than just short-term crisis relief (although this may be called for in one-off donations) since we wish to lift our poorer brothers and sisters out of their systemic condition, rather than just cause them to be dependent.

So who is the perfect institution? Well, clearly no institution is perfect, I want to argue for a moment that the Australian government is worth considering in the mix. Why would that be? .. Well, although it is potentially the largest institution, it has excellent access to global information through its many diplomatic missions around the world, and so will likely no very well where aid can be spent with high effect. Furthermore, unlike the NGOs, the government actually has its own standing army to facilitate aid distribution and re-building in certain situations. In other words, it has enormous in-built capacity which can make its actual functions using your money wide-reaching and very powerful.

Finally, one could argue that the government should actually spend the money on the Australian Economy and not on direct foreign aid at all. What?! .. How could that help? .. Well, I don’t want to say too much (I think it would make a challenging research essay topic), but remember that for so long as there is high demand in the developed countries for raw materials, manufactured goods, and services, there will be extensive markets for developing countries to sell into. One of the forgotten truths of the present financial crisis is that with the tanking of the US and European and Japanese economies, global demand has plummeted, which has in turn lead to millions of job-losses in developing countries. China has been particularly hit in this regard. Don’t forget that the clear champion of the poorest of the poor in world history (that’s right, world history) has been China — they are almost singularly responsible for the vastly diminished numbers of extremely poor in the world today.

Of course, there are good reasons why you wouldn’t want the government alone to be providing aid — monopolies are rarely efficient institutional arrangements, the aid ‘market’ is no different — but I’ll leave that for you to think about.

A final word on the moral argument — Singer’s practical thinking is not a bad start, notwithstanding the absolute argument made above, but Singer would do well to remember that there have been many long-standing institutions that have encouraged giving to others at a much higher rate, regardless of your present income level. Take the rule of thumb for giving adopted from the Biblical tithing principle of 10% of your income. This principal has survived to guide (not stipulate) the thinking on giving of millions of modern-day Christians and Jews.

And if you’re wondering where the Australian Government is at on giving as your representative, Singer points out in the interview that ‘we’ give around 30 cents in every one hundred dollars of tax revenue (or 0.30%). How does that square with the old parable of the generous giver?

41 And [Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. 43 And he called his disciples to him and said to them, Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. 44 For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on. (Mark 12:41-44)

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