Global Poverty: How Demanding Are Our Obligations?

author: Peter Singer, University Center for Human Values, Princeton University
published: Aug. 7, 2012,   recorded: September 2007,   views: 3527
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Peter Singer walks listeners through one of his most provocative philosophical arguments -- that affluent individuals must acknowledge their moral obligation to relieve the unnecessary death and suffering of the poor. His sinuous reasoning starts with the simple case of a bystander coming upon a child drowning in a pond with no one else around. Should the bystander leave the child to drown, or must he stay and save the child? Most people intuitively recognize a duty to rescue the child. Singer argues from analogy that there is “no morally relevant difference between the drowning child situation and the situation of the affluent with regard to children dying of avoidable poverty related causes.”

Singer plays this scenario out in a variety of ways, and responds to counter-arguments that have been deployed against it over the years. Is there a stronger moral obligation to a child encountered in the flesh than to a faceless child in a distant place? There’s psychological evidence that people tend to donate more money when they can match their aid to a face, but the fact that we have “an evolved response to an individual in need” doesn’t justify this as normative moral theory, says Singer. And while it is true that we give weight to unique responsibility, such as that of a parent to a child, we should not allow this to limit our actions. Singer promulgates the idea that “if we (relatively affluent individuals) can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it.” Since absolute poverty is bad, we ought to act against such poverty.

Singer responds to critics who claim that individuals need do no more than their fair share, and to those who try to restrict what people reasonably owe others. Singer labels arguments laying out the right to pursue individual goals and protect life-enhancing goods as “all ways of trying to find a principle that squares with the intuition that morality shouldn’t be too demanding and allow us to continue to live a comfortable life.” He admits that “some say I’m preaching a demanding ethic that will make life miserable.” He cites some alternative public standards, such as tithing 10% of income. Singer himself now gives close to 1/3rd of what he earns. With a little reflection, people might find that improving the situation of others constitutes a satisfying alternative to feathering their own nests. Singer concludes, “Living the ethical life is what is going to make life better.”

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