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Peter Singer on world poverty

By Alice Aslan - posted Tuesday, 24 February 2009


In his latest book The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, influential Australian philosopher Peter Singer argues that people in affluent societies have a strong obligation to help the poor in other countries.

For Singer, giving or caring for others who are less fortunate - or in other words philanthropy - is the intrinsic part of living “a morally good life” and being an ethical and good person. He reflects on the reasons why in rich nations people give nothing, or very little, to help the poor in foreign countries find ways out of poverty. He also highlights that with this book he aims to convince his readers “to choose to give” a larger amount of their income to help the poor.

Singer points out that helping the poor is not a new philosophy, but a long-established tradition and moral obligation deeply rooted in most religions around the world including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and in the Chinese tradition of Confucianism.

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He offers a number of arguments to convince his readers why they ought to help poverty-stricken strangers in far-away countries. His core argument is simple:

Most of us are absolutely certain that we wouldn’t hesitate to save a drowning child, and we would do it at considerable cost to ourselves. Yet while thousands of children die each day, we spend money on things we take for granted, and would hardly miss if they were not there. Is that wrong? If so, how far does our obligation to the poor go?

And he asks, “What if I told you that you, too, can save a life, even many lives?” Singer suggests that anyone who can, for instance, afford to buy a bottle of water or a can of soda instead of drinking safe tap water has money to spend on things that they don’t really need.

He reminds us that there are about 1.4 billion people in the world who everyday have to live on less money than what we pay for a bottle of water. And these people who live in extreme poverty can’t even afford basic human needs such as “adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, sanitation, health care and education”; and “their children may die from simple, easily treatable diseases like diarrhoea”. In contrast, today there are about a billion people in the world who lead an affluent life. Reminding us that according to UNICEF, 9.7 million children under five die every year, Singer urges us not to turn a blind eye to this “immense tragedy”.

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Singer lists the reasons why people don’t feel obliged to help the poor beyond their families, communities, and societies. In affluent countries there is a general belief that having a good and moral life means supporting one’s children and elderly parents, not harming others and helping the needy a little in the community. And people mostly think that “charity begins at home” and prefer to help their families, community members and fellow citizens rather than strangers. They claim that they can’t identify with the victims of poverty in distant countries and feel empathy towards them. For instance, in the US most charity goes to local religious or educational organisations with only little money donated to poor countries.

But Singer challenges this view; and notes that in the age of global communication and rapid transport, an ethical life also involves helping the poor beyond our borders.

Affluent societies who harm the poor nations and worsen their circumstances and welfare by exploiting their natural resources, dealing with dictators in developing countries, causing global warming and destroying their ecosystem, have a duty to aid these societies. But the developed nations give only a very small proportion of their income, and generally prefer to help their political allies and use foreign aid to boost their own economies by selling their own goods to developing nations. Consequently, extremely poor nations may not benefit much from such aid.

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Alice Aslan is a writer.

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