Famed Ethicist Shares His Views on Global Poverty

Famed Ethicist Shares His Views on Global Poverty
peter singer
Peter Singer spoke on campus in October. Image (c) Bbsrock via Wikimedia Commons.

The oft-controversial Australian philosopher Peter Singer addressed the campus community in Kendall Hall on October 20. The hour-long talk focused on extreme poverty in developing countries and the reasons why members of an affluent society are so reluctant to help fight it.

The speaker, famous for his penning of the animal-rights touchstone Animal Liberation and for his extensive ethical commentary, argued for charitable giving and illustrated a series of points laid out in his most recent book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty.

Singer began the lecture with a hypothetical situation: if you spotted a child drowning in a nearby lake, he asked the crowd, would you jump in to save him—at the risk of ruining a pair of expensive shoes?

Naturally, audience members said they would, and Singer explored the metaphor. The millions of children starving in third world countries don’t have that kind of visibility, he said. “If we could see it, we can’t have any doubt that we would do something urgently.”

By some estimates, Singer said, one football stadium–full of children die every day due to preventable, poverty-related causes. His lecture discussed organizations—like OxFam International and the World Health Organization—that provide aid to people in poor areas, and the various arguments for and against donation.

The most common reason for not giving, he said, is skepticism about the reliability of such organizations. But Singer contended with several of the assumptions people make about spending practices, and offered a Web site, Givewell.net, as a tool to help decide which organization are the most effective.

The speaker discussed a number of other reasons why those with the means to give opt not to. They can’t necessarily see the impact they will have, and often assume that someone else will take responsibility (what Singer called the “bystander effect”).

“It’s still up to you to make a difference,” he said, arguing that we must overcome those psychological boundaries and engage the problems at hand.

Singer acknowledged that many of those problems are rooted in deep-seated social complications and require long-term solutions. However, he denied that those larger issues invalidated the need for timely aid for those suffering in the present.

Additionally, he said that the “targeting” of donations—focusing spending on the education of young women, for example—can help alleviate long-term crises, like overpopulation.

How much difference are we obligated to make? Singer, who has said he gives about 25 percent of his earnings to charity, expressed support for the strict utilitarian standard that money should go where it will do most good. In most cases, he admitted, such a high standard is untenable.

Yet he stated that the United States and other developed nations are still not giving enough, considering the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MGDs) for 2015. The MDGs call for the reduction of extreme poverty by one half, an ideal that Singer said will not be reached unless wealthy nations increase their financial contributions significantly.

Giving ought to be more mainstream and more visible, he asserted. His site, www.thelifeyoucansave.com, allows individuals to make public donations as part of an online community.

“It’s amazing what people can do when they have support,” he said.

Following the lecture, Singer addressed a full 45 minutes’ worth of questions, several of which challenged the speaker’s premise on its face. Several questioners suggested that the best solution to extreme poverty lay in socialistic wealth redistribution, and one woman asked the speaker if he considered “revolution” a valid option in today’s society.

While Singer enunciated his belief that large-scale questions did not sufficiently address the most pressing poverty-related problems, he revealed that he was pleased to discuss such sentiments, adding that he did not typically receive such suggestions other times he has spoken on the topic.

Singer’s talk was the first installation in a memorial series of lectures held in honor of late history professor Alan Dawley and organized by the Alan Dawley Center for the Study of Social Justice.

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