SEATTLE — Why help poor people? Many are content to say that this question doesn’t need answering, the underlying assumption being that aiding disadvantaged populations is simply “the right thing to do.” But for philosophers and individuals struggling to understand the moral aspects of poverty and how they relate to others in an unjust society, this line of query poses a serious dilemma.
The reason this question has become so nuanced in recent years is due to a shift in the way people relate to each other. Whereas poverty was once a local problem, technology and globalization have expanded social and economic networks, revealing the stark reality of global inequality. Most people would feel obligated to give a dollar to the familiar homeless person across the street, but what is owed the starving child on a different continent? In other words, what is the moral obligation to distant others?
Utilitarianism, a set of ethical codes that mandates actions must be chosen on the basis of providing the most happiness for the most people, is a common response used to explain an obligation to help the poor. If a dollar spent on helping a child receive education brings more net happiness than if that same dollar is spent on ice cream, then the right choice is clear: donate money to help a greater cause.
Critics of utilitarianism point out that it is not realistic to make an informed impact evaluation for every decision. Immanuel Kant, a central figure in modern philosophy, stated that the “ought” implies the “can.” In other words, while there is a moral obligation to respond to everyone’s needs before living luxuriously, this standard is psychologically too demanding and can only exist as an ideal.
In response to such criticisms, well-known modern philosopher Peter Singer has developed his own ethical reasoning concerning the moral aspects of poverty. His arguments have roots in utilitarianism but are less extreme.
Singer’s 1972 article titled “Famine, Affluence and Morality” paved the way for discussion surrounding the ethics of modern-day poverty. He detailed the principle of sacrifice, stating that if it is in one’s power to prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing something else of comparable moral importance, one is morally obligated to do it.
This reasoning is far less demanding. Instead of utilitarianism, under which one must act to bring everyone the greatest happiness, Singer’s thesis states the only obligation is to stop immediate evils from happening to others.
Singer is more than clear that the obligation towards distant others is the same as those suffering nearby. His thought experiment “The Shallow Pond” has prompted a great deal of ethical debate. The summary is as follows.
A man walking by a shallow pond on his commute notices a child drowning in the water. Most would agree his moral obligation would be to save that child, because although he may ruin his clothes, preventing the death of the child would come at a relatively low cost.
Singer then poses the question: how is this situation any different than if that child is far away, and that same man, as a consumer, had the choice of spending his money on charity or a luxury item?
This thought experiment is particularly convincing when examining the number of children “drowning in shallow ponds” today. More than six million children die of preventable diseases each year. As an Oxford journal puts it, that is comparable to 40 full Boeing 747s crashing every day.
While this number may be dismal, dollar donations do have the power to reduce loss of life. Immunization programs save around 3.6 million lives per year, which is greater than ending war in terms of lives saved.
Ethical debate about the moral aspects of poverty continues to raise thought-provoking questions about inequality around the world. It is clear that these questions will not go away any time soon and that the state of global welfare depends on the answers.
– Kailey Dubinsky