Peter Singer on affluence and ethics

The Wall Street Journal this week featured a new book, The Life You Can Save, by Princeton philosopher Peter Singer about the ethical obligations of the affluent to help the very poor:

Suppose you see a small child drowning in a pond. If you save him you will ruin your expensive suit. Do you save him? Of course you do. Now think about the world’s extremely poor children who are going to die unless you give enough to a charity designed to help them, such as Unicef or Oxfam. Do you save them? Not often enough. In “The Life You Can Save,” Peter Singer argues that the two situations are ethically equivalent. Such immediacy is compassionate and inspirational — you want to give more after reading Mr. Singer.

Unfortunately, there are several differences between these two situations. The most important is that you know exactly what to do to save the child, whereas it is not at all clear that you (or anyone else) knows exactly what to do to save the lives of poor children or how to get them out of extreme poverty. Another difference is that you are the one acting directly to save the drowning child, whereas there are multiple intermediaries between you and the poor child — an international charity, an official aid agency, a government, a local aid worker.

Mr. Singer is aware of these problems. He is aware, too, of the complicated roots of poverty: the lack of a political voice for the poor; their victimization by policemen, soldiers, gangs and corrupt bureaucrats; the weak or biased enforcement of their contract and property rights — not to mention outright expropriation and theft. He cites cases like Angola, where a corrupt government earns $30 billion annually in oil revenues — equivalent to $2,500 per citizen — and yet the life expectancy of Angolans is 41 years. Is it really so clear how to rescue a person from poverty in this situation?

. . .

Yet Mr. Singer never confronts what all of this bad news means for his argument. He keeps repeating his signature equivalence between directly saving a drowning victim and indirectly saving distant poor people as if problems did not exist. He seems to take it on faith: “It seems scarcely possible that if we truly set out to reduce poverty, and put resources into doing so that match the scale of the problem — including resources to evaluate past failures and learn from our mistakes — we will be unable to find ways of making a positive impact.”

Read it all here. What do you think?

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