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Princeton Philosopher Urges Rich to Give More to Poor
Photo by Kevin Matthews

Princeton Philosopher Urges Rich to Give More to Poor

Peter Singer's message is uncomfortable: Most people follow a minimalist morality that makes them a lot more immoral than they consider themselves to be.

Aid need not come from just the government — and it need not go to corrupt governments.

This article was first published on May 31, 2007, by UCLA Today Online.

By Ajay Singh

LET'S SAY you're walking in a park where you see a child who appears to be drowning in a shallow pond. Would you wade into the water and rescue the child?

Of course you would, said Peter Singer, one of the world's foremost moral philosophers, at a recent public talk on campus titled, "Global Poverty: What are our Obligations?" But his argument, which he called "Famine, Affluence and Morality: The Drowning Child," isn't as simple as it seems at first.

"We all think we should rush in and save the child even though you had nothing to do with the child’s drowning," Singer said. So why is it, he added, that many of us do nothing to assist people who die daily from poverty-related causes?

Singer spoke to a packed audience of mainly students at the Fowler Museum's Lenart Auditorium May 25. The lecture was sponsored by the ASUCLA Campus Events Commission, the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations as well as the departments of Philosophy and World Arts and Cultures.

A professor of bioethics at Princeton University, Singer is famous for developing an influential argument that appears to lay bare an uncomfortable truth: Most people follow a minimalist morality that makes them a lot more immoral than they consider themselves to be.

There are no morally relevant differences between the drowning child in the example and those, including children, who die of avoidable poverty-related causes, Singer said.

Therefore, he added, it is wrong for the affluent to go on with their lives while more than 10 million children — an astounding 27,000 per day — die of preventable diseases, malnutrition, poor hygiene or lack of safe drinking water.

"Absolute poverty is bad — and if we can prevent it without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it," the Australian-born philosopher argued.

Unfortunately, rich nations don't do enough to prevent poverty, despite the World Bank's claims that global poverty is decreasing, Singer observed. He cited a survey in which U.S. citizens were asked to estimate what percentage of the federal budget went toward overseas development aid (ODA), and then what percentage of the budget they felt ought to go toward ODA.

The median answer to the two questions was 15% and 10% respectively; in reality, a mere 1% of the federal budget goes to ODA. "It constantly disappoints me that American leaders do nothing to educate the public about foreign aid," Singer said. Although President Bush increased U.S. foreign aid by as much as 40.2% during 2004-05, Singer added, about 25% of the aid went to Iraq alone. What's more, of the top 10 recipients of ODA, only in Uganda and Sudan does the United States not have a particularly strong geopolitical interest.

"People say, 'We pour billions of dollars into these countries, and they've never gone anywhere,' " Singer said. "The truth is we never really give money to fight poverty." Just five affluent nations, he added, exceed the United Nations recommendation for foreign aid.

At the top of the list is Norway, which gives 1% of its GDP to fight poverty overseas, he said. In his books and articles, Singer has urged citizens of rich nations to consider offering 1% of their income to fighting global poverty, thereby leading a morally decent life.

In a telling real-life example, Singer showed how much $10,000 can do to provide poverty relief. A few years ago, a friend of his who inherited some money spent $10,000 through a nongovernmental agency to build a hand-operated well in Ethiopia, where women typically spend two to three hours daily fetching water. The well now provides an entire village with safe drinking water and will continue to do so for many years, said Singer, adding: "Aid need not come from just the government — and it need not go to corrupt governments."

Burkle Center for International Relations