Are you morally obligated to help the world’s poor?

One of the most influential books I have read about poverty, possibly because I read it at a relatively young age, was The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty by one of my favourite philosophers, Peter Singer. Singer wrote The Life You Can Save (first published in 2009) to address our current response to the issue of world poverty, demonstrating that we are not doing enough as individuals, which is ethically indefensible. I have always been interested in issues relating to poverty, and from a young age have wondered what my obligations towards those living in poverty are as a privileged individual living in Australia.

SINGER’S ARGUMENT

Singer, a renowned utilitarian, presents his argument in the first chapters of the book for why we are in fact morally obligated to help the worlds poor. He uses the example of a child drowning in a pond, and asserts that if you saw a child drowning in a lake and you were in a position to save them, you should do so. According to Singer, if you are in a position to save a life without sacrificing something equally as important, you are morally obligated to do so, and a child halfway across the world is no different (to a child dying in front of you), just because you can’t see them. Here is a breakdown of Singer’s argument:

Premise 1: It is bad that people should suffer from a lack of clean drinkable water, basic healthcare, food security, and shelter.

Premise 2: If you are in a position to prevent something bad from happening without having to sacrifice something equally as important, it is wrong not to do so.

Premise 3: By giving money to humanitarian aid agencies you can prevent the suffering and death of someone from lack of clean drinkable water, basic healthcare, food security, and shelter, without having to sacrifice something equally important.

Conclusion: Therefore if you do not give anything to humanitarian aid agencies you are doing something ethically bad.

This video by PBS Crash Course does a great job of explaining Singer’s argument, and a popular objection to it by Garrett Hardin:

COMMON OBJECTIONS TO OUR OBLIGATION TO THE WORLD’S POOR

You aren’t well-off enough to give your money to the world’s poor: This is a very common objection to the notion that we are morally obligated to give to the world’s poor: you aren’t rich enough to have heaps of money to donate to the world’s poor. But as Singer so eloquently puts it in his book: if you have the money to buy yourself a bottle of water, a juice or a soda, when you have access to free, clean drinkable water from the tap, then you do have at least some money that you could be giving to the world’s poor.

We should help the struggling people in our own communities before helping others: Yes, it is true that pretty much every developed society still has people in their own communities who are struggling in some way. Something that I really don’t like to do is compare the struggles of people who are in completely different situations, but I feel as though when it comes to this argument we can still constructively compare the two situations and establish which situation should be addressed first without devaluing the struggles of the other. While Singer states in his book that there are 1.3 billion people living in extreme poverty (what the UN defines as living on less than $1.25US a day) and these are the people who should be helped first, I prefer to refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. Maslow’s hierarchy is a 5 tier pyramid that describes the 5 levels of psychological need for humans, and each level can’t be achieved until the level below has been first. The first tier describes physiological needs such as shelter, food, and water, and the second tier is the need for security and safety, whether it be financial, from natural disasters, the military, etc. By comparing the needs of the world’s poor with those in our own societies and seeing where they fit in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, we can then establish who ought to be be helped first. Regardless of where people come from, whether it be our own community or a community half way across the world, the people who don’t even have their physiological needs fulfilled are the ones we ought to help first.

Objections to the benefit of humanitarian aid: It is fair to believe that humanitarian aid is not the best way to go about alleviating world poverty, when disadvantaged communities and developing countries should instead focus on building a stable economy through things like trade, and developing more stable governments and social systems. While this is a very important point, this doesn’t devalue the importance of humanitarian aid in the fight to alleviate poverty, since humanitarian aid saves lives. While it is important to build stable economies, governments, and societies, it is equally as important to save lives while this is happening.

It’s Not Fair: Why should you give some of your hard earned money to the world’s poor when there are people far better off than you are who won’t do the same, that isn’t fair? While it may not be fair, morality isn’t about fairness. You are responsible for your own actions, and just because other people aren’t willing to save a life, that doesn’t mean it’s okay for you not to save a life either.

Why should I have to sacrifice things that bring me joy: It can seem unfair that you might have to sacrifice small luxuries that bring you joy and add value to your life, especially when you’ve worked hard to earn them. It might be easy for you to say “I’d rather buy new shoes than give my money to the poor,” but we shouldn’t think of aid as just giving our money away, we should think of humanitarian aid as saving a life. Could you still justify saying “I’d rather buy new shoes than save someone’s life.”

THE LIFE YOU CAN SAVE

The book itself goes further into giving to the worlds poor than just our moral obligations. Singer also addresses other philosophical considerations, he describes the practical obstacles to giving, and discusses problems associated with giving to certain charities. Singer also offers a plan for readers to figure out how much and how best to give to different charities. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about what we can do as individuals to act now to end world poverty.

In a recent youtube video, I shared my thoughts on the book, how it (amongst other things) influenced my passion for sustainable development, and give a little insight into the things I do as an activist for Campaign for Australian Aid; campaigning for cross-party commitment for Australia to increase its foreign aid budget.

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