Friday, July 17, 2009

The Truly Needy (2)

First of all, let me say I am acutely aware that sandwiched between my first and second blogs on the Truly Needy is one on Trader Joe’s. It is both ironic and absurd, but may I venture to add somehow very American, too. I also want to thank Felisa and DB for their responses to that first blog. Their perspectives have definitely influenced me to think and write more about this.

In any case, I was cruising a great New York City Bookstore yesterday, the Barnes and Noble at Lincoln Center, where I picked up a book called The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty by Peter Singer, the philosopher who is probably best known for his animal rights advocacy. Singer now devotes himself primarily to the ethics of world poverty and in this particular volume he has two main goals: 1) to convince readers that doing something to help those most in need is a moral obligation, part of what it means to live an ethical life; 2) to persuade people to give at least 5% of their income to help end poverty. By the way, just as a gauge of my own selfishness or at least initial resistance to this second goal, I found myself immediately wondering whether Singer meant 5% of gross income or after-tax income. It turns out he means 5% of gross income.

In one of his chapters, Singer explores the reasons typically offered for not giving more to reduce poverty. A lot of these have to do with the claim that there is no general obligation to help others in need, or that Americans, as a whole, are already doing enough. A couple of arguments, coming more from the left, say that giving creates dependency (especially when the giving is direct and piecemeal), and, more seriously, allows governments to evade the responsibility of, say, restructuring the economy or instituting laws to mandate greater equity. With respect to this last point, Singer does not disagree, but adds there is no reason why philanthropy should not be coupled with advocacy and the active pursuit of institutional change. In the end, Professor Singer, a well trained philosopher, puts forward what he regards as an unassailable syllogism regarding our individual obligations, AT MINIMUM, to reduce poverty. I reproduce it below and will end this blog, with plans to return to this topic in the near future, with these words of Singer from pages 15-16 of his 2009 book, published by Random House:

First Premise: Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad.

Second Premise: If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.

Third Premise: By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.

Conclusion: Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong.

1 comment:

  1. We could parse away at Prof Singer's argument but it seems to me that the core is unassailable, if you have the means/ability to reduce the suffering that others experience because of lack of food, shelter and healthcare, then it is wrong not to do so. We are our brother's keeper.