Bioethics professor Peter Singer and GiveWell.org co-founder Holden Karnofsky spoke about global poverty in a talk sponsored by the American Whig-Cliosophic Society and the Princeton chapter of Giving What We Can on Tuesday.
Singer, who is a member of Giving What We Can, addressed the ethical aspects of donating money to those who are living in poverty by comparing the issue to saving a child from drowning in a pond.
Most people would not hesitate to jump into the pond to save the child, Singer said — even though there might be some burden placed on them, such as getting their shoes wet. But while finding a child drowning in a pond is uncommon, there are children dying every day from the effects of extreme poverty, he explained.
“We do live in a world in which there are a lot of very poor people that are ... at a level of poverty that means that there is a mortality among small children,” Singer said, “which is vastly higher than it would be if they were not so extremely poor.”
The World Bank defines extreme poverty as living each day on the equivalent amount of goods that can be purchased with a little over $1. By this measure, those who live in extreme poverty lack access to safe drinking water, sanitation, food security and basic healthcare. Over eight million children under 5 years old die each year from what UNICEF describes as avoidable, poverty-related causes.
“It is generally a life that lacks the dignity, independence and security that most of us take for granted,” Singer said.
Unfortunately, he added, the issue is rarely featured in the media because it is so dispersed around the world.
“It’s happening in many parts of the world where there are no media reporting,” Singer said. “It just happens one death at a time in different villages in different places, and it’s part of the background.”
A “normal, middle-class person in developed society” can make a difference by donating a reasonable amount of money to organizations that have the power to use those donations to help those living in extreme poverty, Singer said.
“The argument I’m making is not one about cleansing your conscience or making you feel good about what you’re doing,” he said. “It is really one that relies on the idea that we can make a difference in global poverty.”
Singer describes himself as a consequentialist, which means that he holds the ethical position that the right thing to do is the one that will have the best consequences — as such, if there were nothing that could be done about global poverty, then no one is obliged to attempt to fix the situation. But this is not the case with poverty, Singer noted, as donations do lead to results.
Singer attributes the current lack of adequate donations and aid to a psychological effect that comes from being presented with statistics involving over a billion people living in poverty.
“It’s a mass of people, and we don’t respond very well to abstractions of large numbers,” Singer said. “We respond to individuals.”
Whatever the reason, however, Singer noted that the lack of help reaching the extremely poor is a moral rather than psychological issue.
“I think it’s really hard to defend the idea that somehow we have no moral obligation to help identifiable individuals ... in the way that we don’t have an obligation to help where there is no identifiable individual,” Singer said. “Morality doesn’t seem to depend on that.”