“Drop the gun, open the safe, or she dies!”
Every muscle in your body is tensed and ready as you hear these words. Your eyes, burning with anger and sweat, stare through the sight of the weapon you bought, “just for protection”, at this madman who holds a knife to your daughter’s neck.
“I’m not kidding dammit! Drop it or her blood’s on your hands!”, he screams wildly.
Your chest is pounding, you teeter on the verge of hyperventilation and your mind is racing, playing back with incredibly vivid accuracy your last few memories before you heard your daughter scream. You try desperately to understand how this standoff happened. “How did he get into our home?” you think to yourself.
“I swear to God if you hurt her …”, you hear yourself bravely say, but you have no idea what to do. You know that if you drop the gun, he may kill both you and your daughter and run off with your money. If you don’t drop the gun, in a second she may be gone forever. You’re paralyzed by an odd combination of responsibility, fear, power and helplessness. Your daughter’s fate is in your hands. What do you do?
Hopefully none of us ever finds ourselves in such a horrifying situation. You can only imagine how impossible it would be to make a split second decision with the life of a loved one at stake. Anyone familiar with action movies knows that the hero often finds himself in a similar gut-wrenching quandary. In those movies, the villain, like the assailant above, challenges the scruples, integrity and faith of the hero by creating an environment in which it seems as if the choice of life and death is held by the hero alone. I would guess that those of us who have witnessed heated exchanges like this in movies have imagined what we would do if it were us being challenged. Do you give away your power with the hope that the hostage will be released? Or, do you use your power to effect a safe escape for you and the victim? The outcome rests in your hands. Or does it?
We will return to this question shortly.
Utilitarian Philosopher Peter Singer in his article entitled “The Singer Solution to World Poverty” (1999) espouses a remedy to the disparity of wealth existing among the world’s population. He suggests that in order to save lives currently being lost as a result of poverty due to conditions such as malnutrition, starvation, dehydration and other easily curable illnesses, one should donate any money one has accumulated which exceeds one’s immediate survival needs to overseas relief organizations like UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund). (¶ 3, 8)
Here Mr. Singer explains his theory in practice: “An American household with an income of $50,000 spends around $30,000 annually on necessities, according to the Conference Board, a nonprofit economic research organization. Therefore, for a household bringing in $50,000 a year, donations to help the world’s poor should be as close as possible to $20,000. The $30,000 required for necessities holds for higher incomes as well. So a household making $100,000 could cut a yearly check for $70,000. Again, the formula is simple: whatever money you’re spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away.” (¶ 22)
In case you’re ready to cut your check now, Singer actually gives in his article the phone numbers to both UNICEF and another organization called OxFam America (1-800-367-5437 and 1-800-693-2687, respectively) with the additional comment and admonition, “I trust that many readers will reach for the phone and donate that $200. Perhaps you should do it before reading further.” (¶ 8, 14) Now although these words may be a bit reminiscent of Sunday morning televangelism, it’s hard to deny that Mr. Singer is someone who has some strong beliefs about his cause.
But for those of you who still aren’t completely convinced that you should cash in your kid’s college fund and your 401K to support Nigerian aid, please read on.
Although certainly compelled by the sincerity of Mr. Singer’s ideas and conclusions, I too was a bit hesitant to give away all of my earnings north of $30K after finishing his article. Despite being philanthropic by nature, I just couldn’t bring myself to fully accept and act on his solution. However, it should speak to the power of Singer’s argument that it took me some time to really understand what about his words rubbed me the wrong way and that I even took the time to do so in the first place. In the end, I realized that at least for me, there were some glaring omissions in his logic that made his petition for aid feel disturbingly similar to the demands of the attacker in the opening illustration – lives hang in the balance and the gun is in your hands.
Although comparing a well-meaning philosopher to a homicidal degenerate may seem unfair or extreme, allow me to elaborate. You see, what the stress and immediacy of our “Drop the Gun” scenario tends to mask is that no matter what the perpetrator says, you are not the one responsible for the victim’s life. You are not holding the knife to the victim’s throat, the attacker is. You did not instigate the life-threatening scenario, the attacker did. You may now be a part of the situation and you may even have some potential influence over the outcome, but the survival or death of the victim is ultimately beyond your complete control and therefore could not in any sense of the word be your responsibility. Just like someone playing the lottery, you are involved in a game of chance where your actions could possibly fall in line with the outcome you wish for, but even in the case of a successful result at no time could it be said that you actually caused the result to occur. It is part of the technique of intimidation for an attacker to say things to make his victims feel like they control the abuse heaped upon them. The truth is, you can only do what your heart calls you to do in that moment, but again neither the creation of the dilemma nor the outcome belongs to you.
I draw this comparison to Singer because his words have an analogous blaming tone. After establishing, based on “expert information”, that “$200 in donations would help a sickly 2-year-old transform into a healthy 6-year-old”, Singer follows with, “I can see no escape from the conclusion that each one of us with wealth surplus to his or her essential needs should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty so dire as to be life-threatening. That’s right: I’m saying that you shouldn’t buy that new car, take that cruise, redecorate the house or get that pricey new suit. After all, a $1,000 suit could save five children’s lives … If we don’t do it, then we should at least know that we are failing to live a morally decent life.” (¶ 8, 21, 23)
By morally obligating his readers to adopt his solution, Singer speaks as if the creation of the conditions causing the suffering of those in other countries or the resultant suffering itself is the fault and responsibility of his readers. In our illustration, he would not be the assailant, but rather a person on the side narrating the event in agreement with the attacker’s blaming taunts. “Where are your morals?! He’s going to kill her! Drop the gun you fool or it’s all your fault!” the onlooking Singer would shout to you. Singer tries to make the point that someone in a position of harm or danger immediately falls into the responsibility of anyone aware of the situation. (¶ 5, 9) Around the world, you can find people in the way of harm and danger everywhere and at all times. His suggestion is essentially that we all become like Superman, spending every free moment and resource alleviating the suffering of mankind. And even if we could become Superman, which problems of the world are we most obligated to solve? According to the United Nations 1996 demographic yearbook Russia and Colombia have the highest reported homicide rates in the world. (1998) Now that you are aware of these situations are you responsible for helping to lessen those murders? Is dedicating yourself to reducing Colombian murders more or less important than saving starving children?
What Singer’s argument lacks are the elements of personal responsibility and free will which are necessary for civilization to exist. Instead of making individuals responsible for their own situation in life and allowing concerned citizens to freely choose how they will contribute to the success of humanity, he puts the troubles of individuals in the hands of those citizens and burdens them further with a solution from which he declares, “I can see no escape.” (¶ 21)
The issue of personal responsibility is an important one which cannot be overlooked. Personal responsibility is the foundation upon which all other types of responsibility are built. Without individual responsibility no moral code or theory can even exist. Singer misses the reality that, just as in our illustration, when it comes to world poverty, someone else is holding the knife. Therefore he feels personal guilt over the predicament of the victims of poverty around the world. Instead of putting the blame where it belongs, he attempts to diffuse his own misguided guilt by getting his readers to share it with him. But if the perpetrators are not held responsible for the terror they create, how can anyone else be to blame?
The main problem here with Singer’s solution is not his suggestion that we might be able to help the world’s poor by donating money to help them. The problem is with him obligating his readers to solving the problem. You cannot morally obligate someone to a solution for a problem he or she did not cause. Taking personal responsibility for something and being held personally responsible for something are two totally different things. The former is a matter of choice, the latter is a matter of liability. Once again, in no way can you be held liable for solving a problem you did not create, and if you are held liable, it is because you have been indentured. You may decide to put yourself in a situation where you take on responsibility for a problem that you did not create, like adopting an overseas orphan, but no can morally obligate you to that responsibility. Mother Teresa may personally choose to help suffering lepers, but nothing and no one beyond her free will can obligate her to do so. A mechanic may assume personal responsibility to try and fix your broken vehicle, but you can’t morally obligate him to help you. The only people in our modern society who even come close to being obligated towards responsibility to aid a situation that they did not create are doctors, and they take a personal oath to do so. Doctors decide to make themselves responsible public servants. No one obligates doctors to their responsibility but the doctors themselves. And to be clear, no is forced or morally obligated to become a doctor.
Besides taking responsibility for causing harm to others, personal responsibility also entails the reality that each of us must singularly accept ownership of whatever happens to us. It is not the responsibility of any other person to save us from our own suffering. If, by the madness of another, you happen to be put into a difficult situation, then that is undeniably unfortunate and sad. But insisting that someone else should be made to suffer because of the pain that you are experiencing helps no one and only serves to compound the suffering.
There are many sad situations throughout the world. You need only to go to your nearest metropolitan area to find homeless wandering the streets and children suffering from poverty. While no one can refute that these situations are regrettable and emotionally draining for our whole society, it is also important to acknowledge that they contain great power and potential for personal growth and transformation for the individual experiencing them, power and potential which is lost when one is denied the opportunity to find his or her own way out.
This is another essential truth that Singer’s solution fails to take into consideration. Singer never stops to ask, “Am I the right person to try to solve their problems?”, or even, “How can I help them to find their own solutions?” To me it shows incredible arrogance to think that you hold the solutions to the problems of people thousands of miles away. If you don’t live where others live, if you don’t understand the full scope of their problem and experience those problems in the same way they experience them, if you do not see the world from their unique point of view, how can you even begin to think that you can solve their problems? Perhaps your “outside-looking-in” solution will just produce more of the problem. This “outside-in” mentality reminds me of the missionary mentality where Christians were sent to “save” and “civilize” so-called “savage” indigenous people who never asked for their help.
In addition, like most westerners, Singer fails to see the benefit in suffering. He doesn’t stop to envisage the people’s growth opportunities inherent in their challenges. His only thought is to eliminate what he sees as the problem. He never even acknowledges that there might be issues underlying world poverty which go beyond finances and that need to be addressed before any money is sent, something economic experts have been saying for decades. (Haber, 2003) Like an unscrupulous corporation trying to beat an unfavorable court decision, instead of doing the more difficult work of addressing the real cause of the problem, he simply wants to figure out how much money needs to be thrown at the problem to make it go away. It baffles me that such a respected philosopher could try to make a problem as complicated as world poverty seem as simple as dollars and cents.
Pain exists to teach us a lesson. Burning your hand on a hot stove reminds you to respect the limits of your skin, to think before acting and to pay better attention to your surroundings. An unwanted pregnancy provides a chance to learn responsibility where it once was lacking. Pain also has the ability to pull from the depths of our psyche the greatest expressions of genius the world has ever seen. As awful as it may be, the scourge of poverty has the potential to inspire a poor person to create a solution to her plight undreamed of by someone simply observing her situation. Every negative situation has this kind of potential and some of the most amazing success stories have come out of some of the most appalling circumstances. This is not to say that charity is unimportant and people should only be left to suffer. What I’m saying is that charity without concern for empowerment can do more harm than good. By taking from people their pain, you also take away their opportunity to change their own lives, not to mention the lives of all who would benefit from their enlightenment. The tremendous amount of self-esteem, courage and wisdom one receives when life’s challenges are finally overcome is impossible to quantify or express and should not be denied anyone.
As I mentioned earlier, besides neglecting the importance of personal responsibility, another main area where Singer’s argument fails is in his lack of concern for free will. As we saw in his quotation on page 5, Singer’s solution reads more like an ecclesiastical mandate than a call to awareness and reason. In his article, he has already done the thinking for you, you have only to follow his logic. If somehow you have not followed or agreed with his logic, he declares you as immoral. This is the way of fundamentalist religion, where the rules of the game are decided by a small group of people and then used to judge everyone else whether they’re in the game or not. His solution is very black or white. Either you’re donating everything above what you need to survive to overseas relief or you allow people to die because you selfishly hold the value of money as greater than human life.
Nobody wants to see people suffering, but again you cannot tell someone that they are morally obligated to stop it. Each person is called to serve humanity in a unique way based on personal attributes, desires and gifts. If you were the foreman on a huge volunteer building project, why would you ask someone with a power drill to hammer nails? Let the person with the hammer do it. And let the person good with a saw do his sawing, and so on. Perhaps if there were already enough people doing a certain kind of work, you might ask someone with a particular specialty to help with something else, but in the world of global problems, there’s enough assistance needed for everyone to do what they’re best at. For example, I wouldn’t dream of asking someone like my girlfriend, who is amazing with children, to stop volunteering at the children’s shelter so that she can spend more time doing bookkeeping for UNICEF. I wouldn’t even suggest that there are other children in the world who need her more. There is need everywhere. There is suffering everywhere. She has to choose to give her time and energy where she feels best doing it. People do their best work when they are happiest. If my girlfriend is not happy while making her contribution to UNICEF, how worthwhile of a contribution will it be? Wouldn’t it be better to use someone who actually finds happiness in that particular work?
Singer’s utilitarian ethic is unbelievably short sighted. It also surreptitiously assigns arbitrary values to human conditions and actions. A utilitarian is one who, as Singer puts it, “judges whether acts are right or wrong by their consequences.” (¶ 5) Yet, there is no statement about how far into the future one needs to look to determine whether or not a particular action is right or wrong. If I save a life, that is presumed to be good. But what if I save a life and that person goes on to initiate a genocide? Was it still right for me to save that life? What if because of giving all of my additional money away to save children in Bangladesh, I lose my own child to cancer, because I am thus unable to afford the proper medical treatment? Simply looking at consequences does little to help us decide issues of morality, for any single action could have innumerable effects. Additionally, who is to decide that saving someone from dying is more or less important than sending someone to college? What happens if the analogy is not so simple as comparing a life lost to money lost? Suppose I forego sending my money to UNICEF so that instead I can send my child to basketball camp. A utilitarian like Singer would call that action immoral. But what if my child grows up to be a star basketball player and an exemplary philanthropist who motivates many of his fellow millionaires to donate generously to overseas aid? Even according to his own utilitarian logic Singer would have to declare my actions appropriate.
What if we take direct personal donations of money and charity out of the equation entirely? What if my son grows up to be a star basketball player and a wonderful father? What if he never contributes a single cent to a charity but finds the greatest happiness in playing ball, having millions of dollars and loving his family? Is thriving less important than surviving? According to Mr. Singer, moving beyond our survival needs when others are struggling to survive is wrong. Here are his own words.
“The average family in the United States spends almost one-third of its income on things that are no more necessary to them [than a TV set] … Going out to nice restaurants, buying new clothes because the old ones are no longer stylish, vacationing at beach resorts — so much of our income is spent on things not essential to the preservation of our lives and health. Donated to one of a number of charitable agencies, that money could mean the difference between life and death for children in need.” (¶ 3)
Singer puts survival as the highest cause. But going back to the example of my son the basketball star, what if his incredible skills on the court and as a father inspired millions around the world to pursue their dreams and be their best which led to a great percentage of them contributing a sum of hundreds of millions to relief funds and other charities? In this case, my son still didn’t donate a dime, but just leading the life of his dreams resulted in millions receiving aid.
Cutting down the tall trees does not make the forest grow. Asking people to diminish themselves to build up others is like trying to make yourself wealthy by taking money from your left pocket and putting it in your right. You’re not creating a solution, you’re moving around a problem.
Mr. Singer is a well-intentioned person with some very good information and ideas. However, he could have had a much stronger argument if he would have plainly suggested that people donate whatever extra money was possible to help end poverty and left it at that. Instead, he turned a simple idea into a moral imperative and in so doing lost whatever credibility his solution might have had. I would like to conclude with my own solution. My offering is comprised of three actions that anyone can do regardless of age, talents, abilities or character.
The first way you can help create a higher standard of living for people throughout the world is to spend your money consciously. Think of this solution as voting with your money. Instead of buying whatever shoes jump off the rack at you, perhaps consider giving your business to companies known for paying fair wages to everyone involved in the production of those shoes. In our day and age this is easier to do than one might think. Websites such as http://www.fairtradefederation.org, http://www.onevillage.org and http://www.fairtrade.org.uk provide extensive lists of quality products ranging from food to furniture to electronics all direct from farmers and manufacturers around the world who are guaranteed a fair price for their efforts. Taking this a step further, you can make sure that you only spend your money on companies and products that you truly believe in. For example, I believe in organic farming, so I make it a point to shop at stores that provide organic produce and frequent restaurants that use organic foods. As another example, many vegans (people who believe that animals should not be harmed by humans in any way) refuse to buy any animal-based apparel or food, buying instead certified vegan products. Many people spend money at stores that contribute a portion of their profits to certain foundations that they themselves believe in and support. Every dollar you spend has the potential to do enormous good. By thinking before you spend, you create the possibility of promoting your highest values throughout the world.
A second way that you can promote equality in the world is by committing to serve others through genuine involvement and empowerment. Empowerment is different than charity. Charity is direct aid such as a monetary contribution or a service rendered to those in need. Empowerment is creating the space for those in need to help themselves. It is meeting someone on their own turf and saying, “I believe that you are smart enough and capable enough to help yourself. How can I support you to do that?” Charity is “giving a man a fish,” and empowerment is “teaching him how to fish.” It is the difference between the father who only sends child and spousal support (charity) and one who actually raises a family (empowerment). Sending a check to your favorite charity, though extremely important, will not provide complete relief. Complete relief is the result of a combination of charity and empowerment. By actually meeting face to face with those suffering, you have the chance to perceive the problem yourself and ask them how you can really help. You might be surprised to realize that in many cases it could even cost you less than the money you would have sent. People need charity. People crave empowerment. If you’re unsure about this last point, go find a little kid and tell him you’re going to teach him how to ride his bike by taking it for a spin around the neighborhood while he watches, instead of guiding him while he does it himself. Charity is a short-term fix. Empowerment is a long-term solution. It is important to give both to provide real service.
Finally, I believe the greatest service any individual can do for humankind is to do what one does best and to live the life of one’s dreams. The inspiration that spreads to everyone witnessing a truly purposeful and intelligently created life cannot be overstated. That inspiration can be responsible for all manners of good deeds which the one causing the inspiration could never have hoped to have accomplished alone. In “The Foundations of Morality” the late world renowned economist Henry Hazlitt (1998) suggests, “The most promising way to maximize the happiness of humanity as a whole is not by each individual’s trying to achieve that result directly but …by doing his own special job well.” (p. 193) It is not necessary to try to save the whole world in order to make a difference. Former United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold once said, “It is more noble to give yourself completely to one person, than to labor diligently for the salvation of the masses.” (as cited in Covey, 1992, ¶ 9) In order to make a real difference in the world, you really need go no farther than your own backyard. There is plenty of good to be done in your family and community. It may seem a bit redundant to say, but you can do nothing better than what you do best. This being the case, what you do best represents your best and most unique contribution to the world. It is a chance to give something that no other person can give, your own special gift to bestow. I have also observed that people are none happier than when they are fully engaged in what they do best. The highest standard for a utilitarian is “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.” (Bentham, 1776, p. 1)
I think even Mr. Singer would have to agree that doing what you do best represents the finest expression of utilitarian logic.
Bentham, Jeremy. (1776). A Fragment on Government (p. 1). London.
Covey, Stephen. (1992). The Quality Life. Utah: Franklin Covey. Retrieved August, 2000 from
Haber, Stephen, & North, Douglass C., & Weingast, Barry R. (2003). If Economists Are So
Smart, Why Is Africa So Poor? Hoover Digest, 4(Fall). Retrieved August, 2005 from
Hazlitt, Henry. (1998). The Foundations of Morality (p. 193). New York: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.
Phillips, Amy. (n.d.). Peter Unger’s Illusion of Guilt: Moral Obligations to the Poor. Retrieved
August, 2000 from http://www.50minutehour.net/writing/livinghigh.htm
Singer, Peter. (1999). The Singer Solution to World Poverty. The New York Times Sunday Magazine,September 5th, 60-63.
Unger, Peter. (1996). Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence.
New York: Oxford University Press.
Dan Gaskill’s LECTURE NOTES on
Peter Singer “The Singer Solution to World Poverty”
Bob and the Bugatti: An argument by analogy
Singer describes a hypothetical situation in which Bob has invested his life savings in an uninsured car – a Bugatti – which he parks on a railroad siding before going on a walk. Bob sees that a distant child is playing on the railroad tracks in the path of a runaway train. Rather than using a nearby switch to divert the train onto the siding, Bob chooses to allow the child to die (throwing the switch and sacrificing his car is the only way that Bob can save the child). In Singer’s view, Bob was wrong to make this choice, and most of us would not hesitate to condemn him for it. Bob was wrong, according to Singer, because he could have –but did not-- save the child’s life by sacrificing his Bugatti, which is only a luxury and is less valuable than the child’s life. Singer claims that Bob’s situation is analogous to our own. We have the means to save the lives of starving children by sacrificing some of our luxuries and donating money to organizations like UNICEF. But, like Bob, we choose not to sacrifice our luxuries to save the lives of children. Therefore, like Bob, we are not living up to our moral obligations.
Some Objections and Replies to the Argument by Analogy
Our money is unlikely to reach its target, given all of the obstacles and uncertainties involved (objection to premise 4).
Reply: $200 is already a conservative estimate that takes into account the fact that much of the money won’t get there.
Premise 3 does not follow merely from the fact that Bob could have helped the child by sacrificing something less valuable. What is needed is an additional premise to the effect that he is the only person who could do so. This is true in the case of Bob, but is false as it applies to any of us (it is not true that only you can save a child). Therefore, the argument is unsound.
Reply: Singer denies that the additional premise is required. He says that since we know that most others won’t step up to the plate, we can be sure that our donation would save a life that would not otherwise be saved. This is enough to show that we have a moral obligation. To think otherwise is to be guilty of follow-the-crowd ethics.
Our own situation does differ from Bob’s, in that Bob was the only person able to save the life of the child, whereas we, as individuals, are not. In light of this, the analogy might be strengthened if we modify the thought experiment so that there is another person standing near the switch, but the person in question has no interest in throwing the switch and seems to be amused at the prospect of the child’s death. Intuitively, if Bob’s failure to throw the switch is wrong in the initial thought experiment, then it is equally wrong in the modified thought experiment. Thus, Singer’s argument by analogy does not seem to be weakened by the fact that others are in a better position to help the needy than we.
It is unrealistic to expect people to live up to their moral obligations if their obligations require large sacrifices.
Reply: So what? No one said that meeting our moral obligations is easy. Moreover, if we recognize our moral obligations and choose not to meet them, then that is still better than not even recognizing them –
Singer: “knowing where we are going is the first step in heading in that direction”.
It would be better if foreign aid were all handled by the government. That way, the burden would be spread more fairly across all taxpayers.
Reply: Perhaps that would be better, but our moral obligations are determined by facts in the actual world. In the actual world, the government will not do enough to aid starving people in other countries. So, unless the situation changes, we each have an obligation to sacrifice.
Later, we will look at other, more serious objections…
Negative Responsibility and Diminishing Marginal Utility
According to utilitarianism, we have an obligation to maximize happiness. It follows that if an action would maximize happiness, and, knowing this, we fail to take that action, then we are morally responsible for our failure to act. Thus, according to utilitarianism, people are responsible not only for outcomes that they deliberately cause, but also for outcomes that they knowingly fail to prevent (this is sometimes called the “Doctrine of Negative Responsibility”). In the case of Bob, he failed to save the life of the child, even though he knew what the outcome of his choice would be. So, Bob is morally culpable for his failure to act, despite the fact that the he did not cause the child to die (the runaway train did). Similarly, utilitarianism seems to imply that we are morally culpable for our failure to sacrifice our luxuries and save the lives of children, even though we are not the ones causing the children to die. (Whether utilitarianism really has this implication depends on whether sacrificing our luxuries to save children really would maximize utility in the long term. As we shall see, this is debatable).
The principle of Diminishing Marginal Utility states that for any good or service, the marginal utility of that good or service decreases as the quantity of the good increases. In other words, the more of something you have, the less additional benefit you get from having more of it. Singer’s argument can be seen as an application of this principle. His idea is that our excess resources would be more beneficial to starving children than they are to us. $200 that we don’t need for survival could make a desperately poor person much happier, whereas it would only increase our happiness a little bit.