Those who are suffering desperate poverty both overseas and in our own backyard desperately need the help of those of us in considerably better positions. I intend to argue that we are morally obligated to do as much as we can to help them without reducing ourselves to a similar position. I hope to show that it is clear that whatever you would be willing to sacrifice in the following scenario you should be able and willing to sacrifice at least that much to help those people who really do need our help. The best form of support for this simple claim is to work through the arguments against it and demonstrate that they are either invalid or immoral. If you would choose to save a child in the scenario that I am about to set up, then I argue that you should give up a comparable amount to help those in desperate poverty.
You have prepaid for and booked tickets to see a movie, show, presentation or maybe a talk by your favourite philosopher who is in town just once. It’s a pretty high roller type do and tickets were $700. The last train leaves in 10 minutes and you’ve just set off from your house to the station. It’s too late to arrange other transport and it’s too far to walk. If you aren’t on that train, you aren’t seeing the show. The tickets even clearly state “No late entry permitted.” Two minutes from the station you look over and there it is. It is a young child laying face down in a pond, apparently unconscious. As a reasonable and logical person you can assume that the child will die if they are not helped. No one else is around. Saving this child is up to you and will take at least 10 minutes, by the time you’ve rushed over, picked them up and carried them to dry ground, administered whatever first aid you can, called the emergency services and waited for assistance. Saving this child’s life is surely a good enough thing to do, to warrant foregoing your ticket. So if you accept that you are morally obliged to save this child, then you ought to accept that you should be morally obliged to give a comparable amount to help benefit the many children living in poverty (Singer 1972).
The fact of the matter is that not everyone does sacrifice things to help those suffering, in fact many don’t. Now as well as arguing that you should give, I think it is worth while considering why people don’t give and assessing whether these reasons are valid. I’ll start with the most obvious and powerful reason. We are wired to care more about ourselves than others. This is perfectly natural and the result of millions of years of evolution by natural selection, in simple terms it can be stated that an individual who cared more or even equally about the wellbeing of others would by definition be less likely to survive and reproduce thus this trait doesn’t get passed on. This is a fair explanation for human greed. The biggest argument against this claim would be that people do actually care about others and they do make sacrifices to help those in need. The best response to this argument that I can think of is a tad controversial, I suggest that helping others both feels good and sometimes leads those that you are caring for to be more caring of you. So the reason for caring for others is to both make ourselves feel better and in the hope that they will return the favour. I think the point about feeling better could be harnessed and I will pose a practical use for it later. Donating money to those in poverty, although it may feel good probably won’t be of any real benefit to the person donating. So if we accept all of this, we get a reasonable explanation for why people don’t give that much away. As I said before this is wired in and possibly can’t be overcome, instead we have to appeal to people’s warm fuzzy fulfilment feelings when they give to others.
The principle of beneficence applies here as it does to all good moral ideas. We must promote to some degree the well being of others (Morauta, 2015), this is after all what our world is based upon. The goodness of helping them surely outweighs the badness of making ourselves slightly worse off. If this line of thought was not followed and widely agreed upon, it could be hypothesised that we would be no different to animals and perhaps even less moral than some of them. So this principle must apply to those who are suffering desperately from poverty.
This problem not only desperately needs our full attention, it needs it right now. We just don’t have time to be going back and forth with arguments on either side trying to justify our greed. Say you were standing on a train a track and noticed a train come around a bend full steam ahead at you, would you stop to debate whether you are morally required to get out of the way ? I would think not, instead you’d just jump. We need to jump on this and the time is now.
I will now provide the objections to the claim, that you should sacrifice an equivalent amount in the pond case and helping those in poverty, and seek to diminish their relevancy and validity. The first objection to this is to say that you are not morally required to help those in poverty because everyone and anyone else could do it but they aren’t so why should I. This is analogous to the bystander effect and is possibly a reason for why we don’t make sacrifices, but it is certainly not a valid argument for why we shouldn’t or even don’t need to. Say we modify the pond case to now include a group of 20 people walking by and seeing the child laying face down in the pond. If each of these 20 people is now not morally obligated to save the child, they might just walk past and let the child die. “One has only to ask this question (is it okay to let the child drown if there are other people around) to see the absurdity of the view that numbers lessen obligation” (Singer 1972). To claim that because others could help therefore I don’t have to, is condemning those in poverty to an almost certain death by famine. If everyone embraced this line of thought, then nothing would ever get done.
The next argument against that needs dealing with is the argument of distance. Firstly it is clear that given the technology of today it is just as easy to save the child in the pond case as it to help those on the other side of the world (Singer 1972). People will claim that the pond case is different though, in that the drowning child is right there in front of you, but the poverty is on the other side of the world. The problem isn’t within your immediate reach or screaming out (figuratively) for your attention as much as the drowning child is. This is (possibly) quite a reasonable explanation as to why we don’t generally give as much to those suffering poverty as we would to the effort of saving the child, it is however morally untenable to argue that this absolves us of our duty to help these people. It may be that this isn’t even a great explanation for why we don’t help, given that we regularly walk past homeless people suffering poverty in our cities and ignore people collecting for overseas poverty. It is probably true that we are in a better position to help the child right in front of us, as we can better judge what they need, but even so it is not logical to suggest that the child right in front of us is more worthy of our help. If we accept that all people should be treated equal then it is obvious that those people who are overseas cannot be placed at a disadvantage purely because they are far away from us.
It could be argued that the pond case is quite different to those suffering poverty in that the child will surely drown if not helped, but maybe those suffering poverty may not be as tied to the same fate. This argument requires a lack of understanding for the severity of the issue, the truth of the matter is that in many countries the poverty is so severe that it leads to widespread famine and malnutrition. Make no mistake about it; there are many people who without our help will die.
It can be pointed out that we are treating the symptom not the cause by putting our efforts into poverty. Perhaps this is a good point and the bigger problem is the lack of population control present in some parts of the world. Even so we can look at stopping poverty as the short term solution and finding a sustainable way to control population is long term solution (Singer, 1972).
As mentioned earlier I will now propose a simple but practical way of increasing the sacrifices made to help those in desperate poverty. Say an organisation was to publicly advertise all charitable donations made by the big companies like BP, Wesfarmers, etc. Would it not make these companies look better in the public’s eye, thus enabling them greater selling power and it would not seem like they were blowing their own trumpet as the organisation proposed is neutral and not for profit. They would be incentivised to give away more of their enormous wealth and those in poverty might suffer just a little less.
Back to the drowning child scenario, so you’ll forego the philosophy ticket to save the child. Will you forego $700 to help those in desperate poverty ? I suspect that some of you would and know that some of you do, but would you give on more than one occasion ? Would you give every time you were to hear of the plight of those in desperate poverty ? I would now say that most of you probably don’t go to this extent, after all how could you, we need to keep some for our self. So by that logic, you wouldn’t be required to continue saving the drowning child in subsequent cases. If we accept this line of morality we aren’t required to forego our ticket to save the child more than once, which is surely absurd. I submit that you are morally required to continue to save that child, ticket included, until the fat cow comes home singing. If we accept this line of thinking then we not only conclude that you ought to make a morally equivalent sacrifice to help those in desperate poverty, you ought morally do it whenever it presents itself.
If we are considered equal then should it not be assumed that we all deserve the same access to basic human rights like food, water, a home, security, information, education and freedom? This point is surely very easy to accept and the resulting conclusion is that it’s up to us to ensure that all people do have access to these things. No one else is going to do it.
Singer, P. “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, Philosophy and Public
Affairs 1 (1972), pp. 229-243.