Peter Singer and Poverty

November 2007

Repost of some of my thoughts in response to Blair and Peter Singer on poverty. The basic question is whether we are “murderers” for doing things like going out to eat or to the movies instead of donating the money to starving children via a charity.

No, we are not murderers.

Objection number 1: I disagree with the proposition that donating money that would otherwise be spent on frivolities will directly result in someone’s life being saved. We’re not talking about me standing next to a switch on the train tracks here (or even riding a train to go out to dinner and not stopping because there’s someone on the tracks). The money has to go through a lot of hoops before it gets to the person that needs it. However, let’s ignore this objection and assume that I could take the $9.50 to go see “American Gangster” and buy someone $9.50 worth of food, saving their life. This leads right into…

Objection number 2: It’s not a solution. Maybe that money saves someone’s life for a day - it doesn’t solve the root cause of the poverty. Also - if I decide that the goal of my life is going to be to do the best that I can to do as much as possible to eradicate world poverty during my lifetime, the way to go about it is NOT to take a regular job in the States, live an austere life and blindly donate whatever you have left over to various charities. This is especially true for the people who will read this - because those people are bright young educated minds that have the potential to do so much more than that. You can’t achieve that potential by sitting in an apartment that’s in a bad neighborhood (so you could save on rent) and cooking rice every night (because you can get 1000 calories for 50 cents). So many of what Singer would call “frivolities” are actually how we learn about ourselves and other people and are actually tiny intangible steps toward doing great things.

Objection number 3: Not everybody is passionate about ending world poverty, or is the best equipped to do it themselves. What if Bill Gates followed Singer’s advice? And instead of doing what he loved to do he started at a very young age to take all his expendable income and give it away to “solve world poverty”? He’d be in middle management right now and even if he was the most compassionate human being alive he’d be sending about $50,000 a year to the cause. The world would be worse off in countless ways if Bill Gates had taken CHV 310 in college.

Objection number 4: As Monty Python would say - and now for something completely different. The first three points have been a little bit related; this one, not so much. Singer’s solution, taken to its extreme, means that everyone should have the same level of wealth, since theoretically you should keep giving until the person in need has as much as you. Even if somehow, everyone in the world could do this - and let’s take it even further and say that everyone can somehow “give away” their skills and knowledge so that everyone has an equal footing to stand on (this is starting to speak more to education than poverty). So everyone is perfectly equal in ability, wealth, experience, etc., through this magical transfer. And everyone has free will! Utopia.

What happens the next day?

People go back to work. And something I’ve come to realize is that whenever you work on anything, you’re making a bet. You’re betting that the training you take won’t be obsolete so fast that it wasn’t even worth your time to learn the skill. You’re betting that the industry you choose will continue to grow. You’re making all sorts of bets - and some people are going to lose them. And have less money. I am realizing now that this fourth point isn’t really related to the Singer solution at all, but I’m going to leave it because I think it’s kind of an interesting side track that someone might pick up.

That’s all I have on poverty. The other part, about dehumanization, is really disturbing because it took about a week of living in the bronx before I consciously realized that I was doing that every single day.

Hope this gets things started!!! Glad things are well (boring but well) in Kenya.