Peter Singer: The Golden Rule
World poverty is arguably at the forefront of issues plaguing our society as a whole today. I found an article displaying some of Peter Singers thought experiments that will further help display his beliefs. In his essay The Singer Solution to World Poverty, world-renowned author and philosopher Singer claims he has the solution. Singer asserts that materialism is the roadblock preventing the third world’s climb from despair into prosperity.
The author begins his essay by detailing two thought experiments; the first recounts a Brazilian film, “Central Station,” in which the main harasser, Dora, unknowingly causes a young boy to be sold into the organ trade. After some debates as to Odor’s real motives, as well as further contemplation, Dora decides to rescue the boy (Singer).
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Singer applauds Odor’s actions and notes that had Dora decided the boys fate was not her responsibility and kept the money she gained as a result of her part, the movie’s audience would have demonic her; conversely she maintains a positive light in the eyes of those watching the movie only by rescuing the boy. Singer further notes however, that most of those able to go see a movie, are in a better place than Dora herself, explaining how what she gave up to save the boy was of greater value than the audience could relate to (Singer).
Singer then raises an ethical question: What is the difference between Dora selling the child into the organ trade, and the average American who chooses not to donate money to organizations that could benefit a child in similar situation of need? Singer acknowledges the situational differences of physically putting a child in that situation compared to mere inaction, yet, pointing out that he is a utilitarian philosopher; he claims the end results are the name (Singer). Singer’s next thought experiment details a character named Bob who is close to retirement and owns a very valuable classic car.
To sum things up Bob finds himself in a situation where a child is dangerously trapped on a train track. Bob is the only one around and the only way he can save the child is by diverting the train down a separate track, resulting in the destruction of the car. In the story, Bob chooses not to divert the coming train, the child is killed, and bob proceeds on in his life with the car, which brings him years of enjoyment and financial security (Singer). Singer argues that Bob’s actions are clearly morally incorrect, and claims most would agree.
However, Singer states that most readers who would quickly condemn Bob’s actions are not much different. Singer cites calculations saying the $200 in donations, after all the deductions made by organizations and politics, would essentially save the life of an imperiled toddler in a third world country, or at least give them a significant chance at reaching adulthood (Singer). Singer next argues those who have money to spare and do not donate it, are effectively as morally wrong as Bob, who watched a hill brutally die (Singer).
Singer goes on to detail how much of the western world has massive wealth surpluses. He again cites research claiming the average American household spends close to forty percent, or twenty thousand dollars annually on superfluous spending. Singer marvels at how many children that small amount of money could save, and continues to detail that while a household income an increase, it’s necessary spending proportionately does not, freeing up even more unneeded income. Through this logic Singer claims a household making $100,000 annually, could donate nearly $70,000.
Singer wraps his argument up with a simple equation; all money being spent on luxuries and anything other than a necessity, should be given away. Furthermore, all money being spent on luxuries is indirectly resulting in the deaths of innocent youth, and those doing the spending, are morally responsible for avoidable deaths of impoverished children. Singer aims to demonstrate, that while Bob likely thought he was quite unlucky to be put in such a situation, in fact he was not, and all of us with additional income are in the same boat.
Clearly, Singer hopes to open the eyes of richer nations and invoke a sense of accessibility towards making their extraneous means count toward the world’s well being, and arguably he does so. With the demonstrations of the detailed stories I explained earlier, Singer indeed executed his beliefs fairly well. Anyone with a conscious and decent moral compass can admit the life of another human being is worth saving, many would agree it would not hurt to give up western luxuries to do so.
Singer makes it easy to see how the wealth of the western world could ago long way in restoring health and prosperity into some areas of the world which are very much in need. On the surface Singers conclusion: we ought to give a country in famine aid seems like it would work great. In the long run, Singer’s plan will not be successful. Let’s break down the logical component of Singers argument. First off, Singer relies almost entirely on his consequentiality ethics this has some telling drawbacks.
While the worldwide effect of such thinking is usually positive, since such ethics rely on cost/ benefit analysis, the hard conclusions are rarely so simple. A reoccurring problem with such thinking is the secondary, and tertiary effects are not usually factored in. Once we apply that critical template to Singer’s thinking, some momentous issues emerge, namely, economics. If we as Americans were to take all our extraneous income, and simply donate it to countries in need, what would the end result be?
The economic ramifications would gigantic, and while this may seem extreme, we could wind up in a simple role reversal, quickly finding ourselves in need. Again, this is extreme, but it effectively demonstrates the results. Our economy relies on extraneous spending, it is the only way it can sustain itself. Simply put there is no re- deeding effect from donations, no recirculation of wealth, no more money to receive, and thus unnecessarily spend again. As a result, the supplemental income Singer refers to would quickly disappear.
From a more cynical perspective, let’s critique Singer’s utilitarian views on a scarier level. A more chilling result from Singer’s solution is population increase. As ‘immoral’ as it may be, all of the children who do not live past there earlier years help keep the problem at bay. In reality if we were to embrace singer’s solution, a quick result would be thousands of young impoverished children surviving into adulthood. A lightly slower result would be all of those impoverished children growing up, and raising impoverished families, effectively multiplying the problem.
While as I said, this is cynical, it is also utilitarian. What is good for those impoverished children, is not necessarily good for society, and throwing all our extra income at them, isn’t going to magically cure their situation. In actuality though, my best argument for Singer’s solution is a simple one. Think about it, how many impoverished children are in the age bracket (toddlers) that Singer refers to? One million? 100 million? At $200 per child, that large overestimation moms out to twenty billion dollars. Initially such statistics support Singers argument.
The United States alone has a gross economy in the trillions, so shaving a little off the top should go a long way to help right? In reality world poverty is not a new problem, and I can think of several wealthy westerners, who collectively could easily write a check for that. And arguably have gone a long way in their attempts to do so. This argument speaks for itself; money is not the answer. While it definitely is one of the means necessary to help solve this problem, it is not the chief factor in fixing this issue. These people need societal and political reform. 200 per child is not going to halt genocide in Africa, or change the fact that certain societies in South America simply are not conducive to public health. All this goes to illustrate how much Singer chooses to leave out of his solution. Singer makes a solid argument, with huge social and financial implications, yet it is not without holes. The author, being both a scholar and a philosopher, has a smooth writing style, and it shows. He invokes Just the right amount of inquiry, logic, and writes with such an authority that it becomes easy to to question both his statistics and the evidence he either omitted, or did not realize.
Due to this, Singer’s argument itself is markedly effective, making it is easy to feel compelled from the points he makes, and the illustrations he uses. He invokes strong feelings of guilt, and assigns a social liability for the welfare of those less fortunate, but his support is ultimately less than pragmatic. While Singer’s intentions are pure, and to such a degree are worth of some merit, simple logically analysis of much of his deductively supported report shows his solution is impractical. This is not to say