Last Tuesday was a good day. Peter Singer gave a lecture.

I'd been looking forward to it for some time, early on securing a place on the Facebook first-come-first-served waiting list just to be sure of a seat. Of Singer, I knew fairly little. His name was familiar (as it turns out I have one of his books in my room), but I had no idea of his philosophy, opinions, or even personality.

I went into the hall fairly blind and un-opinionated, ready to ask myself some questions (and ready to potentially challenge Peter if I felt I needed to). Purposefully, I'd avoided doing research beforehand too: I didn't want there to be any spoilers.

And, so, it was all pleasantly surprising.

Beginning the talk, entitled (as I should have mentioned) 'The Life You Can Save', he opened with a straightforward ethical question. Showing us all a relatively infamous video (below) of a 2-year-old girl in China who was run over by a van and subsequently ignored by many passers-by, he asked: 'Would you stop to help this girl?'

(Warning: upsetting scenes.)

Everyone's answer, evident in their silent nodding, was yes. Of course they would. Walking past, like a good few actually did, would simply be immoral.

Then it got interesting.

Singer, using this agreed necessary compassion as a starting point, posed a follow-on question: 'Ethically speaking, is there a difference between walking past this dying girl and not giving to an effective, life-saving charity when it's well within your means?'

Or, in other words, does (or should) an arbitrary quantity such as 'distance' have any influence on how compassionate we are towards others who are genuinely suffering in real-time?*

No, he argued. And I don't think anyone disagreed.

He conceded that there was indeed a certain psychological influence, though. After all, a child drowning in a lake in front of you provides a much bigger incentive to help than a child dying of malaria in a far-off country out of sight and out of mind. But, he stressed, there simply isn't a moral distinction. In both cases, a life is in danger. And In both cases, you can help... So, why do people 'walk past' real, global problems such as poverty, especially when they can make a difference?

It may be down to ignorance, disbelief, or simple complacency - but that does not make selfishness ethical. The right thing to do is always to give when one can. There's nothing else to it.

But, Singer adds, it's essential that we give to effective charities if and when we do - organisations with which you can be sure your money is put to good, cost-efficient and direct use. He recommends the charities recommended by, a "nonprofit dedicated to finding outstanding giving opportunities" who "conduct in-depth research aiming to determine how much good a given program accomplishes (in terms of lives saved, lives improved, etc.) per dollar spent". Obviously, there are some charities near impossible to assess, such as Oxfam (with it's many 'branches' and specific departments), which are still endorsed by Singer - he simply encourages us to consider leaving the biggest mark possible with what we can/do give.

So, as soon as I am lucky enough to have an income, I will take Singer's 'pledge'. At 'less than 105 000 USD', this translates to giving 'at least 1% of your income' to effective charities. Why so low? Well, on the website for his 'The Life You Can Save' campaign the FAQ section states that:

"... if we are to change the culture of giving, we have to start somewhere. At present very few people give even one percent of their income to help the poor. Better, I think, to start low and have more people giving than to insist on a standard so high that almost everyone will reject it.

Besides, one percent is significantly better than nothing. If all the world’s affluent people gave one percent of their income to help the extremely poor, that would be more than twice the amount of official (government) aid that is now given to fight global poverty. And since much government aid does not go to those who are truly poor, if this money went to organizations with a proven record of effectiveness in helping people in extreme poverty, it could do far more good than official aid does now.

He makes a good point - but I will, of course, aim for higher if my income permits it. Ten percent, to me, seems like a reasonable initial goal. Once reached, how ever long that takes, I will increase it... His ethical argument was simply too convincing for me to not look forward to writing the cheques.

Carnun :P


*Of course, as it was brought up in the Q&A afterwards, striving to look after the environment for the sake of the well-being of future generations is another way to simultaneously not 'walk past' people suffering. It's just that, in this case, the arbitrary barrier in the way of our considering them is much more difficult for us to overcome: it's not just distance in the way, but time itself.

The ethics are still constant and the argument still stands despite this difference though. There is just as much of an obligation (and perhaps an even more compelling one) to help prevent this future climate-related suffering as there is to tackle disproportionate displeasure in the here and now.


[Reposted from 'The Ramblings of a Young Atheist' ---> here <--- by the author.]

Views: 207

Tags: Charity, Donation, Ethics, Morality, Philosophy, Poverty

Comment by Sagacious Hawk on May 5, 2013 at 5:03am

"But I absolutely do NOT agree that watching a child get RUN OVER and giving money to a child with malaria is even REMOTELY close to the same thing."

I'd say that the principle is the same. In both instances, a child hit by a car and possibly dying and a child who contracted malaria and is possibly dying are in a way similar. Both child are suffering and risk death. Why help in one, but not the other? If you were standing next to a child who was hit by a car would you do something to help even if it was just to call 911?

If your answer was "yes" and if you also knew that there was a child potentially dying of a curable disease and there was a way to treat it, then why wouldn't you give just the smallest amount of money to a charity known to do well in helping to combat the disease? Giving $5-$20 is really no different then calling an ambulance.

But that all hinges on whether and why you think you should help to begin with.

"There are hundreds of thousands of children on this Earth to save. We have to start with the ones right in front of us."

Considering that more than a billion people live in extreme poverty and estimating that these areas have at least a third of their population under the age of 18, the number of children who are suffering at this moment and could use assistance probably exceeds the total population of the US. I hardly think that you'd be alone in saying that your local community is more important, but then you have to explain why geography makes a difference when it comes to moral obligation.

Comment by Sagacious Hawk on May 5, 2013 at 5:20am

Well, that doesn't sound like you "completely and utterly" disagree at all. :P

By the way, I doubt Singer was saying give away everything you have and think nothing of your own needs or anything to that effect.

Comment by Ed on May 5, 2013 at 8:40am

Our civilization not only needs to understand the need to outgrow the fallacy of gods but it also needs to understand and practice effective population control. We create global problems for ourselves and then think throwing money, charitable or otherwise, at them will be the solution. We are in many ways still a primitive short-sighted species.

Charity is clearly noble in it's intentions but falls way short in being the final answer. 

Comment by Sagacious Hawk on May 5, 2013 at 10:11am

"One is just involving giving money. The other involved actually doing something physically. There are two completely different mindsets here."

In principle, they aren't that different. Let me see if I can explain it better then.

Scenario 1: Someone gets hit by a car. You don't know first aid and have absolutely zero idea how to help the person. So you act in a minor, but significant way, by alerting people whose job it is to take care of a situation like this. Essentially, you are helping someone to help someone else.

Scenario 2: A child is sick in a hospital with malaria. A doctor who works for a charity fortunately has been able to get the the needed medicine thanks to much needed donations. You have, through a minor yet significant action, helped someone to help someone else.

You may not believe that these situations are the same, but you haven't yet explained how they aren't. If you really think that they are so different, then just imagine telling the parents of one of those children that their situation is somehow less tragic and that helping their dying child is somehow not as morally compelling as helping in the other situation.

Now this point: "An extremely selfish person can give money and think they look good to others because 'oh look how generous I am.'" is a different question altogether. It's a matter of how intention plays into morality and whether Singer thinks that intentions play any part to morality. Maybe Carnun can tell us if anyone brought it up?

"This same kind of person may be the kind of person who did nothing in the face of seeing a child get run over. Is this person just as moral as the person who would have acted frantically to save the dying child who was just run over a truck?"

On the face of it, it sounds like you want to make the argument that time and energy expended causes one action have more moral value than the other. If you donate $20, how long does it take you to make that $20 to donate? One hour? Two? If you are working minimum wage it could be 3 or more depending on taxes. That's more work than you'd do holding back traffic, calling an ambulance, and waiting for it to arrive while doing your best to comfort the child and perform whatever first aid you might know.

Comment by Carnun Marcus-Page on May 6, 2013 at 4:27am

Sagacious Hawk: "By the way, I doubt Singer was saying give away everything you have and think nothing of your own needs or anything to that effect."

Spot on. This was about giving what you can comfortably, not starving your own children for the sake of others. It was emphasised quite a few times that the rate of giving was all dependent on income too, and that those with a higher income should feel a much bigger obligation to give something.

Belle Rose: "What I disagree with is putting the two side by side and saying they are the same. I do not believe they are the same. One is just involving giving money. The other involved actually doing something physically."

I think you're missing the point still. Both scenarios are the same, ethically speaking. In both cases there is 'a life you can save' - one just seems more immediate, more close to home; and the other you may never even meet.

You may be right in saying that this is about 'guilt-tripping', but in no way is it akin to "religious tithing". There is no real obligation, save 'if you can, do' - backed up with solid, non-fanciful, moral reasoning. And who gains from this other than those you help directly?

But, "there are HUNDREDS of charitable organizations" you say. Very true - but some leave a bigger mark than others (and for a fraction of the cost). The example Singer used on the night was comparing the average cost of the training of one guide-dog to the cost of funding for the treatment of a human parasite known to cause blindness for approximately four hundred people. At no point did he say that funding an expensive guide dog was immoral, it's just that we should consider catering for need above all (and effectively, too).

Back to Sagacious Hawk: "It's a matter of how intention plays into morality... Maybe Carnun can tell us if anyone brought it up?"

No-one did, I'm afraid. Plus, Singer tried to avoid some of the more Philosophical questions (like ones brought up about the root of morality, whether one moral Philosophy is 'better' than another etc) because he didn't want to dictract from the point or alienate those who weren't Philosophy students (me included).

The question wasn't asked, but I imagine he'd argue that, for the people effected by the donation, intention matters little when your child has just been saved from a potentially deadly disease. Either way, regardless of the intentions of the donor, the donation itself does good - whether or not the person giving it is an ethical individual overall. (Start thinking about corporations though, and things get interesting, naturally...)

"On the face of it, it sounds like you want to make the argument that time and energy expended causes one action have more moral value than the other." - I think they are trying to make that argument, yes.

But the point stands: whether you give $1 to charity because that's all you can give or millions when it's well within you means, you are still doing something moral. One person just so happens to be in a position where they can do more, but that does not make them better than those who would financially struggle to donate or miss an opportunity to call an ambulance because they're working long, low-paid shifts. Or else, you could argue that a rich donor is 'better' than the impoverished families they are helping - which is downright preposterous on a personal level.

Comment by Carnun Marcus-Page on May 6, 2013 at 4:43am

Ed: I think you deserve a separate reply.

"We are in many ways still a primitive short-sighted species... Charity is clearly noble in it's intentions but falls way short in being the final answer."

I understand what you mean (and partially agree), but I can't help but challenge the 'final answer' sentiment. We do have a population problem, but solutions to that should never involve neglecting those who need help in real-time.

Singer noted himself that charity shouldn't be our only concern. In his (paraphrased) words, 'we have to balance short term, low-risk solutions (donating to effective charities) with long-term, higher-risk solutions (investing in cleaner technologies, for example)'. Which is why, when I talk about my future financial contributions to charitable causes in this post, I will have to include giving to a charity which provides effective secular schooling where it's needed (because education, especially of girls, keeps the population at a sustainable level) along with one which deals with easily curable diseases today.

We need to have both.

Comment by Simon Paynton on May 6, 2013 at 6:32am

If Pete Singer wants to capitalize on the video of this little girl getting run over in order to prove his philosophical points - he's a bit sick in the head. 

Comment by Simon Paynton on May 6, 2013 at 6:33am

Who's he going to run over next, to prove his smiling liberal ethical system? 

Comment by Carnun Marcus-Page on May 6, 2013 at 6:45am

Simon Paynton: What a strange comment...

Comment by _Robert_ on May 6, 2013 at 7:10am

@Ed, So true. The human population is already diminishing the quality of life. You would think we could stop at a couple of billion, but no, we are gonna head towards a life of depravity with 10's or 100's of billions of numbskull zombies wandering a devastated wasteland. The system of morality will have to shift because, like times of war, the previously "normal" system does not apply. This explains these crazy news stories that are becoming more commonplace.


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