Ethics and Extreme Poverty: An Interview with Philosopher Peter Singer


By Matt Bieber, News Features Writer, MPP ‘11

Peter Singer is perhaps the world’s most influential philosopher. He is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University.

At the outset of your recent book, The Life You Can Save, you lay out two goals: to challenge readers to think about their obligations to those trapped in extreme poverty, and to convince readers to choose to give more of their income to help the poor.

What do you mean by extreme poverty?

Well, when I talk about extreme poverty, I use the definition that the World Bank has, which is really based on people having enough income to meet their basic needs for food, shelter, and maybe to educate their children, or some very minimal, basic healthcare.

The World Bank has calculated that in order to do that, you need to have the purchasing power equivalent in your local currency of US $1.25. So, we’re really talking about people who have less than what you can buy for $1.25 in the United States. It’s not what you would get for US $1.25 if you went to a bank in Mozambique or Mauritania. It’s what would have the same purchasing power in those local currencies as $1.25 has in the United States, and that’s what you have to live on for a day. If you have less than that, the World Bank classifies you as being extremely poor.

As you lay out your case as to why we should feel obligated to give in order to relieve those conditions, you offer what you call “a remarkably simple argument.” Walk us through that argument.

Well, the argument is based on a little story that I often tell my students about walking through a park, and there’s a shallow ornamental pond. You know it’s not deep because you’ve seen kids playing in it. At the moment, there’s nobody playing in it, but you see a very small child has fallen into it, and it’s too deep for a toddler to stand up, so this little child appears to be drowning.

Of course, you look around and you say, “So, who’s looking out for this baby? Where is the parent? Where’s the babysitter?” But you can’t see anybody. It’s just you and the child.

So, your first instinct is to rush down into the water and save the child. Then, imagine that the thought occurs to you, “Dear, I’m wearing my favorite shoes, and they will take me a while to get off. The child might drown if I try to take them off. Anyway, maybe I shouldn’t worry about the child. After all, I’m not responsible for this child. It’s not my child. I didn’t push the child in the pond. And I don’t want to ruin my shoes. So, I’ll just forget I ever saw the child and walk on.”

So, I ask students and other audiences what they would think about a person who reasons that way and ignores that drowning child. Everybody says that would be wrong. That would be monstrous even. It would just be an awful thing to do.

So, I think people recognize that we have an obligation to rescue someone if their life is at stake, they’re innocent – it’s no fault of theirs – and the cost to you is minimal – something like ruining a nice pair of shoes.

Well, if you accept that, then I think that is really the situation that we’re in with regard to those in extreme poverty in the world, because extreme poverty does cause millions of people to lose their lives prematurely, including small children. About 8 million small children a year, according to UNICEF, die because of avoidable poverty-related causes.

And we could help them. We could save those lives. We could help to get people out of extreme poverty for roughly the kind of money that it would take to buy a really expensive pair of shoes.

To the extent that people resist your arguments, I suspect that a lot of it has to do with feeling daunted by – or maybe even resentful toward – their dramatic implications. Rather than face some high standard and fail, say, better to reject the standard altogether – a sort of pre-emptive defense against being overwhelmed.

In this book, though, you take an interesting tack. You explicitly ask people not to think in those terms: “I should say up front that I believe you should giving more than 5 percent, and that I hope you’ll ultimately move in that direction.  But that’s not easy to hear and not easy to do.  I recognize that most people aren’t likely to be moved merely by philosophical argument to make drastic changes in the way they live, and further, that one cannot make such drastic changes overnight.  The ultimate purpose of this book is to reduce extreme poverty, not to make you feel guilty.  So I’m going to advocate a standard that I’m confident will do a lot of good.  That means suggesting a level that will get you started, and put you on a path toward challenging yourself and working toward doing more.”

This feels more like a concession to pragmatism than I’ve seen from you before. Have you moved in a more pragmatic direction?

I’ve not changed in terms of my basic utilitarian commitments. But I think what I now see is that given the way the world is and given the way people are, it would really be inconsistent with those utilitarian commitments to advocate a policy, which in some theoretical sense might be right but which was not going to lead to the consequences that I want and that are the best for everyone.

So, if simply reiterating the idea that it’s wrong to spend anything at all on any luxury as long as there are people starving in the world, if that’s going to turn people off in the way you suggest, if that’s going to mean that people will say, “Well, I’m not even going to think about this as a moral issue because if I do, I might have to so drastically turn my life around in the way that I don’t want to,” if that’s going to mean that people don’t do anything about it…

And if conversely, if you start to get people giving at a quite modest level, they begin to see that this is not too difficult and in fact this is quite fulfilling and satisfying in many ways, they get something positive from it and that might lead them to give more…If the result of that is that you get further towards solving the problem of extreme poverty in the world, then obviously that’s what a utilitarian view implies you should be doing.

I’m a student at the moment.  I’ve got almost no income, and I’m racking up debt – and interest on that debt – as I go.  In your view, does it make sense for me to give now and swallow the interest charges later?  Will that do more good than refraining from giving until I’m on better financial footing?

I think it probably does make sense to give now for the reason you mentioned, that there are a lot of problems that I feel we may have a chance to get a hold of now and in the next 50 or 100 years, and they could just get worse if we don’t. So, that’s one possibility.

One of these issues is if we educate people now who are currently not getting much education – particularly if we make sure that girls get an education – we’ll give them control of their fertility in a way that they don’t have otherwise, and all of the evidence suggests that they will have fewer children and we won’t have the same or as bad a population problem as we would have further down the track. So, that’s definitely one reason for giving now.

Another, though, is more personal. It’s more character-driven, and that is, I think it’s good for people to start reasonably young to get in the habit of giving. I started giving when I was still a graduate student, and I think that was good because it proved to me, at a time when I guess I was still fairly malleable, that it wasn’t a difficult thing to do. I think as people get older, they find it harder to change – not impossible, but harder.

So, I would say even if you’re not giving very much, do give something on a regular basis, and then you can gradually build up from there. That will be easier than having to start from scratch later on.

When I’m reading your work, I get the impression that you imagine the highest form of moral development to be the most selfless one – one in which we are always ready to give of ourselves if there is even a single person on earth in need.



I’m not capable of that level of selflessness at this point.  I get tired, or depressed, or down, and sometimes what I feel like I need more than anything is to go spend ten bucks and see a movie.  I know these are small things, but I’m not sure I’m capable of giving them up just yet.  

Well, I certainly wouldn’t have you be hard on yourself because every now and then you want to go and see a movie. You know, I do the same. So, I think this is the point that we were talking about earlier, that if you try to set a standard so high, it’s going to have negative consequences. I think you should apply that to yourself as well. I’m not trying to say to people, “You should feel guilty every time you spend $10 on something you don’t need because that could have gone to Oxfam or some other organization that’s saving children in developing countries.”

I’m trying to say you ought to look at how you’re living your life as a whole. You ought to try to make some decisions about what I can do to make a difference as part of an overall life plan, and you ought to try to stick to that. When you say, “What can I do to make a difference?” I think you have to be realistic. You don’t have to say, “Well, I’m never going to go to a movie. I’m never going to go to a cafe. I’m never going to go to a restaurant. I’m always going to live as cheaply as possible.”

What you should do is set reasonable, achievable goals, try to keep them, and then for the rest of the time say, “Well, I made this decision. I’m not going to agonize over it every five minutes when I get tempted to spend a dollar here or there. I’m going to live a normal life and when the time comes to make my annual donation, maybe I’ll think whether I’ll up it a bit.” But, you know, just feeling bad with yourself all the rest of the time is just going to be counterproductive.

Do you see distinctions between what governments should spend and what private individuals should spend in the name of poverty relief?

Well, governments are giving tiny amounts to poverty relief. Even those governments that are giving the most, like Sweden or Norway or Denmark or the Netherlands, are still giving less than 1% of what people earn, so less than $1 in every hundred that people earn. The United States government is giving about 22 cents, I think—the last time I looked—in every hundred dollars that we earn. So, I don’t think you could say that because of what they’re giving, they’re in any way unable to fulfill their responsibilities towards their own citizens. They’re clearly not.

So even those governments that are doing well are giving very little, and the United States government is giving much less than that even. Moreover, it’s not all going to deal with people or help people in extreme poverty, because a lot of it is given for political reasons. Iraq and Afghanistan have been the biggest recipients of US aid for the last few years because of their geopolitical significance in the wars we’re fighting there, not because they have the largest number of people in extreme poverty.

So, I do think that it’s good that governments should give, because that’s a way of making sure that everybody contributes in accordance with their means, because it’s coming out of tax revenues. But on the other hand, I think that there are probably limits to what governments can do that relate to the acceptability of that in the general public. I mean, governments can lead, and often should lead, but they can only get so far ahead of where the electorate is, at least in democratic governments.

And that’s why I think that individual citizens can do more, because individual citizens can make their own choices about how much they want to give. If they want to give 5% or 10%, or even 25% of their income, they can. It wouldn’t be reasonable for a government to give 25% of GNP to global poverty, unless that’s what its citizens really want them to do or in some way understand that that’s a good thing to do. Certainly, we don’t have that degree of understanding of the situation in any country at the moment.

What’s the end game for you?

I think that it is really important to relieve extreme poverty because of the suffering and premature death that it causes.

But once you get people above that level, it becomes harder to say really how much of a positive benefit more resources are to them, how much happier that makes them. I mean, we know that there’s a very steep curve up when people are below the level of extreme poverty, in terms of how much it benefits them to give them higher income.

But the level at which it rises starts to slow. We start getting to a point where the transfer costs become more significant. The disincentive effects on people not working because they have other ways, because they’re being given money – that also becomes relevant. So, I’m not really sure at what point it starts to actually cease to have important net benefits to continue to transfer resources and income from people who are wealthy to people who are poorer.

You talk about six psychological obstacles that make us less likely to give.

How do we move past them?

They’re all different things, and there’s no one strategy for moving past them all. There are different ways of making a difference.

The first one suggests that we relate better to identifiable individuals and that we’re more likely to give if we know the name or have seen the face of the person we’re giving to. Now, some aid organizations respond to that by getting people to adopt particular children or getting the children to write letters to the donors, which does seem to work in terms of getting the donors to continue giving.

But it’s probably not the most effective form of aid. Some of those organizations have actually moved away to the extent of, say, telling donors that, “Well, your donation isn’t really going to this particular child. It’s going to her village and it will help her, along with others in her village.” And so, that’s something you can do.

I’m also optimistic that in the future, the use of the internet will help to overcome that gap. That once we get decent broadband internet in developing countries, we’ll really be in closer contact with people there. We’ll be able to communicate more directly or be able to see people’s faces, even in remote villages, and we may then develop a lot more kind of bonds and relationships where we really know a lot about people in other areas and in a particular local community.

Others, it’s just going to be more education, more persuasion, I mean, the sense of futility, for instance. It’s something that people get because they think, “I can’t solve the problem, even if I give every penny I’ve got. It’s just a drop in the ocean.”

That’s just a bad way of thinking, because you’re not thinking about, “I could make a difference to a family and maybe save their child’s life,” or maybe make a difference to a village and help them have clean drinking water, so that women don’t have to walk two or three hours a day carrying water.

So, we have to get people to see that they should focus on specifics. And maybe again, that what I was talking about before, having particular relationships with particular communities, could do that.

Do you think future generations will look upon us with moral horror for failing to deal with the poverty that exists during our time?

Yes, I think future generations will find it hard to understand that we could know that people are dying because of lack of basic healthcare or safe drinking water or adequate diet, and that we could know that we have the ability to change that, to help them, and yet instead of doing anything about it, we would spend our time living lives of great luxury in other parts of the world.

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