Why We Should Give: The Ethics of Peter Singer

The idea that we in the West have some ethical responsibility to alleviate poverty in developing countries has made sense to me for quite some time now. The distribution of wealth across the world is highly unequal and I believe much of this can be explained by an accident of geography. A country’s wealth isn’t, in other words, a result of simple hard work and ingenuity (and, even if it was, that doesn’t remove ethical responsibility).

Nevertheless, it hasn’t always been easy to convince others that they (or our country as a whole) should give some money to those in need. Most people I know are quite generous, but the argument that we should be giving away our money is a difficult one to convey. But along comes philosopher Peter Singer with a very simple and sensical argument. I’ll simply repeat it here because I think it deserves more attention.

The argument goes like this. You are walking beside a pond and notice a young child drowning. You have the ability to jump in and save her, but it will result in you ruining your $100 shoes. So would you still do it?

Of course you would. Everyone would. What’s $100 compared to the life of a young child?

So, if you would spend $100 on saving the life of a child here, why wouldn’t you do it for a child in a developing country?

I think everyone would agree with Singer’s conclusion that if we can save a life, we should. However, it is a whole other issue to convince people that their donation will in fact save a life. Much of the reluctance to donate money is the belief that it won’t actually make a difference (which explains why people give more freely to child sponsorship and humanitarian crises).

But Singer has helped to solve that problem as well. On his website – The Life You Can Save – Singer lists the charities where your donation most directly translates into a saved life.

It seems to me that we have no more excuses.


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