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Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company  
The New York Times

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September 5, 1999, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section 6; Page 60; Column 1; Magazine Desk

LENGTH: 2794 words

HEADLINE: The Singer Solution To World Poverty

BYLINE:  By Peter Singer

   The Australian philosopher Peter Singer, who = later this month begins teaching at Princeton University, is perhaps the world's most controversial = ethicist. Many readers of his book "Animal Liberation" were moved to embrace vegetarianism, = while others recoiled at Singer's attempt to place humans and animals on an even moral plane. Similarly, his = argument that severely disabled infants should, in some cases, receive = euthanasia has been praised as courageous by some -- and denounced by others, = including anti-abortion activists, who have protested Singer's Princeton = appointment.

Singer's penchant for provocation extends to more mundane = matters, like everyday charity. A recent article about Singer in The New York Times = revealed that the philosopher gives one-fifth of his income to famine-relief = agencies. "From when I first saw pictures in newspapers of people starving, from when people asked you to donate some of your = pocket money for collections at school," he mused, "I always thought, 'Why that much -- why not more?"'

Is it possible to quantify our charitable burden? In the = following essay, Singer offers some unconventional thoughts about the ordinary = American's obligations to the world's poor and suggests that even his own = one-fifth standard may not be enough.

In the Brazilian film "Central Station," Dora is a retired schoolteacher who makes = ends meet by sitting at the station writing letters for illiterate people. Suddenly she has an opportunity = to pocket $1,000. All she has to do is persuade a homeless 9-year-old boy = to follow her to an address she has been given. (She is told he will be = adopted by wealthy foreigners.) She delivers the boy, gets the money, spends some = of it on a television set and settles down to enjoy her new acquisition. Her = neighbor spoils the fun, however, by telling her that the boy was too old to be = adopted -- he will be killed and his organs sold for transplantation. Perhaps = Dora knew this all along, but after her neighbor's plain speaking, she spends a = troubled night. In the morning Dora resolves to take the boy back.

Suppose Dora had told her neighbor that it is a tough world, other people have nice new TV's too, and if = selling the kid is the only way she can get one, well, he was only a street kid. = She would then have become, in the eyes of the audience, a monster. She redeems = herself only by being prepared to bear considerable risks to save the boy.

At the end of the movie, in cinemas in the affluent nations of = the world, people who would have been quick to condemn Dora if she had not rescued = the boy go home to places far more comfortable than her apartment. In fact, the = average family in the United States spends almost one-third of its income on = things that are no more necessary to them than Dora's new TV was to her. Going = out to nice restaurants, buying new clothes because the old ones are no longer = stylish, vacationing at beach resorts -- so much of our income is spent on things not essential to the preservation of our = lives and health. Donated to one of a number of charitable agencies, that money = could mean the difference between life and death for children in need.

All of which raises a question: In the end, what is the ethical = distinction between a Brazilian who sells a homeless child to organ peddlers and an = American who already has a TV and upgrades to a better one -- knowing = that the money could be donated to an organization that would use it to save the = lives of kids in need?

Of course, there are several differences between the two = situations that could support different moral judgments about them. For one thing, to be able = to consign a child to death when he is standing right in front of you = takes a chilling kind of heartlessness; it is much easier to ignore an appeal = for money to help children you will never meet. Yet for a utilitarian = philosopher like myself -- that is, one who judges whether acts are right or wrong = by their consequences -- if the upshot of the American's failure to donate the = money is that one more kid dies on the streets of a Brazilian city, then it is, = in some sense, just as bad as selling the kid to the organ peddlers. But one = doesn't need to embrace my utilitarian ethic to see that, at the very least, = there is a troubling incongruity in being so quick to condemn Dora for taking the = child to the organ peddlers while, at the same time, not regarding the American consumer's behavior as raising a serious moral issue.

In his 1996 book, "Living High and Letting Die," the New York University = philosopher Peter Unger presented an ingenious series of imaginary examples designed to probe our intuitions about = whether it is wrong to live well without giving substantial amounts of money to = help people who are hungry, malnourished or dying from easily treatable = illnesses like diarrhea. Here's my paraphrase of one of these examples:

Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings = in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. = The Bugatti is his pride and joy. In addition to the pleasure he gets from = driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its rising market value means = that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement. = One day when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a = railway siding and goes for a walk up the track. As he does so, he sees that a = runaway train, with no one aboard, is running down the railway track. Looking farther down the = track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the = runaway train. He can't stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of = the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the = siding where his Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed -- but the = train will destroy his Bugatti. Thinking of his joy in owning the car and the = financial security it represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch. The child = is killed. For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the = financial security it represents.

Bob's conduct, most of us will immediately respond, was gravely = wrong. Unger agrees. But then he reminds us that we, too, have opportunities to save = the lives of children. We can give to organizations like Unicef or Oxfam America. How much would we have to give one of these organizations to = have a high probability of saving the life of a child threatened by easily = preventable diseases? (I do not believe that children are more worth saving than = adults, but since no one can argue that children have brought their poverty on themselves, focusing on them simplifies the issues.) Unger called up = some experts and used the information they provided to offer some plausible estimates that include the cost of raising money, administrative = expenses and the cost of delivering aid where it is most needed. By his calculation, = $200 in donations would help a sickly 2-year-old transform into a healthy = 6-year-old -- offering safe passage through childhood's most dangerous years. To show = how practical philosophical argument can be, Unger even tells his readers = that they can easily donate funds by using their credit card and calling one of = these toll-free numbers: (800) 367-5437 for Unicef; (800) 693-2687 for Oxfam = America.

Now you, too, have the information you need to save a child's = life. How should you judge yourself if you don't do it? Think again about Bob and his = Bugatti. Unlike Dora, Bob did not have to look into the eyes of the child he was = sacrificing for his own material comfort. The child was a complete = stranger to him and too far away to relate to in an intimate, personal way. Unlike = Dora, too, he did not mislead the child or initiate the chain of events = imperiling him. In all these respects, Bob's situation resembles that of people = able but unwilling to donate to overseas aid and differs from Dora's situation.

If you still think that it was very wrong of Bob not to throw = the switch that would have diverted the train and saved the child's life, then it is hard to see how you could deny that = it is also very wrong not to send money to one of the organizations listed = above. Unless, that is, there is some morally important difference between the = two situations that I have overlooked.

Is it the practical uncertainties about whether aid will really = reach the people who need it? Nobody who knows the world of overseas aid can = doubt that such uncertainties exist. But Unger's figure of $200 to save a child's = life was reached after he had made conservative assumptions about the proportion = of the money donated that will actually reach its target.

One genuine difference between Bob and those who can afford to = donate to overseas aid organizations but don't is that only Bob can save the = child on the tracks, whereas there are hundreds of millions of people who can give = $200 to overseas aid organizations. The problem is that most of them aren't doing it. Does = this mean that it is all right for you not to do it?

Suppose that there were more owners of priceless vintage cars = -- Carol, Dave, Emma, Fred and so on, down to Ziggy -- all in exactly the same = situation as Bob, with their own siding and their own switch, all sacrificing the = child in order to preserve their own cherished car. Would that make it all right = for Bob to do the same? To answer this question affirmatively is to endorse follow-the-crowd ethics -- the kind of ethics that led many Germans to = look away when the Nazi atrocities were being committed. We do not excuse = them because others were behaving no better.

We seem to lack a sound basis for drawing a clear moral line = between Bob's situation and that of any reader of this article with $200 to spare who = does not donate it to an overseas aid agency. These readers seem to be acting at least as = badly as Bob was acting when he chose to let the runaway train hurtle toward the = unsuspecting child. In the light of this conclusion, I trust that many = readers will reach for the phone and donate that $200. Perhaps you should do it = before reading further.

Now that you have distinguished yourself morally from people = who put their vintage cars ahead of a child's life, how about treating yourself and = your partner to dinner at your favorite restaurant? But wait. The money you = will spend at the restaurant could also help save the lives of children = overseas! True, you weren't planning to blow $200 tonight, but if you were to = give up dining out just for one month, you would easily save that amount. And = what is one month's dining out, compared to a child's life? There's the rub. Since there are a lot of desperately needy children in the world, = there will always be another child whose life you could save for another = $200. Are you therefore obliged to keep giving until you have nothing left? At = what point can you stop?

Hypothetical examples can easily become farcical. Consider Bob. = How far past losing the Bugatti should he go? Imagine that Bob had got his foot = stuck in the track of the siding, and if he diverted the train, then before it = rammed the car it would also amputate his big toe. Should he still throw the = switch? What if it would amputate his foot? His entire leg?

As absurd as the Bugatti scenario gets when pushed to extremes, = the point it raises is a serious one: only when the sacrifices become very = significant indeed would most people be prepared to say that Bob does nothing wrong = when he decides not to throw the switch. Of course, most people could be wrong; = we can't decide moral issues by taking opinion polls. But consider for = yourself the level of sacrifice that you would demand of Bob, and then think = about how much money you would have to give away in order to make a sacrifice = that is roughly equal to that. It's almost certainly much, much more than $200. = For most middle-class Americans, it could easily be more like $200,000.

Isn't it counterproductive to ask people to do so much? Don't = we run the risk that many will shrug their shoulders and say that morality, so = conceived, is fine for saints but not for them? I accept that we are unlikely to see, = in the near or even medium-term future, a world in which it is normal for = wealthy Americans to give the bulk of their wealth to strangers. When it comes = to praising or blaming people for what they do, we tend to use a standard that is relative to some conception of normal behavior. Comfortably off Americans who give, say, 10 percent of their income to = overseas aid organizations are so far ahead of most of their equally comfortable = fellow citizens that I wouldn't go out of my way to chastise them for not = doing more. Nevertheless, they should be doing much more, and they are in no = position to criticize Bob for failing to make the much greater sacrifice of his = Bugatti.

At this point various objections may crop up. Someone may say: "If every citizen living in the affluent nations contributed his = or her share I wouldn't have to make such a drastic sacrifice, because long before = such levels were reached, the resources would have been there to save the lives of = all those children dying from lack of food or medical care. So why should I = give more than my fair share?" Another, related, objection is that the Government ought to increase = its overseas aid allocations, since that would spread the burden more = equitably across all taxpayers.

Yet the question of how much we ought to give is a matter to be = decided in the real world -- and that, sadly, is a world in which we know that most = people do not, and in the immediate future will not, give substantial amounts to = overseas aid agencies. We know, too, that at least in the next year, the United = States Government is not going to meet even the very modest Umited = Nations-recommended target of 0.7 percent of gross national product; at the moment it lags = far below that, at 0.09 percent, not even half of Japan's 0.22 percent or a = tenth of Denmark's 0.97 percent. Thus, we know that the money we can give = beyond that theoretical "fair share" is still going to save lives that would otherwise be lost. While the idea that = no one need do more than his or her fair share is a powerful one, should it = prevail if we know that others are not doing their fair share and that children = will die preventable deaths unless we do more than our fair share? That would be = taking fairness too far.

Thus, this ground for limiting how much we ought to give also = fails. In the world as it is now, I can see no escape from the conclusion that each = one of us with wealth surplus to his or her essential needs should be giving most = of it to help people suffering from poverty so dire as to be = life-threatening. That's right: I'm saying that you shouldn't buy that new car, take that = cruise, redecorate the house or get that pricey new suit. After all, a $1,000 = suit could save five children's lives.

So how does my philosophy break down in dollars and cents? An American household with an income = of $50,000 spends around $30,000 annually on necessities, according to the = Conference Board, a nonprofit economic research organization. = Therefore, for a household bringing in $50,000 a year, donations to help the world's = poor should be as close as possible to $20,000. The $30,000 required for = necessities holds for higher incomes as well. So a household making $100,000 could cut a = yearly check for $70,000. Again, the formula is simple: whatever money you're = spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away.

Now, evolutionary psychologists tell us that human nature just = isn't sufficiently altruistic to make it plausible that many people will = sacrifice so much for strangers. On the facts of human nature, they might be right, but they would be wrong to draw a moral conclusion from those = facts. If it is the case that we ought to do things that, predictably, most of us = won't do, then let's face that fact head-on. Then, if we value the life of a = child more than going to fancy restaurants, the next time we dine out we will = know that we could have done something better with our money. If that makes = living a morally decent life extremely arduous, well, then that is the way = things are. If we don't do it, then we should at least know that we are failing to = live a morally decent life -- not because it is good to wallow in guilt but = because knowing where we should be going is the first step toward heading in = that direction.

When Bob first grasped the dilemma that faced him as he stood = by that railway switch, he must have thought how extraordinarily unlucky he was to be = placed in a situation in which he must choose between the life of an innocent child and the sacrifice of most of his savings. But he was not = unlucky at all. We are all in that situation.


GRAPHIC: Drawings (Illustrations by Ross MacDonald)


LOAD-DATE: September 5, 1999

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