The moral duty to donate money to people in extreme poverty

Peter Singer has been described by the New Yorker magazine as the world’s most famous living philosopher. In his new book, The Life You Can Save, he argues that people in rich countries have a moral duty to give money to help people in extreme poverty in developing countries.

His argument is compelling.  As summarised on the accompanying website, it is this:

If we could easily save the life of a child, we would. For example, if we saw a child in danger of drowning in a shallow pond, and all we had to do to save the child was wade into the pond, and pull him out, we would do so. The fact that we would get wet, or ruin a good pair of shoes, doesn’t really count when it comes to saving a child’s life.

UNICEF, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, estimates that about 27,000 children die every day from preventable, poverty-related causes. Yet at the same time almost a billion people live very comfortable lives, with money to spare for many things that are not at all necessary.  (You are not sure if you are in that category? When did you last spend money on something to drink, when drinkable water was available for nothing? If the answer is “within the past week” then you are spending money on luxuries while children die from malnutrition or diseases that we know how to prevent or cure.)

I find this argument compelling, though it leads to the unsettling conclusion that almost all of us should be doing more than we are already to give up part of our income to help people in developing countries.  (Basically: if you are buying mineral water in a country where it is safe to drink water out of the tap, you should give that money to a charity that will use it to reduce poverty instead.)

I spoke to Peter Singer about his book on Development Drums.  His message is important, and I hope you’ll listen.

6 thoughts on “The moral duty to donate money to people in extreme poverty”

  1. I buy this, but it’s the vagueness of the implications that I find troubling. Take someone who accepts the basic premise – they then visit his website to find out what they should *do* about it, and are greeted with the following: []

    I’m sorry, but for some of these organisations I have doubts abut the efficacy of donations. There needs to be something else before I feel compelled to match my desire to alleviate suffering with an actual donation to a specific organisation.

    It’s therefore not a purely moral issue – it’s also an economic one, because it rests on the identification of suitable charities and an assessment about whether they solve the incentive problems and knowledge problems that are rife within the public sector. I’m not attempting to taint all organisations with the same brush here, but we, the general public, know that a great deal of aid money is wasted. The only way we can distinguish between causes we wish to support, and those we don’t, rests on ideas.

    So really, isn’t the “moral duty” first and foremost to read up on basic economics?

  2. @AJE – Hello again. Good to hear from you.

    Peter Singer does deal with this explicitly in my interview with him on Development Drums, as I asked him this question (though not the bit about the moral duty to read basic economics).

    He points out that there are several organisations that are sufficiently reliable that you can be sure that a large proportion of your money will actually be put to good use. (There only needs to be one organisation in which you have confidence for his argument to hold water). He also points out that even if as much as half the money went on administration or waste – which he says he is pretty sure it won’t – 50c spent in a developing country would do more good than spending $1 on yourself, so there would still be a moral duty to give.

    I hope you have the opportunity to listen to the podcast.


  3. Singer’s work is morally compelling but fails to articulate anything “new.” His arguments mirror Beitz’s theorizing on distributive justice in 1979. In “Political Theory and International Relations,” Beitz argued “that a strong case can be made on contractarian grounds that persons of diverse citizenship have distributive obligations to one another analogous to those of citizens of the same state” (Beitz, 1978: 128). Beitz claimed that in an increasingly interconnected, globalized world “it’s wrong to limit the application of contractarian principles of social justice to the nation state” (Beitz, 1978: 128).

    The problem with Singer’s work (and Beitz’s) is that it’s premised on the fact that “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” will evoke the same emotional response from EVERYBODY. Stan Cohen argues persuasively that the claim, “if only people knew, they would act,” is fundamentally flawed because (1) people know, and (2) they don’t act. He claims that for most people, the boundaries of their moral universe is limited to family and friends…not distant sufferers. There is a gap between knowledge and action and knowledge and acknowledgement (what Cohen terms ‘state of denial’). This suggests that claimsmakers – human rights activists, development specialists, and economists – need to repackage their appeals in a way that is personalized and ‘real’ for consumers. This means taking an integrative approach that extends beyond shaming and naturalistic appeals to people’s ‘universally shared’ moral sensibilities. Knowledge and acknowledgment of atrocity (and poverty) is socially, politically, culturally, and historically contingent.

  4. I enjoyed Singer’s book, but I wasn’t persuaded by his argument, and I was disappointed with his conclusions. The questions he addresses are fundamentally important – how much of our money should we give away, and to whom should we give. In Briton, the average persons donates 0.75% of their gross income, with medical-research charities consistently come top of the list of favoured causes, along with almost anything to do with animals.*

    Singer believes that we should give more to address the causes of international poverty. Even though the recipients are foreign strangers to us, he argues that we are as obligated to them as fellow human beings as we are obligated to our own family. This isn’t particularly novel. Peter Ungar made a similar case in his 1995 book ‘Living High Letting Die’, and this philosophical thread of moral universalism runs aspects of Christianity, Islam, Kant, and left-wing internationalism. Trouble is that in practice almost everyone, even the most enlightened liberals, side with Bentham and Burke’s alternative view that our affinities reasonably ripple out through our families, friends and localities, to the nation and not very far beyond. We feel an innate sense of ‘moral distance’ – we are less responsible for people and situations that are further away from us.

    Singer attacks our urge to disproportionately spend money on ourselves, our children and our nation as selfish, but by making charity into a solemn duty rather than a romantic virtue, he removes much of the attraction. Whoever loved someone out of a sense of duty? He presents aid transfers to the poor more as an imperative of economic efficiency than a consequence of love. The most powerful parts of the book for me came when he doesn’t just argue for what he believes to be right, but when he describes people that are actually doing it – like the members of the ‘50% league’ who regularly give half their income or wealth away.** Yet after praising a culture of openness about giving, Singer remains silent about his own practical approach. Notwithstanding the benefits of developing a culture of openness, I’m still inclined to think that we should aspire to give anonymously and forgetfully to guard us from ‘the delusion of our own sanctity’.

    With such a bold and strident argument set out in the book, I was ready for a challenging, almost messianic conclusion. Alas, Singer’s remedy to saving the extra life is disappointingly bloodless and arbitrary. A complicated system of progressive taxation that recommends people give between one and ten per cent of their income to alleviate international poverty. His conclusion is so timidly conventional that it embarrasses the argument that goes before it.

    So what might be more useful? The UK government clearly have a vital role in assisting poor countries through policies relating to trade, aid, security and governance, but policy has been less concerned to nudge us into making voluntary donations. Gift-aid is perhaps the most obvious policy incentive to be more charitable. This could be strengthened, or at least made less bureaucratic. Beyond this, the government could do more working with the grain of ‘moral distance’ by encouraging more people to go and visit or work in developing countries. HMRC could use gift-aid data to publish anonymous statistics of how much people were giving in your locality, and to which causes. We could compete with our neighbouring postcodes to be more generous than them. Could the government do more to support peer-2-peer micro-finance organisations like Kiva or Zopa that use technology to connect geographically remote borrowers and lenders personally, as well as through financial transactions? Perhaps donations could finance the cost of capital rather than being the principal for loans that are repaid.

    Singer is an ethically serious man, but rather like his previous work on Animal rights, this book feels as if it has been written to win an argument rather than to change our habits, which is a shame, given the lives that are at stake.


    * Economist, Bring back the Victorians, Feb 15th 2007

  5. He points out that there are several organisations that are sufficiently reliable that you can be sure that a large proportion of your money will actually be put to good use.

    They might be “reliable” in the sense of “not wasting your money on admin or corruption”, but that doesn’t mean their “reliable” in the sense of creating lasting and systemic change in the lives of the poor. I’m semi-eager to reading Singer’s book, but in what I’ve read so far – extracts, articles and interviews – I’ve found both the philosophical and economic backbone of his proposal to be weak. They seem to rely on the force of utilitarian calculus overcoming human nature; usually in such contests, human nature wins.

  6. I hesitate to disagree on philosophic or logical grounds with a professional philosopher and logician. However, the analogy doesn’t hold water.

    The duty is to stop the child from drowning, not to give someone money to stop the child from drowning.

    Similarly, the duty is to work to make the lives of the poor better, not give money to someone to make the lives of the poor better.

    The man who devoted years to making the clockwork radio and torch has done more for the poor than any amount of money he could have sent from his income. Those working on fuel cells (“ahem”) will, if successful, do more to improve the lives of the poor by reducing or eliminating climate change than whatever few hundreds of pounds a year they might send by cutting non-water beverages (although of course if “non-water” is extended to mean alcohol then the tens of thousands might change the calculus).

    The duty is to effect improvement (preferably sustained on the teaching to fish rather than giving fish basis) not a duty to donate money.

    Tim – Thanks. Good to have you back here. I have a question. What if it were demonstrably the case that donating money effects an improvement (this is part of Peter Singer’s argument)? Furthermore, what if people are prepared to donate money (and this demonstrably effects improvement) but they are less willing to give up their time to invent wind-up radios? Do they then have a moral duty to do so?

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