Thoughts : Poverty : Poverty and the Moral Responsibility of the Rich to the Poor

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This article is about poverty. No, I will not dwell on statistics such as the fact that 1/3 of all human deaths are caused by poverty or that 50,000 people die everyday, of which 34,000 are children under the age of five. These statistics are, however, unfortunately true. What I want to do here is share a bit of my thoughts about the issue of poverty and a bit of philosophical reflection of what sort of obligation the relatively rich people like us have towards the poor.

You see, for the past year or so I’ve been thinking a lot about how fortunate I am. I’ve been brought up in an upper-middle class family and our family never really had any great want. We did not live extravagantly, yet we never had to struggle either. It never occurred to me how blessed I was until the past 5 years. I can recall very vividly how at the end of 1998 some friends and I traveled to America. At Union Square, one of the America’s major shopping hubs in San Francisco, I was overwhelmed to see so many beggars. While my friends did their shopping, I decided to spend my few days with these folks. After all, I was never a great shopper and the situation these beggars were in greatly intrigued me. Indeed, as one grows up and gets to know more about the world, one realizes that the city or even country one lives in is but only a small part of this world. There are wars constantly going on elsewhere. There is great suffering and poverty out there.

Two years ago I started seriously questioning the way I lived. At one stage, I even started questioning whether I should be studying at all, rather than say saving the money on my studies, giving it to the poor and making better use of my time to help those much less fortunate than me. No, it’s not that I don’t believe in the value of education. It’s just that for that moment – and moments that still regularly dawn upon me – I asked myself what the hell I’m doing living such a comfortable life while thousands die daily due to poverty. How selfish can I be to ignore their plight and not give much of a damn about their fate?

Sure, education is important. Very important. For one thing, getting a good education would mean getting a good job. Which means you’re on your way to a stable life. Getting married would be good, having kids too. A nice car, big house, entertainment, leisure, holidays…etc. All these things are important. A future without them would mean an unsuccessful life to many. Sure, I’d love all of these. Therefore, I’m not saying education is unimportant. Nor attaining the above things. All I’m trying to say is: what is certainly more important than any of the above is to be able to live. And if I could sacrifice any of the above things so that others will have a chance to live, I think I should do that. It’s only selfishness that makes me think only about myself and not of others.

The way I saw it, if we could help save the lives of people dying of poverty-related causes through giving our money to credible aid agencies such as UNICEF or World Vision, we should do it. Especially if it doesn’t take much out of us. After all, those 50,000 people who die daily die because they can’t even meet their basic needs. For us who can easily do that and are further able to spend our money on luxurious items, shouldn’t we think about sacrificing more of our comfort so that more people can live? Or to put into question form a famous saying: Shouldn’t we (the rich) live more simply, so that the poor may simply live?

The logic seemed impeccable to me. The moment I started to realize that I could save lives through spending less on unnecessary things and giving more to aid organizations, that moment I started to think twice about how I spent my money. Should I eat at this restaurant tonight? Should I buy this electronic product? Should I even go on this expensive trip this holiday? After all, if I do none of the above and contribute the money instead, I would probably be able to save lives. And what’s a single life saved from death compared to the enjoyment of a good dinner, an electronic product or a few days of holidaying? Surely, I ought to think about saving lives than merely spending on short-term pleasures for a life is worth much more than all these pleasures.

Let’s be a bit more specific here. After having consulted with aid organization experts and done some calculation, American philosopher Peter Unger (author of the book “Living High and Letting Die”, a really meaningful title I might add) came up with US$200 as the estimated amount of money – including all administrative and delivery of aid costs – needed to transform an ill 2-year-old into a healthy 6-year-old. US$200 is roughly equivalent to S$350. This figure is of course a rough estimate but as a guide it will do. From now on, perhaps we should all think twice about how we spend our money. That is, if you were contemplating buying that brand new Apple iPod worth over S$500, you now know that you could probably save the life of one child if you give that money to a good aid organization instead.

Yet how far should we go in this kind of thinking? Should we each just contribute $350 to charity and then we can be deemed to have fulfilled our moral responsibility? Do the rich have a moral responsibility to the poor in the first place?

To answer the second question first, both Peter Unger and Australian philosopher Peter Singer have written much from a utilitarian perspective about whether we (the relatively rich) indeed have a moral responsibility to the poor. A simple analogy like this is given: Suppose that Bob is on his way to the University and he passes by a shallow pond. As he walks by the pond that morning he sees a little child who appears to be drowning. What should he do? He has two choices. One is to go into the pond and save the child, though he would at the same time dirty his clothes and thus miss his class. The second choice is to walk pass the child to get to his class and leave him to drown to death.

Peter Singer asks if Bob has any obligation to save the child. We would of course all answer positively. Why? Simply because the cost of missing his class cannot be compared to the much greater importance of saving a child’s life. Two more questions he asks which most of us would answer in the negative: 1) Would it make a difference (to Bob’s obligation to save the child) if there were others walking by the pond who could save him also, but did not do so? and 2) Would it make a difference if the child lived far from Bob in another country yet he was still able to save him from death at no great cost to himself as in the above case – i.e. would distance or nationality lessen Bob’s obligation to save the child?

Here’s the conclusion he makes: If we all just agreed that Bob has a moral obligation to save someone if it didn’t cost him much, that distance and nationality did not lessen this obligation and nor would the fact that others were in an equally capable position to save him but didn’t – then we’ve just agreed that there is a moral obligation for all of us (who are relatively rich compared to those who live in the developing world) to save the many thousands in the world who die daily of poverty-related causes. Indeed, we all are in the same situation as Bob was in the above scenario.

Viewed from the above perspective, giving money to aid organizations isn’t something “charitable”, but it is the mere fulfillment of one’s moral obligations to the poor. For just as Bob saving the child isn’t considered a particularly praiseworthy or charitable act but his mere obligation, so giving money to aid organizations should not be considered charitable, but merely the responsibility of all those who can afford to do so without sacrificing much in return. That means, the so-called “charitable” man need not be greatly praised for giving much to the needy as he is merely fulfilling his responsibility. However, that also means that those who do not give much to aid organizations are not merely withheld praise for not contributing their money, but should also be viewed as acting in a morally wrong way. As Singer wrote, “We ought to give the money away, and it is wrong not to do so.” After all, wouldn’t you agree that a man who prefers to spend hundreds of dollars on a new suit just to look good is wrong to do so when the money could be used to save lives?

So that’s the utilitarian case for there being a moral responsibility of the rich to help the poor. Of course, one can argue on many other grounds (for example, on grounds of political justice) that we, the relatively rich in the developed world, have a responsibility to give more to the poor in the developing world. But let’s get back to the first question which I’ve yet to answer.

Given we accept generally that we ought to be doing more to help the poor and dying, how much is enough? S$350 is the figure good enough to save one child. However, we know that there is more than one child or person that needs our help. Singer has argued that we ought to give as much till giving any more would come as a great cost to us that we wouldn’t be able to bear. A simple way of applying such a principle would be that if, for example, you earn $100,000 annually after taxes and it costs $60,000 to meet the basic needs of you and your dependents, that means up to $40,000 would probably be spent yearly on goods and services that are not necessary to the survival of you and your dependents. If so, one ought to give as much of the $40,000 to help the poor. As Singer says, “whatever money you’re spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away.”

At first hearing, that sounds utterly ridiculous. If so, perhaps we all should try living in the same situation as those 50,000 people. Maybe once we’ve experienced the depths of poverty will we be grateful for all that we have such that giving of everything beyond what we truly need to survive would seem only right. But most of us (including myself) would probably not go that far. Most likely, we’re not altruistic enough to sacrifice so much.

Where does this leave us? If we’re most likely not to fulfill this demanding ideal of giving away all that we don’t truly need, that doesn’t mean this ideal is wrong. Rather than ignoring our moral responsibility, we should instead strive towards leading a more morally decent life in terms of how we spend our money and how much we give to the poor. The next time we contemplate dining in an expensive restaurant, let us not forget that we could do something much better with the money. Between now and tomorrow morning, tens of thousands of people will die because of a failure to meet their most basic needs. Between now and next week, most of us would probably be faced with the choice between spending on something we don’t truly need and saving our money to give it to help the poor. Such a choice we face may not affect how many people dies between now and tomorrow morning but it can play a role in determining the number of people who will die over the next few months.

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  1. The question of how much we ought to do to help distant strangers is a puzzling one. It’s a shame that not that many people reflect on how easily we can make really significant differences. Peter Unger’s book is certainly useful from that point of view, even if one may have some doubts about the conclusions it advocates.

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