Encountering Peter Singer

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The terrorist attack of September 11 no doubt greatly increased my interest in social and political issues. Perhaps a greater challenge to my thinking came when I read Peter Singer’s writings on poverty and the obligation of the comparatively rich to the dying and suffering poor. Peter Singer is known as one of the most influential living Philosophers. While he is probably more famous for his controversial views on Euthanasia/Infanticide and Animal Rights, it is his writings on poverty that have attracted me. He is also quite against Christianity. But then again, that is besides the point here. To me, his views on poverty are what have greatly influenced my thinking – more so than any other Christian author. Through reading him, I have been challenged and still am challenged to think of the kind of lifestyle I should live. I think it’s a pity that Singer is so well known for his other controversial views that most people don’t know he has written so much on poverty.

I started to seriously look into Peter Singer’s view on poverty from around the middle of 2002. I don’t remember how it all started. I was already interested in poverty before all this – that’s why I took Development subjects since my first session in 2002, and that’s why I decided to study in Australia not America. I remember reading an article by Peter Singer in the Singapore Straits Times (online version) entitled “The 1% solution to wiping out poverty.” This article was in the commentary section of the paper in late June 2002. Another initial brush with Singer’s writings came when I was browsing through my friend’s Philosophy reading kit while studying with her. An article inside was Singer’s classic (and controversial) article entitled “Famine, Affluence and Morality” taken from the Philosophy and Public Affairs journal of spring 1972. This was where Singer put forth his view on poverty and since then a lot of people have responded to it. I even went to listen to the Philosophy lecture tape in the library that touched on Peter Singer’s view of poverty. Eventually I went to the library and browsed through all I could find that dealt with Singer’s view on poverty (for or against) in books, journals, and Internet articles.

From the 2nd Session 2002 till the end of the first Session 2003, Singer’s view of poverty was never far from my mind. I discussed it with University and Internet friends and gave a lot of thought to it during that year (and still do nowadays, though maybe not as much). It challenged me to think about how I should be spending my money, to think about the poor, to remember that it matters to the poor and dying how I use my money and indeed I can always do more to help them. While his above famed article (“Famine, Affluence and Morality”) was more philosophical, long and took a bit focused reading, I found a shorter article by him that captured his thoughts on poverty extremely well – and which made for easier reading, though was no less challenging. It was an article found in the September 5th, 1999 issue of the New York Times Magazine entitled “The Singer Solution to World Poverty” and which I sent to dozens of my friends through the Internet.

What makes Peter Singer’s thoughts on poverty special, I believe, isn’t due to the fact that what he wrote contained insights never before discovered. No. To me, what he wrote was mere ‘common sense’ – if there be such a thing. I thought the same way he did of poverty before I read his writings. What made his writings special and challenging to me and many others, I think, was the fact that he wrote about poverty and our responsibility to the poor in a more logical and philosophical framework. And that makes all the difference.

I’d like to divide the rest of this section into two parts. In these two parts, I’ll touch on 1) A summary of Peter Singer’s thoughts on poverty 2) The relationship between his view on poverty and what the Bible says about poverty.

1) A summary of Peter Singer’s thoughts on poverty

Firstly, I’ll give a short account of what Peter Singer believes about poverty. This will be a relatively simple summary (definitely not taking into account all the nuances in his philosophical writings) as I’ve already written an article about poverty, which basically reflects what I learnt from Singer. But very simply put, Peter Singer believes that we – who are relatively richer than many people in the Third World who are dying of poverty-related causes – can and should do more to help these people. And it is wrong not to help them. He gives us an analogy like this: imagine you were to go past a pond on the way to your University class. You see a little child drowning. You have two choices: 1) to ignore the child and let him drown because you don’t want to miss your class or 2) to help the child out from the pond which would mean you saving a life but then it would also mean you getting yourself wet and dirty and not being able to attend your class. Faced with these two choices, most people would say the morally right thing to do is to save the child. Why? Because though saving the child would mean you missing your class, the value of the child’s life is more important than the value of attending the class. That is, saving a child’s life is so much more important than attending a class and if one had to choose between them, surely we ought to save the child and forfeit attending the class, rather than attend the class and allow the child to die. Now let’s consider something else. Suppose you receive an appeal letter for donation from a trustworthy charitable group like World Vision or Oxfam. The letter says that you can help the poor people in poor countries to survive and live by sponsoring people or donating a certain amount of money per month to the organization, which will in turn help these poor people. What would you do? Would it be wrong to ignore the letter and just throw it away and thus not donate? Most people say there’s nothing morally wrong in doing that. But yet there seems to be a discrepancy here in the way we evaluate these two scenarios – and there shouldn’t be any. Peter Singer reminds us that just as in the first scenario we thought it wrong not to help save the child, in the second scenario, we should think alike too and it should be wrong for us to not donate money to help save lives. In the first scenario, we agreed it was wrong to ignore the child because we could save this child through not sacrificing much – merely missing a class. In the second scenario, donating money to help the poor, for most of us, isn’t a big sacrifice to us. If we were to give $35 per month or $50 or $100, we could help save lives, yet we wouldn’t suffer that much. We would probably have to sacrifice a bit. Maybe we wouldn’t be able to eat as much expensive food or eat out as much as before, or we wouldn’t be able to spend so much every month on clothes or movies or whatever it may be. But just as we considered the sacrifice of attendance of a class not a big deal as compared to saving the child, shouldn’t we also consider sacrificing money spent on other non-essential luxury goods not a big deal as compared to saving lives too? The point is, both scenarios are very similar. And if we were to ignore pleas for donations and ignore giving money to help save lives, it’s perhaps not very different from us being the person in the first scenario and choosing to attend our class rather than save a person’s life.

In effect, what Peter Singer is proposing is that, in his own words, “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” In the case of the first scenario, it was in our power to prevent the child from drowning and in doing so we wouldn’t sacrifice anything of comparable moral importance – because class attendance is not something of comparable moral importance as saving a life. The same can be said of the second scenario: for most of us, it is in our power to help save lives by giving money to trustworthy charitable organizations and in doing so we wouldn’t sacrifice anything of comparable moral importance. We may not be able to spend as much we would like to on food or clothes or entertainment, but the moral importance of such things cannot be compared to the moral importance of saving a life. So such a standard that Peter Singer sets would basically require us to give and give to save lives – until giving any more would cause us to sacrifice something of comparable moral importance. Of course, if we were to follow this principle, when we stop giving would differ from person to person. It will depend on what we consider is of comparable moral importance. And we would probably constantly try to justify our use of money by saying that not buying this or that would be sacrificing something of comparable moral importance – when most of the time it’s not true. In fact, perhaps a good application of that principle would be, in the words of Peter Singer, “whatever money you’re spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away.” Indeed, it would be hard for most of us to disagree that if we desire to adhere to the principle faithfully, we would only stop giving till giving any more would mean us sacrificing being able to buy things of necessity – like food, water, a decent shelter. Suffice to say, the principle is one that probably no one would fulfill. Almost everyone would not prevent something bad from happening (through giving money to save lives) eventhough if doing so they would not sacrifice anything of any comparable moral importance – we would not want to sacrifice even something of a much lesser comparable moral importance like sacrifice wearing branded clothes, even if we could save some lives through doing that. Few people would sacrifice buying any luxury goods and would give away all they don’t need.

So the above demanding standard is in effect what Peter Singer proposes we should all do if we were to live morally upright lives. One could find holes here and there in his formulation of his principle, but ultimately I think deep down inside it resonates with us. Indeed we all can do more to save lives and help the poor, but we don’t do it because we’re selfish and would rather spend on ourselves. Even for those who do give a lot of money to charities, there is no doubt that they could give more and they could do better. If we all really wanted to, we could give enough for there to be no one who would die from poverty-related causes. But that would demand too much of a sacrifice from us. We’re not willing to sacrifice so much. We may even argue that by not doing so that doesn’t mean we’re morally wrong or guilty. But deep down inside, we know we could do more. Deep down inside, I believe we all recognize we are in some ways guilty.

2) The relationship between his view on poverty and what the Bible says about poverty

So what does the bible say about how Christians ought to relate to poverty and the poor? What is our obligation to the poor? How would God want us Christians to relate to the poor, to help them? There are many passages that touch on poverty. We are told many times in the New Testament to help the poor and give to and share with them (e.g. Acts 2:44-45, Acts 4:32-35). In the Old Testament, the prophets speak much to Israel (e.g. Isaiah 58) about how they have failed to help the poor and oppressed and how God would want them to do so. In addition, God’s law for Israel requires His people to look kindly upon the poor through the Jubilee and Sabbath principles. Lastly, and most importantly, understanding what “love” means will help us understand what God desires of us in helping the poor. Indeed, “love” alone encompasses every other principles or wisdom one can take from the rest of the bible on how we should help the poor. Indeed, God is love. He is love to such an extent that He sent His only Son to die for the sins of the world. That’s how much He loved us. And because of that, we should love others – love everyone! That includes loving the poor. And what does it mean to love the poor?

Whatever it means, it surely means more than Singer’s demanding principle. If according to Singer’s principle a person would be considered living a morally upright life if he gives all that he doesn’t need away, then according to God and His principle, He would like that we give all away to another person – even if it means giving things and money that we would need for ourselves to survive! That’s what I think love is – in the aspect, at least, in relation to poverty and the poor in this world. What I’m trying to say here is that I realized that God’s principles and desire of us – His definition of what is right for us to do and what we should strive to achieve – goes beyond what Singer’s principle is. And if it is already so hard to fulfill his principle, how much more difficult would it be to fulfill God’s principle?

I’m not trying to place rules and demands upon Christians as though doing these and obeying them would get them to heaven. No! Salvation is all of grace. However, how ought we to live now that we’ve been saved? Surely as God has loved us in Christ, so we ought to love others too. Jesus gave up his own life as an expression of love. So ought we to do so as an expression of love to others. That’s how radical love is! I could list countless passages in the Bible that call for radicalness of the Christian church that are totally ignored! Indeed, the Christian community ought to be a radical community. Love of course is not only expressed in terms of giving to the poor. But I’m talking here of what love is in terms of giving to the poor because that’s the focus of my writing here. In terms of what God requires of us to do in relation to the poor, I think it’s very clear that He requires us to love them. Loving them would mean giving of our very own lives for them, if in exchange of our life, we could save theirs. That’s the radicalness of it all.

Of course I’m not suggesting that if we Christians were to live as God would want us to live, we’d all give of our lives, give of our necessities if needed, to the poor. I don’t believe we even need to go to that extent! For we could easily reduce to zero the number of people who die who die from poverty-related causes if we all gave more. Maybe much more, but nevertheless, I don’t think it would require us to sacrifice our very own lives – in terms of giving away so much money that there is not enough left to buy our daily necessities to sustain us.

Let’s face it: we Christians could do more to help the poor in the world. We could give more of our money. To have tens of thousands of people die daily because of not having enough money for food or medicine – this is unacceptable. It may be acceptable to the non-Christian world which does not have any standard or ethic to follow, but for us Christians, it’s not acceptable.

My point in all of this is that the Christian ethic is more radical than Peter Singer’s. If his standard says:

If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it

then the Christian ethic should be something like:

If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, we ought to do it even if it costs us our very own lives, because to not do so would be to disregard the most important standard to follow – which is that of love.

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