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Singer Solution to World Poverty Too Demanding

Singer Solution to World Poverty Too Demanding

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Published by Sachin Nandha
A response to Peter Singer's utilitarian argument to solve world poverty
A response to Peter Singer's utilitarian argument to solve world poverty

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Published by: Sachin Nandha on Nov 23, 2010
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Is the Singer Solution to World Poverty too demanding?Philosophy of ValueDepartment of Philosophy, University of NottinghamV7DVALSachin Nandha
Is the Singer Solution to World Poverty toodemanding?
In this essay, I will be concerned with the Singer solution to world poverty. I willanalyse the Singer proposal through studying two examples that he uses in his paper,one of which he borrows from Peter Unger. I will highlight the ethical distinctions between the examples Singer uses and their relation to the people he is addressing,namely, the people in the developed nations of the world. In order to understand theSinger solution, I will have to understand the paradigm from which it stems – aconsequentialist theory called Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the ethical theory that promotes actions as moral if it increases overall ‘happiness’ and classifies actions asimmoral if they reduce ‘happiness’. Within Utilitarianism there are two forms that Iwill consider in the essay, namely, act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism. Act-utilitarianism is the doctrine that applies actions directly, so that an individual actionis right if it increases happiness more than any alternative. Rule-utilitarianism is thedoctrine that holds one ought to act in conformity with a code of rules and conformitywith these rules by everyone would maximise utility. By utility, I mean the basic unitof desirability or happiness (Blackburn, 1996). I will clearly show the limitations of  both the Utilitarian forms and relate them to the Singer solution, concluding with six points as to why the Singer solution is too demanding.The Singer Solution is composed of several fictitious examples, which he uses tomake several striking points about ones duties and what one ‘ought’ to do. His firstexample is that of a
‘Retired schoolteacher who makes ends meet by sitting at the train stationwriting letters for illiterate people. Suddenly she has an opportunity to make$1000. All she has to do is to persuade a homeless 9-year-old boy to followher to an address she has been given. She is told that a wealthy family will adopt the boy. She delivers the boy and gets the money, spends some of it ona new television set and settles down to enjoy her new acquisition. Her neighbour spoils the fun, however, by telling her that the boy was too old to beadopted – he will be killed and his organs used for transplantations.’ 
(Singer 1999)1
 
Is the Singer Solution to World Poverty too demanding?Philosophy of ValueDepartment of Philosophy, University of NottinghamV7DVALSachin Nandha
Singer then points out that if the schoolteacher does not go back and save the child byreturning the television set and the $1000 back to whoever gave it, she would beclassed as immoral. The only way she can redeem herself is by sacrificing her newtelevision set and her $1000. He then points out that most people in the developednations are in the same situation as the schoolteacher. In the example, the teacher isrequired to give up her television set and a $1000 to save a boys life. Singer says thatmost people in the developed nations could save the lives of hundreds of children insome of the poorest nations by sacrificing some of their luxuries and donating thesurplus to charity. According to Singer one third of the wages of an averageAmerican is spent on luxuries that could, if donated, save the lives of many childrenaround the world.This raises the question ‘what is the ethical distinction between the schoolteacher whosells a homeless child to organ peddlers and an American who already owns a TV andupgrades to a better one knowing that the money could be donated to anorganisation that would use it to save the lives of children in need?There are severalobvious distinctions. Firstly, for somebody to be able to consign a child to deathwhen he is in front of you takes a certain kind of extreme heartlessness; it is a loteasier however, to ignore an appeal for money to help children you will never meet.Secondly, the schoolteacher was the culprit in the first place who sold the boy to theorgan peddlers (knowingly or unknowingly) whereas the individual in the developednation feels that he is not directly responsible for the situation of the worlds poor.Singer points out that even though these differences exist between the comparisons,the consequences are what matters in the end. This naturally comes from the fact thatthe Singer solution to world poverty is based in the Utilitarian paradigm.Unger in his book ‘Living high, Letting die’ (1996) introduces a series of imaginaryexamples in order to probe our intuitions about whether it is wrong to live wellwithout giving substantial amounts of money to help people who are hungry,malnourished or dying of easily curable diseases. His most probing example (thatSinger borrows in his solution) is that of a man who is close to retirement. He hasinvested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, which he has not beenable to insure. The car is his pride and joy, or in other words he gets vast amounts of 2
 
Is the Singer Solution to World Poverty too demanding?Philosophy of ValueDepartment of Philosophy, University of NottinghamV7DVALSachin Nandha
 pleasure from owning and driving his car. In addition, to him enjoying his car, healso realises that the car has a rising market value which means that he will be able tosell it one day and use the money for his retirement. On an occasion he parks his newcar on a disused railway track and decides to take a walk along side it. During hiswalk, he sees that a run away train with no one on board is approaching. Lookingfurther down the track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed bythe train. He is in no position to tell the child of the on coming danger nor can he stopthe speeding train. However, he sees a switch that will divert the train away from thechild but in direct collision with his car. Unger points out that if he throws the switch,no body would be killed but his car would be destroyed. Thinking about the joy thecar brings and its added financial security, he decides not to divert the train and allowsfor the child to be killed.Most people would acknowledge that the man’s actions were immoral as a child’s lifeis more valuable than his car. However, Singer points out (using Unger’s example)that most people in the developed nations are in a similar position to the man in theexample. Singer reminds us that we too can save the lives of many children if wesacrifice our own financial security. Singer’s argument can be summarised in thefollowing manner, a) If we can prevent something bad from happening withoutsacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then we ought to do so, b)death by aids is bad therefore c) we can prevent many people from dying of aids bysacrificing our luxuries, which are not as important. Hence Singer’s argument leadsto d) ‘we ought to prevent people from dying of aids by sacrificing our luxuries’ andthis is the heart of the Singer Solution.This example is more comparable than the one of the schoolteacher to our own lives.Firstly, the man in the example did not know the child on the rail tracks who he wassacrificing for his own material comforts, secondly, he did not mislead the child nor did he start the chain of events that would kill the child. The man’s situationresembles that of people who are able but unwilling to donate to charity and thereforediffers from the example of the schoolteacher. The only difference between the manin the example and the rest of us is that only he can save the life of a child, whereasmost of us can simply rely on someone else to donate the money required. Thequestion arises ‘does relying on someone else make one immoral?Also, if most3

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