Is the Singer Solution to World Poverty too demanding?

Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham Sachin Nandha

Philosophy of Value V7DVAL

Is the Singer Solution to World Poverty too demanding?
In this essay, I will be concerned with the Singer solution to world poverty. I will analyse 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 the Singer solution, I will have to understand the paradigm from which it stems – a consequentialist theory called Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the ethical theory that promotes actions as moral if it increases overall ‘happiness’ and classifies actions as immoral if they reduce ‘happiness’. Within Utilitarianism there are two forms that I will consider in the essay, namely, act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism. Actutilitarianism is the doctrine that applies actions directly, so that an individual action is right if it increases happiness more than any alternative. Rule-utilitarianism is the doctrine that holds one ought to act in conformity with a code of rules and conformity with these rules by everyone would maximise utility. By utility, I mean the basic unit of 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 to make several striking points about ones duties and what one ‘ought’ to do. His first example is that of a ‘Retired schoolteacher who makes ends meet by sitting at the train station writing 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 follow her 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 on a 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 be adopted – he will be killed and his organs used for transplantations.’ (Singer 1999)

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Is the Singer Solution to World Poverty too demanding? Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham Sachin Nandha

Philosophy of Value V7DVAL

Singer then points out that if the schoolteacher does not go back and save the child by returning the television set and the $1000 back to whoever gave it, she would be classed as immoral. The only way she can redeem herself is by sacrificing her new television set and her $1000. He then points out that most people in the developed nations are in the same situation as the schoolteacher. In the example, the teacher is required to give up her television set and a $1000 to save a boys life. Singer says that most people in the developed nations could save the lives of hundreds of children in some of the poorest nations by sacrificing some of their luxuries and donating the surplus to charity. around the world. This raises the question ‘what is the ethical distinction between the schoolteacher who sells a homeless child to organ peddlers and an American who already owns a TV and upgrades to a better one – knowing that the money could be donated to an organisation that would use it to save the lives of children in need?’ There are several obvious distinctions. Firstly, for somebody to be able to consign a child to death when he is in front of you takes a certain kind of extreme heartlessness; it is a lot easier 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 the organ peddlers (knowingly or unknowingly) whereas the individual in the developed nation 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 that the Singer solution to world poverty is based in the Utilitarian paradigm. Unger in his book ‘Living high, Letting die’ (1996) introduces a series of imaginary examples in order 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 of easily curable diseases. His most probing example (that Singer borrows in his solution) is that of a man who is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, which he has not been able to insure. The car is his pride and joy, or in other words he gets vast amounts of 2 According to Singer one third of the wages of an average American is spent on luxuries that could, if donated, save the lives of many children

Is the Singer Solution to World Poverty too demanding? Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham Sachin Nandha

Philosophy of Value V7DVAL

pleasure from owning and driving his car. In addition, to him enjoying his car, he also realises that the car has a rising market value which means that he will be able to sell it one day and use the money for his retirement. On an occasion he parks his new car on a disused railway track and decides to take a walk along side it. During his walk, he sees that a run away train with no one on board is approaching. Looking further down the track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the train. He is in no position to tell the child of the on coming danger nor can he stop the speeding train. However, he sees a switch that will divert the train away from the child 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 the car brings and its added financial security, he decides not to divert the train and allows for the child to be killed. Most people would acknowledge that the man’s actions were immoral as a child’s life is 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 the example. Singer reminds us that we too can save the lives of many children if we sacrifice our own financial security. Singer’s argument can be summarised in the following manner, a) If we can prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing 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 by sacrificing our luxuries, which are not as important. Hence Singer’s argument leads to d) ‘we ought to prevent people from dying of aids by sacrificing our luxuries’ and this 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 was sacrificing 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 situation resembles that of people who are able but unwilling to donate to charity and therefore differs from the example of the schoolteacher. The only difference between the man in the example and the rest of us is that only he can save the life of a child, whereas most of us can simply rely on someone else to donate the money required. The question arises ‘does relying on someone else make one immoral?’ Also, if most 3

Is the Singer Solution to World Poverty too demanding? Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham Sachin Nandha

Philosophy of Value V7DVAL

people rely on someone else to donate the money that could save a child’s life then most people are not donating. And if most people are not charitable can this be a justifiable reason for us not to be so? This would be an endorsement of ‘follow-thecrowd’ mentality. Singer links this question to the actions of the German people in WWII and notes that one cannot justify an action as moral just because the majority are following suite. If however, someone was to contest this point, Singer could easily use the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany as a conclusive example that morality cannot simply be what the majority are inclined to do. (Singer 1999) There are several flaws in Singer’s argument. Firstly, Singer’s claim that people should donate an equivalent amount of money that otherwise would be spent on luxuries is not a feasible claim, in that money alone is not the problem. One is entitled to ask ‘will my money reach the worlds poor?’ ‘Can I be sure that it will make a difference?’ If someone is unsure how the money will be spent, then are they not justified in not giving? Singer does not give a clear response to this question, however, a typical Singer response would be that even if not all the money that one donates is used to save a life, but is instead partly consumed by corrupted officials, Singer says that it still does not alter the moral argument as even part of the donated money is enough to make a difference (Singer 1999). The second flaw in the Singer solution to world poverty, stems from premise ‘d’ – ‘we ought to prevent people from dying of aids by sacrificing our luxuries’. This does not merely follow from Singers premise ‘c’ – ‘we can prevent many people from dying of aids by sacrificing our luxuries, which are not as important’, because what actually makes the man in Unger’s example immoral is that only he was in a position to save a child’s life and hence was immoral for not doing so. An additional premise seems to be required, something to the effect that ‘you are the only person who could save the life of an aids sufferer’. However, if this sort of premise were added, it would be false because it applies to any of us (it is not true that only you can save the life of an aids sufferer). Therefore, the argument is unsound. Singer clearly denies that an additional premise is required, instead he says that since we know that most people will not step up to the “plate”, we can be sure that our donation would save a life that would not otherwise be saved. This is enough to show that we have a moral obligation. Otherwise, we are guilty of “follow-the-crowd” ethics. 4

Is the Singer Solution to World Poverty too demanding? Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham Sachin Nandha

Philosophy of Value V7DVAL

The final and the strongest charge against the Singer solution is that it is simply too demanding. For this, Singer’s response is “too bad, no body said that it would be easy to meet our moral obligations and merely because a theory is demanding does not make it false” (Singer 2000). This is not exactly an argument that Singer puts forward but merely a conclusive statement. In order to understand the demanding-ness of the Singer solution I will now analyse the paradigm from which the solution stems from – Act-utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is simply the endorsement of pursuing those acts, which produce the best consequences. By ‘best consequences’ a Utilitarian means ‘the greatest It seems to reduce all moral issues to happiness for the greatest number’.

consequences and neglects the act in itself. For example a Utilitarian would easily endorse the sacrifice of a child if it meant that a 1000 people could be saved as all that matters are the consequences and in this case, one child is insignificant to the lives of a 1000 people. Therefore, relaying back to the Singer Solution, one can note that he sees no problem with everyone in the developed nations who can afford to do so to give all their surplus money to charity, as it will produce the best consequences for the greatest number. It also explains why Singer believes so strongly that if one does not act in this manner then they are failing their moral obligations. It does not seem so clear-cut that giving away ones surplus wealth to charity would produce the best consequences – it could equally have a negative effect. For example, imagine that everyone in the developed nations gave away all their surplus wealth (a challenge in itself – as how would one gauge what exactly is necessity and what is surplus) and all this money went to save the lives of the world’s poor from starvation, disease and war. What would be the consequences on the economies of the developed nations if everyone began to live on a basis of needs and not consumerism? Many thousands of people would surely lose their jobs as a result of reduced consumption directly due to the fact that all the surplus wealth is now in the third world. To imagine a little further, would be to imagine that the once developed nations become economically poor, maybe even poorer than the third world. To this effect the Singer solution even fails the Utilitarian criteria of morality, as the consequences highlighted above would reduce people’s happiness. 5

Is the Singer Solution to World Poverty too demanding? Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham Sachin Nandha

Philosophy of Value V7DVAL

Singer in his solution identifies with the help of experts what sums of money are required to be given by the average American if he is to be considered moral. He states that an American household with an annual income of $50,000 spends approximately $30,000 on necessities, and hence should be giving $20,000 to charity annually. An American household earning $70,000 also only spends $30,000 on necessities and so should be giving away $40,000 annually. The Utilitarian formula used by Singer is simple; give all excess money to charity in order to fulfil ones moral obligation. The limitations to Singer’s solution are in sync with the limitations of Act and RuleUtilitarianism at large. Let us consider act-utilitarianism first. Suppose a family decides to adopt the Singer solution. They decide that they will not send their two children to University as it is not necessary and instead donate the surplus wealth to charity. Immediately, Singer may point out that University education is indeed a necessity for ones children and so the actions of the family would be immoral if they were not to send them for further education. However, can Peter Singer or anybody else decide what is necessity and what is not for another – the point being that under act-utilitarianism the individual is responsible directly for making the moral decision. If the individual is responsible for judging what is necessity and what is not, then no body is in a position to comment on another’s moral conduct. For example, Bob and Sue both earn the same yearly wage and live next to each other. Bob feels that his necessities cost him $30,000 a year and so donates $20,000 to charity annually while Sue believes that her necessities cost her $49,600 annually and so donates $400 to charity. Does this make Sue any less of a moral person than Bob? The Utilitarian would attempt to analyse the consequences of each action, and would face an impossible task in deciding which are the best and most desirable. Even the simple decision to send ones children to University or to spend the money on saving the world’s poor becomes an impossible decision to make. Hence, Act-Utilitarianism is simply an unrealistic decision making tool which morality cannot be based upon. If then one concludes that the individual cannot possibly know all the best consequences, then maybe an authoritative group can draw out guidelines for the individual to follow, hence rule-utilitarianism. Singer in his paper does not clearly endorse that his solution be applied within a rule-utilitarian context, nevertheless I 6

Is the Singer Solution to World Poverty too demanding? Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham Sachin Nandha

Philosophy of Value V7DVAL

will analyse its feasibility.

Rule-utilitarianism holds that one ought to act in

conformity with a code of rules and conformity with these rules by everyone would maximise utility. By utility, I mean ‘the basic unit of desirability’ (Blackburn, 1996). So a rule-utilitarian formula to the Singer solution would be if a government were to endorse the solution by creating a law, which makes every individual, donate all his or her surplus wealth to charity. Therefore, to be moral would simply mean conforming to the rules of the institution that would bring about the best consequences for everyone. The advantages of rule-utilitarianism in comparison to act-utilitarianism is that individuals no longer have think about moral issues for themselves, they simply conform to the views of the state as that would bring about the maximum utility, according to the above example. Just as act-utilitarianism has its limitations so does rule-utilitarianism and hence the Singer solution becomes increasingly uncertain in both forms. An objection to this second form of utilitarianism is that it ignores what people are actually doing and mindlessly attempts to figure out which code of rules would produce the best results if everyone were to conform to them. An example would be if an imaginary nation ‘A’ endorses the Singer solution and introduces a law (call it law ‘z’) that makes every citizen donate all his or her surplus wealth to charity, as a result of which the individual becomes poorer (at least materially). However, in the neighbouring hostile nation ‘B’, no such endorsement is taken up and its citizens continue to grow wealthier (again at least materially) as a result of which nation B becomes a stronger nation than A, which will eventually become a serious threat to nation A. Therefore, due to the fact nation A endorsed the Singer solution and morally adopted ruleutilitarianism it has put itself in a rather vulnerable position due to nation B not following a similar moral code. Singer could respond to this type of criticism by simply stating that as the long-term consequences of law ‘z’ are bad in terms of utility and therefore no utilitarian government would endorse such a law. The question arises ‘can anyone actually predict accurately the consequences of any act or conformation to a rule’? I would say no. The above example suggests that what other people are doing is a relevant part of one’s circumstances that determine how one ought to conduct oneself. Ruleutilitarianism proposes that we should ignore what other people are doing in deciding 7

Is the Singer Solution to World Poverty too demanding? Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham Sachin Nandha

Philosophy of Value V7DVAL

what we ought to do. This conclusion seems to be contradictory to Singer’s view that moral issues ‘cannot be discovered through opinion polls or what the majority are doing.’ (Singer, 1999) Another argument developed against the rule-utilitarianism paradigm in effect urges that it either collapses into act-utilitarianism or takes a form that is extremely unappealing. Either way it is unviable, the argument concludes. It is a simple argument that asks us to begin with a simple common-sense rule such as ‘I must always tell the truth’. The rule is clearly complimentary to the principle of utility and so can be considered as a potential rule based on utilitarianism. Suppose that I discover an occasion (call this occasion U) where a greater amount of utility can be gained from breaking the rule ‘I must always tell the truth’. I then amend the rule so that it becomes, ‘I must always tell the truth unless I am in situation U’. After sometime, I discover another situation (this time call it V) where I gain more utility from breaking the rule ‘I must always tell the truth unless I am in situation U’, and so I amend the rule once again to include the situation V. Extrapolating this point, leads to the eventual collapse of rule-utilitarianism and a fall into act-utilitarianism or a very messy rule, one which states ‘I must always tell the truth unless I am in situation U, V, X, Y and so on and so forth. In other words rule-utilitarianism leads us into a chain of amendments which either collapses into act-utilitarianism or a rule that cannot be followed. Using the argument against rule-utilitarianism in the context of the Singer solution, we can now prove that premise d) ‘we ought to prevent people from dying of aids by sacrificing our luxuries’ would eventually collapse by amending the rule every time greater utility is obtained from breaking it. So, for example, nation A, under the threat of hostile nation B can amend the rule into something like ‘we ought to prevent people from dying of aids by sacrificing our luxuries only if we are not threatened by a hostile nation’. This rule can further be amended into something like ‘we ought to prevent people from dying of aids by sacrificing our luxuries only if we are not threatened by a hostile nation and if our economy is not detrimentally affected’. Continuing this path would very quickly lead to the collapse of the rule in nation A or it becomes unusable.

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Is the Singer Solution to World Poverty too demanding? Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham Sachin Nandha

Philosophy of Value V7DVAL

I have shown that the solution proposed by Singer stems from the utilitarian paradigm. However, under either version act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism the Singer solution seems too demanding to be practically implemented. In short, the Peter Singer solution fails due to its demanding-ness on the individual or group and it could actually have adverse effects in the long-term to the people in the developed nations to whom Singer seems to be addressing. The reasons for the downfall of the Singer solution are as follows; 1) simply contributing money to the third world will not resolve all its problems and hence Singer seems to have oversimplified the problem; 2) Singer’s premise ‘d’ does not follow from ‘c’, from the example that he has used; 3) could actually have adverse long-term effects on the developed nations and hence reduce utility; 4) under act-utilitarianism it becomes impossible for the individual to even make the most simple moral decisions simply due to the fact that it becomes impossible to predict consequences; 5) under rule-utilitarianism, the solution would fail to recognize what people are actually doing and as a result becomes practically unviable; and finally 6) rule-utilitarianism would eventually collapse into act-utilitarianism or become a very undesirable set of rules.

Bibliography
1. Blackburn, Simon, 1996, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Oxford University Press 2. Dreier, James, 2004, Moral Theories, Blackwell Publishers 3. Mill, J.S., 1861, Utilitarianism, Oxford University Press 4. Singer, Peter, 2000, The Singer Solution to World Poverty, The Best American essays, Houghton Miflin, pp. 140-146 5. Unger, Peter, 1996, Living High, Letting Die, Oxford University Press

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