Peter Singer has been called “the world’s most influential living philosopher” by The New Yorker, and Time magazine included him in “The Time 100,” their annual listing of the world’s one hundred most influential people. He is DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne. A Free Inquiry columnist and author of dozens of books, his most recent is The Life You Can Save: Acting Now To End World Poverty (Random House, 2009). He recently discussed it with D.J. Grothe, associate editor of Free Inquiry.—Eds.
Free Inquiry: Your book is about world hunger and ways that people in the affluent world can do simple things to make a difference. I was amazed by the staggering number of people who die each day of preventable deaths around the world due to extreme poverty.
Peter Singer: The figure that I tend to quote, which is staggering enough, is just the number of children dying. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, there are close to ten million children who die each year from poverty. When you break that down to a daily figure, that’s about twenty-six thousand dying every day. Think of that number, and then compare it to some of the black days in our history. We all remember September 11, 2001, as a terrible day. About three thousand people died in those terrorist attacks. If we consider that eight or nine times as many people, all of them children, have died each day since then, it gives one a sense of perspective. There is a much greater continuing unnecessary death toll occurring. We put all these efforts into fighting terrorism, and rightly enough. But we don’t put any major effort into reducing the death toll due to world poverty.
FI: You are writing in this book to the whole of the rich Western world, indicting all of us for being immoral for not doing enough to reduce the death toll.
Singer: That’s certainly true. I could say to the fundamentalist Christian, for instance, that I’m being a better Christian than he is, because if you really believe in Jesus and really believe in the message of Jesus as reported in the Scriptures, what comes through most strongly is that Christians ought to be helping the poor. Jesus told the rich man to give all that he had to the poor, because that is the way to get to heaven. He says it is as hard for a rich man to get to heaven as it is for a camel to get through the eye of a needle.
You have to ask, therefore, why aren’t these Christians helping the world’s poor? They’re always going on about abortion and homosexuality, neither of which are ever even mentioned by Jesus. But they don’t actually do what Jesus says very directly to do: feed the hungry and take care of the needy. Yet there are many very rich Christians who claim to be following the teachings of Jesus. It doesn’t really make sense.
Christians reading this book should be ashamed that the author, who is not a Christian, but instead is an atheist, is doing more for the world’s poor and being truer to the words of the man they regard as their Savior than they are themselves.
FI: The main thrust of your book is that you equate saving the life of someone standing next to you with saving the life of someone who is starving in the developing world. How are the two situations morally equivalent?
Singer: Imagine that you are walking through a park past a shallow ornamental pond, and you notice that a child has fallen into that pond and seems to be in danger of drowning. You look around for the parents or the babysitter, but there is no one in sight. What should you do?
Obviously, you should rush into the pond and save the life of the child. But wait a minute—you are wearing your most expensive shoes, and you don’t have time to kick them off. They will be ruined if you go into the pond with them on. Do your shoes make a difference in your decision? Everyone agrees that they don’t. You can’t let a pair of shoes mean more than a child’s life.
So how about giving just the cost of an expensive pair of shoes to an organization that is saving lives in developing countries? I don’t think it is any different than saving the child in the shallow pond. Yes, it is different psychologically but not morally. Distance doesn’t make someone’s life less valuable.
FI: Do you think this argument is going to get through to people?
Singer: I sure hope so. People should begin to reevaluate what they spend their money on and compare that with what can be obtained by helping to reduce world poverty instead. It would be a huge first step if people just start thinking about the problem. But once people start thinking about it, I hope they will come to the conclusion that they should be doing significantly more than they now are doing for the world’s poor. If affluent people begin to question what they spend their money on, maybe they will realize that charitable giving should become a much bigger part of their lives.
FI: Many rich people already give a lot to charity. But you think that it is actually immoral to give to certain charities when there are starving people in the world.
Singer: Yes. I’m trying to get people to question the existing culture of philanthropy. I believe that those people who feel that they satisfy the philanthropy requirement by giving to a museum or the opera need to think again, just as people need to think again about their lavish expenditure on other things. Giving charitably to some of these arts institutions shows the wrong sense of priorities in the light of world poverty.
FI: What if you are in the middle category, neither rich nor poor? You don’t give thousands of dollars to arts charities, because you don’t give thousands of dollars to any charities. Maybe your credit cards are maxed out, and you are living paycheck to paycheck. But nonetheless, you have a lot of nice stuff. You own a house with a two-car garage for your two cars. Are you calling for the middle class to downsize their lives in the name of world poverty, or just to give a couple percent of their income?
Singer: There are many good reasons to reduce our consumption, to downsize, in the affluent world. One reason is the environmental impact we have. I’m very conscious of the problems of global warming. The lifestyle of affluent people involves a lot of fossil fuel use. The consumption involved in running those two cars, heating and cooling the big home—it all negatively impacts our world. So some sort of economizing is good, not only to free up some cash to help the world’s poor but also to reduce the harm we cause to the environment.
To act ethically as regards the world’s poor, you don’t necessarily have to radically change your life and downsize it. Most people spend money every day on small luxuries that they don’t need and which they wouldn’t really miss. They spend $4 on their daily latte or buy bottled water when they could safely drink the water that comes out of the tap. If anyone is spending money like that on a regular basis, they could easily save that up and give it away to responsible organizations that provide aid and relief to the starving and poor in developing countries.
FI: We’ve spoken before about how, as an atheist, your morality is informed by Darwin, by
the worldview based in evolution. Our evolved morality makes us care about our kin but not really about the tribe on the other side of the mountain. Isn’t it just our evolved human nature not to care about the distant poor?
Singer: I think there is a problem with our evolved nature. We don’t easily respond with empathy to people who are distant, whom we don’t see or know personally.
I want to go back to what you said about my ethic being informed by a Darwinian evolutionary approach. Yes, I have said that. But to clarify: it is not a Darwinian ethic. It is not what is sometimes called “social Darwinism.” I think it is a fallacy to draw ethical conclusions from any set of natural facts about the world, including Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Yes, Darwin and evolution helps to explain human nature. But that doesn’t mean that what we ought to do is somehow derived from evolution—the survival of the fittest. To discover what we ought to do, we need to think, to use our reason and our empathy. We have evolved these capacities, and now let’s use them to figure out what we ought to do about these moral questions.
FI: Why worry about the poor and dying in Africa or India when the United States has its own poor to take care of?
Singer: I think we should help the poor as much as we can wherever they are. Very often, the poor at home are not the poorest by world standards. They already have some entitlements to social security. They can get safe drinking water. They can get emergency health care even if they don’t have insurance. In most developing countries, the poor can not do that.
When you look at what it takes to help the poor in developing countries, it is remarkably little. You can save someone’s sight by donating $50 to an aid group, whereas there is nobody in the United States who is going to be blind because he or she can’t get $50. If someone is that poor in the United States, he or she can get treated under Medicaid or Medicare. Your money goes further, it helps more people, when it is donated to relief charities that focus on poverty abroad, in the developing world.
FI: As an atheist, you’re calling for everyone to give more than they currently do to reduce world poverty. But religious people give more of a percentage of their income than secular people.
Singer: I hope that secular people will give more than they do currently. And some already give large amounts, such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who together have given the largest philanthropic gifts in history. Secular people can be extraordinarily generous. Atheists and humanists need to show that they listen to ethical thinking and respond to the needs of the world’s poor just as much or more as religious people do.
FI: What is the first step that a secularist reading this interview and who is persuaded by your arguments should take?
Singer: Go to www.thelifeyoucansave.com and pledge to give to one of the organizations fighting world poverty that I recommend. Then start talking about it and spreading the idea to other people. This is something we need to start having conversations about publicly, even if it goes a bit against the grain.
To hear the rest of D.J. Grothe’s extensive conversation with Peter Singer, go to www.pointofinquiry.org.