Peter Singer on Charities

I got this on my philosophy calendar:

[Peter Singer] poses a deal to earn money to buy a new TV by “selling” a homeless child to a corporation that will harvest his organs for transplants.  Way bad, we agree.  But, Singer argues that anytime we buy a new TV in lieu of sending money to a charity that protects homeless children, we’re doing the same thing.

Any thoughts on this?  It’s an interesting philosophical thought process.  Singer has revamped his argument in a book called “The Life you can Save” which is on my reading list.

(Note to Victor: I’d like to hear your opinion about this.)

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About shaunmiller

I am a Ph. D student at Marquette University. The primary purpose of this blog is to get my ideas out there, and then have other people scrutinize, critique, build upon, and systematize beliefs. This blog will sometimes pertain to what I'm learning in my classes, but it will occasionally deal with non-classroom issues that I'm thinking about as well.
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6 Responses to Peter Singer on Charities

  1. thekillerj says:

    That’s ridiculous. Basically every expenditure this myopic ethicist views as “extra” kills kids then, right? I love just saying shit willy nilly. Well, here’s my new maxim:

    Whenever vegetarians refuse to eat meat, Baby Jesus loses a tooth.

  2. shaunmiller says:

    Perhaps I’ll put it as he does in his article, which is his first chapter: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/11/books/chapters/chapter-life-you-could-save.html

    On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather’s cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you’ll be late for work. What should you do?

    Most, if not all, say that you should save the child. “But what about your shoes or your new suit?” Of course, most, if not all, would say that those are mere trivial things compared to saving a child’s life.

    Singer continues:

    Now think about your own situation. By donating a relatively small amount of money, you could save a child’s life. Maybe it takes more than the amount needed to buy a pair of shoes — but we all spend money on things we don’t really need, whether on drinks, meals out, clothing, movies, concerts, vacations, new cars, or house renovation. Is it possible that by choosing to spend your money on such things rather than contributing to an aid agency, you are leaving a child to die, a child you could have saved?

    In other words, letting someone die is the same thing as killing them. After all, if you didn’t save that child from the pond, then you are basically killing the child because you did nothing to save the child.

    The example is given from Rachels article:

    Suppose Smith would gain an inheritance if anything should happen to his six-year-old cousin. One evening, he comes in and he drowns his cousin while the cousin is taking a bath. After which, Smith arranges things to make it look like an accident. Jones also gets an inheritance if anything should happen to his six-year-old cousin. He’s planning on drowning his cousin just as Smith did but the child slips and hits his head and falls face down in the water. Jones, then, just watches the child drown.

    Now Smith killed the child, while Jones “merely” let the child die. Did either behave better, from a moral point of view? Probably not. After all, they had the same motive, the same personal gain, and both had the same end in view.
    If killing someone was, in and of itself, worse than letting someone die, then in any two cases exactly alike except that one involves killing someone whereas the other involves letting someone die, what the agent who kills someone does is worse than what the agent who lets someone die does.

    The Smith/Jones cases are exactly alike except that one involves killing someone whereas the other involves letting someone die. But what Smith did was no worse than what Jones did. Hence, killing someone is not, in and of itself, worse than letting someone die. In other words, there is no difference between killing someone or letting someone die.

    I actually think it’s an intriguing argument. A lot of philosophers have a hard time replying back to him, which is why Singer is one of the most famous (and controversial) philosophers today.

  3. Handsome Matt says:

    It is a valid argument, but the danger is not knowing when enough is enough. For example: if saving that child would result in your death and the child’s death then should you still act?

    Furthermore, if by saving that child, I am sentencing them to a life of abuse and neglect then is it right to save that child?

    In saving a starving child in the third world, am I really bettering their life? Depending on where they live, that child might become a child soldier, brutalized by a drug cartel, enslaved, or sold into the sex market. At best they will live a life of subsistence, at worst they will turn to a life of brutality.

    Now if I were to take my money, and use it towards establishing the third world’s economy and stabilizing the region in order to fix the problems that led to a child being born into poverty or abandoned by their parents, that would be a better moral choice than any suggested thus far.

    By feeding the poor, we may feel good on a personal level, but we haven’t fixed why they were poor to begin with.

    • shaunmiller says:

      Singer is a utilitarian so if saving the child would actually make the child worse off, then saving the child would not be beneficial. However, I think he would say something like you have an obligation to call social services or something like that.

      Yes, the root problem of poverty is the crucial thing, but I think Singer is more concerned about people who die of things that are easily curable, things where it really was no fault of their own, things like diarrhea. It still amazes me that people are dying from that, and we easily have medicine for that. But, Singer suggests, if we have the medicine for this and we can give this out, then saving a life is much more important (which means donating your money so that they can get the medicine) than spending your money on some new expensive Nike shoes.

  4. Handsome Matt says:

    It is horrible that those diseases still exist, but I don’t think the issue is so much that people choose new shoes over saving a life, but that there’s no emotional connection or emotional pay-off to it.

    It’s too foreign to understand, so a person does nothing.

    If it could be easily done, or if a connection could be made between the rescuer and victim, then perhaps things would change. How often do we hear about Darfur, or the AIDS pandemic, or malaria or the dwindling Gorilla population? Not often enough to warrant change. Why help what I can’t see?

    And maybe it highlights some lingering vestige of the failures of our parents and their movements, or of the fact that we don’t really like what our lives have become. The “great” generations couldn’t solve these problems, what can we do? It’s like a modern version of Ecclesiastes “everything is hopeless.”

    Even makes me depressed

    • Chris says:

      Fortunately, there are a few positive recent developments here.

      I think kiva.org is incredible, for example, because (for the first time) it personalizes the fact that there is someone else who you can help with a loan — a loan that’s extremely likely to be repaid! — and you can see their picture and read about their life, and even ask them questions. How much more of a connection do we need before we understand that this person’s life is not so dissimilar to ours as to stop being morally relevant?

      > The “great” generations couldn’t solve these problems, what can we do?

      Well, I just gave an example; technology could save the world, by helping to remove the distance between “us” and “them” that’s been a constant barrier to action for most people.

      I think Singer shares my optimism. There’s a rather beautiful quote at the beginning of The Life You Can Save, where he describes how the struggle to reduce suffering due to poverty has historically been a sort of climb towards an unreachable, unknowably distant mountain peak; but now we have cleared the clouds and can see the summit, our ability to do this is clearly within our means. The amount of money it would take to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, for example, is trivial compared to a war or a bank bailout, or a few percent of income donated from each citizen in the US. So don’t be depressed enough not to help. 🙂

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