Book review: ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, by Peter Singer

What would you do if you were walking past a shallow pond in which a small child was drowning? There can be little doubt that the vast majority of people would wade in to save the child even if it came at the relatively trivial cost of getting their clothes muddy.

This is the starting point of a famous essay by Peter Singer, an Australian moral philosopher, first published in 1972. It has just been republished, along with two additional essays by Singer and a foreword by Bill and Melinda Gates.

Of course, Singer does not stop with the example of the drowning child. His next step is to argue there is no moral difference between letting the child drown and letting one die in a faraway country as a result of extreme poverty.

The two cases are different in psychological terms, though. The small child in the hypothetical example is in front of you whereas those living in severe poverty are generally a long way away. But in moral terms, Singer argues, the challenge posed is the same.

In both cases it is possible to eliminate the suffering at no risk to our physical well-being. We might get our clothes muddy or be able to afford fewer luxuries, but that is miniscule when set against the value of a human life.

Over the years Singer’s argument has inspired countless philanthropic initiatives around the world. With the endorsement of Bill and Melinda Gates in this new edition it has gained public recognition from perhaps the world’s greatest philanthropists.

Perhaps its influence is not surprising since, at first sight, its argument seems unimpeachable. Who, after all, would want to be seen arguing the case for letting a small child drown? However, a closer examination shows there are reasons to question Singer’s moral reasoning. In particular, the use of a small child as a starting point risks infantilising the people it is ostensibly designed to help: the poor themselves. It casts western philanthropists as heroic saviours of the helpless and those living in dire conditions as passive victims of dire circumstances.

Starting from the bottom and working his way up in Beijing, China © Dave Bartruff/Corbis

An alternative starting point would be to see human beings as capable of shaping and reshaping their own circumstances. People have the ability to transform the world around them for the better, rather then simply lying back helplessly and accepting their fate.

This sense of agency is the main force for eliminating poverty. Perhaps the most striking recent example is China’s widely acknowledged success in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty from the 1980s onwards. This was achieved by a drive to transform its economy, rather than allowing itself to become the object of western pity.

That is not to say contemporary China is perfect or that its model should be followed slavishly. Only that, through their own efforts, people have often succeeded in lifting themselves out of poverty through economic growth.

Indeed, long before China’s rapid surge in development began in the late 1970s, that is precisely how the west’s own prosperity was created. Western affluence is primarily the result of concerted action by earlier generations, rather than the gift of external charity.

People have often succeeded in lifting themselves out of poverty through economic growth © Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

This alternative view does not, of course, preclude saving drowning children or even giving aid to those suffering in an emergency. A key problem with Singer’s argument is precisely that it blurs these exceptional circumstances with the everyday business of conquering poverty.

In fact, Singer is, at least in passing, critical of the forces that do most to eliminate poverty. In his original 1972 essay on famine he favourably cited two of the most prominent critics of economic growth of the time.

There are additional reasons to resist Singer’s arguments. His explicit condemnation of those who fail to accept a duty to eschew new clothes or cars for the sake of the poor risks generating resentment. He is essentially trying to guilt-trip westerners into giving up luxuries.

Yet there is not a fixed amount of wealth in the world. It is quite possible — indeed, it has been the norm in recent times — for the world’s poor to have become richer at the same time as the affluent countries have also become wealthier. Those who want to contribute to famine relief or poverty alleviation should be free to do so. But viewing the world’s poor as mere passive recipients of western charity is a temptation that should be resisted.

Famine, Affluence, and Morality, by Peter Singer, Oxford University Press

The writer is the author of ‘Ferraris for All’ (Policy Press 2012)

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