A distinguished philosopher offers his past and present thinking on the subject of moral obligations that members of affluent societies have to those living in extreme poverty.
In 1972, at the height of a humanitarian crisis involving millions of refugees seeking asylum in India from political repression they had suffered in Pakistan, Singer (Bioethics/Princeton Univ.; The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically, 2015, etc.) published his influential article, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” He argued that if people in the West had “[the] power to prevent something bad from happening, without…sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, [they] ought, morally, to do it.” This held true no matter whether the individuals they were helping were physically close to them or not. What was most important was that social ills—in the form of “suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care”—plaguing fellow humans be eradicated. Argumentative force and cogency made Singer's article a staple of university courses worldwide. He pointed out the value of philosophy in public discourse while suggesting the need for committed social engagement among intellectuals who too often took action by writing or speaking rather than actually doing. More than four decades later, Singer brings together his original article along with two others—published in 1999 and 2006 in the New York Times Sunday Magazine—that discuss the problem of how much to give. “Fair share” contributions based on yearly income may seem the “right” thing to do since such a scheme suggests giving according to available funds. But Singer ultimately believes that in the end, any money not strictly allocated for necessities (and no matter the income level) “should be given away.” As powerful today as it was when he wrote it, Singer’s work offers uncompromising, refreshing insight into the problem of global economic inequality.
A useful compendium of a seminal article and its offshoots, and it couldn’t be timelier.