Peter Singer on Affluence and Global Poverty


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Lecture notes for PHIL 102 at the University of British Columbia, Fall 2013. The students had read:

1. Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence and Morality” (1972), available here:—-.htm

2. Singer, “The Singer Solution to World Poverty” (New York Times Magazine, 1999):

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Peter Singer on Affluence and Global Poverty

  1. 1. PHIL 102, Fall 2013 Christina Hendricks
  2. 2. Peter Singer Australian, now at Princeton University Clip from a documentary called Examined Life, giving an overview of Singer’s views on poverty and ethical treatment of animals
  3. 3. How Singer argues for poverty relief  Starts by setting out certain principles and assumptions that he thinks will be widely accepted  Then shows that what follows from these has important implications for how we live  A bit like Socrates in that respect!
  4. 4. The basic argument How does he argue for the claim that we ought to be helping those in need more than we are? 1. “suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad” (“Famine”) 2. “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought, morally, to do it” (“Famine”) Weaker version of 2: same as above, except “without sacrificing anything morally significant”
  5. 5. The basic argument 3. It is in our power to prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care without sacrificing anything of moral significance (weak version), by donating money we would have used on morally insignificant things to help those in need Therefore, we ought, morally, to donate money we would otherwise use on morally insignificant things to help those in need -- this is a moral obligation, not just something it would be nice to do
  6. 6. The strong version Singer thinks the strong version of premise 2 is the correct one, which would require:  “we ought to give until we reach the level of marginal utility—that is, the level at which, by giving more, I would cause as much suffering to myself or my dependent as I would relieve by my gift” (“Famine”) He doesn’t argue here for why the strong version is the one we ought to accept, but consider: do you value new computer, clothes over lives of children?
  7. 7. A moderate proposal In his most recent book (The Life You Can Save), Singer notes that asking people to give as much as the strong version would require may not actually produce the best outcome —it may lead them to ignore you and do nothing, feel they can’t possibly live up to the standard and give up  Moderate versions:  Comfortably off people give 10% of income (“The Singer Solution to World Poverty”)  Sliding scale: 5% for those doing quite well ($100,000 to $150,000 U.S.), more for those with higher incomes, less for those with less (The Life You Can Save, 2009)
  8. 8. The analogies In addition to the logical argument given at the beginning, Singer also provides several analogies Why use both forms of argument? Is one more effective than another, or better to have both?
  9. 9. The analogies “She Summons Ducks,” Flickr photo by Peter Lindbergh, licensed CC-BY
  10. 10. Philosophy experiments site Before doing the readings, I asked you to go through these questions to see how you would respond to the kinds of situations Singer asks us to think about. px
  11. 11. The analogies “Dogs Get Better Treatment, Homeless Boy, Jakarta Flickr photo shared by DanumurthiMahendra, licensed CC-BY
  12. 12. The analogies BugattiVeyron Grand Sport Red/Black, Flickr photo shared by Axion 23, licensed CC-BY
  13. 13. Acting on arguments “What is the point of relating philosophy to public (and personal) affairs if we do not take our conclusions seriously? In this instance, taking our conclusion seriously means acting on it.” (“Famine”) The Life You Can Save website, with a calculator for how much you should give, a pledge to give that much, and suggested charities that have been researched: