Peter Singer

It was not I, it was the weapon

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Picture of the Confusian philosopher Mencius.
The Confusian philosopher Mencius (c. 300 BC)

There is nothing new about the idea that we have a strong moral obligation to help those in need.

Peter Singer in his book ‘The Life You Can Save‘ describes an account between Mencius and ‘King Hui of Liang’ who lived around 300 BC. Singer claims Mencius as second only to Confucius in influencing Chinese thought and regarded as the most authoritative interpreter of the Confusian tradition.¬†On arriving in the king’s court, he made this statement about moral obligation to help the poor:

There are people dying from famine on the roads, and you do not issue the stores of your granaries for them. When people die, you say: “Is it not owing to me; it is owing to the year.” In what does this differ from stabbing a man and killing him, and then saying: “It was not I, it was the weapon?

Singer writes: “In one-on-one situations where rescue is easy, our intuitions tell us that it would be wrong not to do it. We all see or read appeals to help those living in extreme poverty in the world’s poorest countries. And yet most of us reject the call to ‘do unto others’.

2011: a year of new beginnings? If you are reading this, you probably already go that extra mile. How do we bring others on the journey so together we can make a bigger and lasting difference?



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Peter Singer at The College of New Jersey
Peter Singer at The College of New Jersey

Peter Singer in his provocative book The Life You Can Change raises the phenomena of a gentle nudge to slowly help shift community trends to overcome apathy. He mentions this in relation to a culture of giving.

Singer argues that even when we are choosing in our own interests, we often choose unwisely. So his writing here is about informing better decision making.

If major corporations, universities and other employers were to deduct 1% of each employee’s salary and donate the money to organisations fighting global poverty, unless the employee opted out of the scheme, that would nudge employees to be more generous and yield billions more for combatting poverty.

He writes that while the idea might sound odd now, but if a few corporations or institutions adopt it, it could spread.

Is this part of the solution? More money? If so, how should it be distributed and spent?

What other changes might be introduced through giving it a bit of a nudge over time?