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?

How much money is enough?…Outrageous and all out of proportion?

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Lehman Brothers Rockefeller centre
Lehman Brothers Rockefeller centre

A lot has been written about the dispersement and efficacy of aid given towards addressing situations of extreme poverty. Some argue for it from a pragmatic analysis, like Jeffrey Sachs in his book The End of Poverty. Some argue for more of it from an ethical perspective, like Peter Singer does in his book The Life You Can Save. Some argue for a radical review of the current situation from a critical process of inquiry, like Dambisa Moyo in her book Dead Aid: Why aid is not working and how there is a better way for Africa.

Either way you look at it, and you ought to look at it and have an opinion about this issue, a lot of money has been spent, and a lot of money will be spent in the future yet to come. Jeffrey Sachs provides a good overview of how little people live on ‘per day’ if such a calculation was to be defined, with this percentage of the Earth’s population defined as “The Bottom Billion”, because they exist on a bottom rung of income of slightly more than US$1 per day. This line of the economic pyramid, is also defined as people who live at The Bottom of The Pyramid, otherwise referred to as “living below the line”.

“Is more aid or money the answer to extreme poverty?” is reasonably and often among the first questions argued, explored or defended. That is an important question, but this post is not about that.

This post is about the distractions we have in our relatively safe and comfortable lives that take us away from addressing the ugliness of suffering that some people experience. It is reasonable to ask “should we care and is this our problem?” All the same, the power of the media is well documented for its ability to take and hold our attention. Often these issues where our attention is distracted to is very important: the global financial crisis, the failed negotiations in the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen last year, and more recently in Australia a hung parliament where the election held two weeks ago remains stalemated.

Last week I read more about a sexual harassment case that opened in Australia where a $37 million claim for damages was being contested. That is a lot of money, and before the case went to court an offer to settle was made of slightly less than $1 million which was rejected.

As a White Ribbon Foundation Ambassador this year campaigning for the end of violence against women, I take the issue of sexual harassment seriously. In this instance, I question the relative merits of the claim, and the precedence this might set for other claims of a similar nature.

Can we pursue the eradication of extreme poverty in our generation, and at the same time accommodate the values of greed that are so prevalent in our community?