Peter Singer’s Solution to World Poverty.
Peter Singer’s argument reveals little new to the reader who has ever been thinking about poverty and difference in life standards in different nations.
To the sophisticated reader, the main point of focus is the wording and how well the argument is presented, how effectively the author uses his persona, how effective his examples are, and how well he appeals to his target audience. The main weaknesses of his essay seem to be the example that is a little overdrawn, failure to account for some serious possible objections, and a somewhat problematic purpose.
To evaluate if this is true, let us see first what the purpose of the essay is. Singer aims to persuade his readers that they need to donate whatever money they have to spend beyond basic necessities to charity because not doing so means killing poor children around the world much like Dora in the Brazilian movie almost kills the street boy by pushing him into the hands of the organ peddlers.
This, as the title implies, would be the “Solution to World Poverty”. Basically, the author argues for a redistribution of global GDP via private donations from richer to poorer nations.
The purpose of the essay looks somewhat doubtful. One has to decide what Singer is in effect trying to do. As stated in the second paragraph, he seems to be persuading the audience to donate money to charity. Is he trying to end the world poverty? Or merely raise funds for charity organisations? The two things can be really different. No one is forbidden to think that the simplest way to end poverty is to redistribute funds through charity.
However, this does not address the root causes of poverty – social inequality, underdevelopment of some nation’s economies, political turmoil in weak democracies that blocks economic development, and so on.
This pushes one into thinking that effective efforts on combating poverty should direct funds towards projects like infrastructure improvement, sounder governance policies, and so on. Charity means giving bread to the poor all the time without teaching them how to make bread. It might be wiser to call on professionals having important skills to sacrifice a year or two of their professional careers in order to go to another nation and share their knowledge with people there.
For instance, a manager of the food processing factory would do better to go and help start a factory somewhere in Africa rather than keep sending them the greater part of his salary in those years. Singer, on the contrary, seems to see donations as the only viable means to end poverty. He does not take into account the efforts of people who work in development projects, and they may be contributing more to improving life quality of people in developing nations than they would if they stripped their life of TVs and new cars.
With his example involving Bob and his car Singer alienates the audience rather than entices it into donating. Bob’s situation is indeed different than that of the average American who is ready to give $200 to charity funds. If Bugatti is his own investment, then his whole future depends upon it.
He means it as an investment in his post-retirement future since “its rising market value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement” (Singer 1999). A finance professional can debate the soundness of the decision to put all one’s retirement savings into one object as perishable as the car, especially driving it at the same time, but Bob seems determined to follow his strategy.
His car is his only investment, his way to secure income after retirement. If he loses his car, he will have to live on Social Security benefits that are far from secure now with the reform looming and all the talk of the future depletion of funds, and if he can count on them, they can really be too small to pay even for necessities.
The US is a rich nation, but the whole social setup encourages Americans to care for themselves on their own, including insurance schemes and retirement savings. For this reason, Bob may have not to give up luxuries – he deprives himself of necessities to save the child.
The picture of an old man losing his retirement funds and favourite car is far too gloomy to allure those who are eager to share a portion of their pie with starving children. Singer could have made his demands on fellow citizens more realistic and less frightening if he had chosen an example more suitable to his thesis – keeping necessities but letting luxuries go in order to provide necessities to others.
Another problem with Singer’s example is that Bob loses “His pride and joy” (Singer 1999). The car may be his only hobby, the pursuit in which he engages with great zest. This should alert the readers that following Singer’s strategy they will only be working day and night, using their high developed-nation income to help the poor in other countries. No more birthday parties that cost over $200, no more trips to exciting places, and how should an avid photographer feel buying a new expensive camera?
One would be forced to admit that all the progress of the world’s economy has only produced enough output so that all people can eat enough, and that’s it. Leonardo da Vinci probably didn’t have to paint his great works after all if nobody is going to travel to museums to see them. Museums and trips are definitely not on the list of necessities, and neither are CDs, books and computers that could store this information.
Singer would have a hard time trying to implement his solution in reality since it feels like elimination of luxuries has the potential to stop all the cultural progress in world and, even more importantly, deny people the right to enjoy something other than simple meals. Implementation of the solution would force one to produce an exact definition of what is luxury and what is not, and this is not as easy as it seems.
Thus, Singer’s example is repelling rather than attractive to the audience. It tells readers in which situation they might end up donating everything above $20,000 per household to charity – stranded in retirement, with hapless lives in which joys are no more than they were in the Ice Age.
Imagining that the targets are middle-class Americans, Singer is hardly ready to force them into paying for charity with these examples and his relentless claim to give up all beyond necessities. Intuitively, he would score higher with pictures of how charity actually works and how children are saved with the donations.
This is exactly what his paper is missing. Singer makes a concession concerning “uncertainties about whether aid will really reach the people who need it” admitting that “nobody who knows the world of overseas aid can doubt that such uncertainties exist” that is hardly encouraging for anybody willing to give a part of hard-earned money to such organisations (Singer 1999).
If $200 works after provisions are made for ‘uncertainties’, how much is really enough? $150? $100? And what exactly are the uncertainties? The first thing that comes to mind is corruption that is so prevalent in developing nations. Does Singer expect hard-working citizens to reduce themselves to a life consisting of bare necessities in order to feed immoral officials somewhere in Africa or Asia whose children are well off enough to pay their tuition at US universities?
This is an important objection, and Singer skips it by implying: “Don’t care how much they steal, just keep paying them.” Singer’s main emphasis is that people should part with the money because it is wrong for them to have it when so many children are starving. He does not show that this parting actually contributes to lives saved. This, however, is the basic assumption of utilitarian ethics – one has to do what works well for other people, not just what is right or moral to do.
Singer also fails to account for objections concerning the economic effects of his proposal. One can object that the high life standards of the Western society are promoted by the high motivation of the people and ingenious system that rewards performance.
Westerners are interested in the success of their companies thanks to profit-sharing plans, and they are aware that upgrading their education and learning new skills will result in higher salaries and better life standards. Human nature can be mean and unworthy, but so far financial reward has been an important stimulator. Singer is in fact suggesting that from now on everybody in the US should start living on $30,000 so that “a household making $100,000 could cut a yearly check for $70,000” (Singer 1999).
All making different input, getting about the same salaries with the rest redistributed for public good (but also involving corruption) – this is something the Soviet Union tried to do, and as is known, they failed on the economic front. It might take a couple of generations before the West lapses into a similar economic crisis for want of motivation and will no longer be able to support anybody financially.
Thus, Singer’s argument is failing on some points. First, his solution to world poverty is questionable and thus the purpose of the essay looks doubtful to those who support other solutions. Second, his example is not a good analogy since it differs from his stated thesis.
In addition, the example paints too gloomy a picture to be attractive to the audience. Besides, despite the professed utilitarianism of the essay, Singer does not go very deep into the results of the actions he advocates. He also fails to account for objection concerning the so-called ‘uncertainties’ of overseas aid and economic effects of his proposal.
Singer, Peter. “The Singer Solution to World Poverty.” The New York Times Sunday Magazine 5 September 1999: 60-63. 24 Oct. 05 <http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/19990905.htm>.