“Drop the gun, open the safe, or she dies!”
Every muscle in your body is tensed and ready as you hear these words. Your eyes, burning with anger and sweat, stare through the sight of the weapon you bought, “just for protection”, at this madman who holds a knife to your daughter’s neck.
“I’m not kidding dammit! Drop it or her blood’s on your hands!”, he screams wildly.
Your chest is pounding, you teeter on the verge of hyperventilation and your mind is racing, playing back with incredibly vivid accuracy your last few memories before you heard your daughter scream. You try desperately to understand how this standoff happened. “How did he get into our home?” you think to yourself.
“I swear to God if you hurt her …”, you hear yourself bravely say, but you have no idea what to do. You know that if you drop the gun, he may kill both you and your daughter and run off with your money. If you don’t drop the gun, in a second she may be gone forever. You’re paralyzed by an odd combination of responsibility, fear, power and helplessness. Your daughter’s fate is in your hands. What do you do?
Hopefully none of us ever finds ourselves in such a horrifying situation. You can only imagine how impossible it would be to make a split second decision with the life of a loved one at stake. Anyone familiar with action movies knows that the hero often finds himself in a similar gut-wrenching quandary. In those movies, the villain, like the assailant above, challenges the scruples, integrity and faith of the hero by creating an environment in which it seems as if the choice of life and death is held by the hero alone. I would guess that those of us who have witnessed heated exchanges like this in movies have imagined what we would do if it were us being challenged. Do you give away your power with the hope that the hostage will be released? Or, do you use your power to effect a safe escape for you and the victim? The outcome rests in your hands. Or does it?
We will return to this question shortly.
Utilitarian Philosopher Peter Singer in his article entitled “The Singer Solution to World Poverty” (1999) espouses a remedy to the disparity of wealth existing among the world’s population. He suggests that in order to save lives currently being lost as a result of poverty due to conditions such as malnutrition, starvation, dehydration and other easily curable illnesses, one should donate any money one has accumulated which exceeds one’s immediate survival needs to overseas relief organizations like UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund). (¶ 3, 8)
Here Mr. Singer explains his theory in practice: “An American household with an income of $50,000 spends around $30,000 annually on necessities, according to the Conference Board, a nonprofit economic research organization. Therefore, for a household bringing in $50,000 a year, donations to help the world’s poor should be as close as possible to $20,000. The $30,000 required for necessities holds for higher incomes as well. So a household making $100,000 could cut a yearly check for $70,000. Again, the formula is simple: whatever money you’re spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away.” (¶ 22)
In case you’re ready to cut your check now, Singer actually gives in his article the phone numbers to both UNICEF and another organization called OxFam America (1-800-367-5437 and 1-800-693-2687, respectively) with the additional comment and admonition, “I trust that many readers will reach for the phone and donate that $200. Perhaps you should do it before reading further.” (¶ 8, 14) Now although these words may be a bit reminiscent of Sunday morning televangelism, it’s hard to deny that Mr. Singer is someone who has some strong beliefs about his cause.
But for those of you who still aren’t completely convinced that you should cash in your kid’s college fund and your 401K to support Nigerian aid, please read on.
Although certainly compelled by the sincerity of Mr. Singer’s ideas and conclusions, I too was a bit hesitant to give away all of my earnings north of $30K after finishing his article. Despite being philanthropic by nature, I just couldn’t bring myself to fully accept and act on his solution. However, it should speak to the power of Singer’s argument that it took me some time to really understand what about his words rubbed me the wrong way and that I even took the time to do so in the first place. In the end, I realized that at least for me, there were some glaring omissions in his logic that made his petition for aid feel disturbingly similar to the demands of the attacker in the opening illustration – lives hang in the balance and the gun is in your hands.
Although comparing a well-meaning philosopher to a homicidal degenerate may seem unfair or extreme, allow me to elaborate. You see, what the stress and immediacy of our “Drop the Gun” scenario tends to mask is that no matter what the perpetrator says, you are not the one responsible for the victim’s life. You are not holding the knife to the victim’s throat, the attacker is. You did not instigate the life-threatening scenario, the attacker did. You may now be a part of the situation and you may even have some potential influence over the outcome, but the survival or death of the victim is ultimately beyond your complete control and therefore could not in any sense of the word be your responsibility. Just like someone playing the lottery, you are involved in a game of chance where your actions could possibly fall in line with the outcome you wish for, but even in the case of a successful result at no time could it be said that you actually caused the result to occur. It is part of the technique of intimidation for an attacker to say things to make his victims feel like they control the abuse heaped upon them. The truth is, you can only do what your heart calls you to do in that moment, but again neither the creation of the dilemma nor the outcome belongs to you.
I draw this comparison to Singer because his words have an analogous blaming tone. After establishing, based on “expert information”, that “$200 in donations would help a sickly 2-year-old transform into a healthy 6-year-old”, Singer follows with, “I can see no escape from the conclusion that each one of us with wealth surplus to his or her essential needs should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty so dire as to be life-threatening. That’s right: I’m saying that you shouldn’t buy that new car, take that cruise, redecorate the house or get that pricey new suit. After all, a $1,000 suit could save five children’s lives … If we don’t do it, then we should at least know that we are failing to live a morally decent life.” (¶ 8, 21, 23)
By morally obligating his readers to adopt his solution, Singer speaks as if the creation of the conditions causing the suffering of those in other countries or the resultant suffering itself is the fault and responsibility of his readers. In our illustration, he would not be the assailant, but rather a person on the side narrating the event in agreement with the attacker’s blaming taunts. “Where are your morals?! He’s going to kill her! Drop the gun you fool or it’s all your fault!” the onlooking Singer would shout to you. Singer tries to make the point that someone in a position of harm or danger immediately falls into the responsibility of anyone aware of the situation. (¶ 5, 9) Around the world, you can find people in the way of harm and danger everywhere and at all times. His suggestion is essentially that we all become like Superman, spending every free moment and resource alleviating the suffering of mankind. And even if we could become Superman, which problems of the world are we most obligated to solve? According to the United Nations 1996 demographic yearbook Russia and Colombia have the highest reported homicide rates in the world. (1998) Now that you are aware of these situations are you responsible for helping to lessen those murders? Is dedicating yourself to reducing Colombian murders more or less important than saving starving children?
What Singer’s argument lacks are the elements of personal responsibility and free will which are necessary for civilization to exist. Instead of making individuals responsible for their own situation in life and allowing concerned citizens to freely choose how they will contribute to the success of humanity, he puts the troubles of individuals in the hands of those citizens and burdens them further with a solution from which he declares, “I can see no escape.” (¶ 21)
The issue of personal responsibility is an important one which cannot be overlooked. Personal responsibility is the foundation upon which all other types of responsibility are built. Without individual responsibility no moral code or theory can even exist. Singer misses the reality that, just as in our illustration, when it comes to world poverty, someone else is holding the knife. Therefore he feels personal guilt over the predicament of the victims of poverty around the world. Instead of putting the blame where it belongs, he attempts to diffuse his own misguided guilt by getting his readers to share it with him. But if the perpetrators are not held responsible for the terror they create, how can anyone else be to blame?
The main problem here with Singer’s solution is not his suggestion that we might be able to help the world’s poor by donating money to help them. The problem is with him obligating his readers to solving the problem. You cannot morally obligate someone to a solution for a problem he or she did not cause. Taking personal responsibility for something and being held personally responsible for something are two totally different things. The former is a matter of choice, the latter is a matter of liability. Once again, in no way can you be held liable for solving a problem you did not create, and if you are held liable, it is because you have been indentured. You may decide to put yourself in a situation where you take on responsibility for a problem that you did not create, like adopting an overseas orphan, but no can morally obligate you to that responsibility. Mother Teresa may personally choose to help suffering lepers, but nothing and no one beyond her free will can obligate her to do so. A mechanic may assume personal responsibility to try and fix your broken vehicle, but you can’t morally obligate him to help you. The only people in our modern society who even come close to being obligated towards responsibility to aid a situation that they did not create are doctors, and they take a personal oath to do so. Doctors decide to make themselves responsible public servants. No one obligates doctors to their responsibility but the doctors themselves. And to be clear, no is forced or morally obligated to become a doctor.
Besides taking responsibility for causing harm to others, personal responsibility also entails the reality that each of us must singularly accept ownership of whatever happens to us. It is not the responsibility of any other person to save us from our own suffering. If, by the madness of another, you happen to be put into a difficult situation, then that is undeniably unfortunate and sad. But insisting that someone else should be made to suffer because of the pain that you are experiencing helps no one and only serves to compound the suffering.
There are many sad situations throughout the world. You need only to go to your nearest metropolitan area to find homeless wandering the streets and children suffering from poverty. While no one can refute that these situations are regrettable and emotionally draining for our whole society, it is also important to acknowledge that they contain great power and potential for personal growth and transformation for the individual experiencing them, power and potential which is lost when one is denied the opportunity to find his or her own way out.
This is another essential truth that Singer’s solution fails to take into consideration. Singer never stops to ask, “Am I the right person to try to solve their problems?”, or even, “How can I help them to find their own solutions?” To me it shows incredible arrogance to think that you hold the solutions to the problems of people thousands of miles away. If you don’t live where others live, if you don’t understand the full scope of their problem and experience those problems in the same way they experience them, if you do not see the world from their unique point of view, how can you even begin to think that you can solve their problems? Perhaps your “outside-looking-in” solution will just produce more of the problem. This “outside-in” mentality reminds me of the missionary mentality where Christians were sent to “save” and “civilize” so-called “savage” indigenous people who never asked for their help.
In addition, like most westerners, Singer fails to see the benefit in suffering. He doesn’t stop to envisage the people’s growth opportunities inherent in their challenges. His only thought is to eliminate what he sees as the problem. He never even acknowledges that there might be issues underlying world poverty which go beyond finances and that need to be addressed before any money is sent, something economic experts have been saying for decades. (Haber, 2003) Like an unscrupulous corporation trying to beat an unfavorable court decision, instead of doing the more difficult work of addressing the real cause of the problem, he simply wants to figure out how much money needs to be thrown at the problem to make it go away. It baffles me that such a respected philosopher could try to make a problem as complicated as world poverty seem as simple as dollars and cents.
Pain exists to teach us a lesson. Burning your hand on a hot stove reminds you to respect the limits of your skin, to think before acting and to pay better attention to your surroundings. An unwanted pregnancy provides a chance to learn responsibility where it once was lacking. Pain also has the ability to pull from the depths of our psyche the greatest expressions of genius the world has ever seen. As awful as it may be, the scourge of poverty has the potential to inspire a poor person to create a solution to her plight undreamed of by someone simply observing her situation. Every negative situation has this kind of potential and some of the most amazing success stories have come out of some of the most appalling circumstances. This is not to say that charity is unimportant and people should only be left to suffer. What I’m saying is that charity without concern for empowerment can do more harm than good. By taking from people their pain, you also take away their opportunity to change their own lives, not to mention the lives of all who would benefit from their enlightenment. The tremendous amount of self-esteem, courage and wisdom one receives when life’s challenges are finally overcome is impossible to quantify or express and should not be denied anyone.
As I mentioned earlier, besides neglecting the importance of personal responsibility, another main area where Singer’s argument fails is in his lack of concern for free will. As we saw in his quotation on page 5, Singer’s solution reads more like an ecclesiastical mandate than a call to awareness and reason. In his article, he has already done the thinking for you, you have only to follow his logic. If somehow you have not followed or agreed with his logic, he declares you as immoral. This is the way of fundamentalist religion, where the rules of the game are decided by a small group of people and then used to judge everyone else whether they’re in the game or not. His solution is very black or white. Either you’re donating everything above what you need to survive to overseas relief or you allow people to die because you selfishly hold the value of money as greater than human life.
Nobody wants to see people suffering, but again you cannot tell someone that they are morally obligated to stop it. Each person is called to serve humanity in a unique way based on personal attributes, desires and gifts. If you were the foreman on a huge volunteer building project, why would you ask someone with a power drill to hammer nails? Let the person with the hammer do it. And let the person good with a saw do his sawing, and so on. Perhaps if there were already enough people doing a certain kind of work, you might ask someone with a particular specialty to help with something else, but in the world of global problems, there’s enough assistance needed for everyone to do what they’re best at. For example, I wouldn’t dream of asking someone like my girlfriend, who is amazing with children, to stop volunteering at the children’s shelter so that she can spend more time doing bookkeeping for UNICEF. I wouldn’t even suggest that there are other children in the world who need her more. There is need everywhere. There is suffering everywhere. She has to choose to give her time and energy where she feels best doing it. People do their best work when they are happiest. If my girlfriend is not happy while making her contribution to UNICEF, how worthwhile of a contribution will it be? Wouldn’t it be better to use someone who actually finds happiness in that particular work?
Singer’s utilitarian ethic is unbelievably short sighted. It also surreptitiously assigns arbitrary values to human conditions and actions. A utilitarian is one who, as Singer puts it, “judges whether acts are right or wrong by their consequences.” (¶ 5) Yet, there is no statement about how far into the future one needs to look to determine whether or not a particular action is right or wrong. If I save a life, that is presumed to be good. But what if I save a life and that person goes on to initiate a genocide? Was it still right for me to save that life? What if because of giving all of my additional money away to save children in Bangladesh, I lose my own child to cancer, because I am thus unable to afford the proper medical treatment? Simply looking at consequences does little to help us decide issues of morality, for any single action could have innumerable effects. Additionally, who is to decide that saving someone from dying is more or less important than sending someone to college? What happens if the analogy is not so simple as comparing a life lost to money lost? Suppose I forego sending my money to UNICEF so that instead I can send my child to basketball camp. A utilitarian like Singer would call that action immoral. But what if my child grows up to be a star basketball player and an exemplary philanthropist who motivates many of his fellow millionaires to donate generously to overseas aid? Even according to his own utilitarian logic Singer would have to declare my actions appropriate.
What if we take direct personal donations of money and charity out of the equation entirely? What if my son grows up to be a star basketball player and a wonderful father? What if he never contributes a single cent to a charity but finds the greatest happiness in playing ball, having millions of dollars and loving his family? Is thriving less important than surviving? According to Mr. Singer, moving beyond our survival needs when others are struggling to survive is wrong. Here are his own words.
“The average family in the United States spends almost one-third of its income on things that are no more necessary to them [than a TV set] … Going out to nice restaurants, buying new clothes because the old ones are no longer stylish, vacationing at beach resorts — so much of our income is spent on things not essential to the preservation of our lives and health. Donated to one of a number of charitable agencies, that money could mean the difference between life and death for children in need.” (¶ 3)
Singer puts survival as the highest cause. But going back to the example of my son the basketball star, what if his incredible skills on the court and as a father inspired millions around the world to pursue their dreams and be their best which led to a great percentage of them contributing a sum of hundreds of millions to relief funds and other charities? In this case, my son still didn’t donate a dime, but just leading the life of his dreams resulted in millions receiving aid.
Cutting down the tall trees does not make the forest grow. Asking people to diminish themselves to build up others is like trying to make yourself wealthy by taking money from your left pocket and putting it in your right. You’re not creating a solution, you’re moving around a problem.
Mr. Singer is a well-intentioned person with some very good information and ideas. However, he could have had a much stronger argument if he would have plainly suggested that people donate whatever extra money was possible to help end poverty and left it at that. Instead, he turned a simple idea into a moral imperative and in so doing lost whatever credibility his solution might have had. I would like to conclude with my own solution. My offering is comprised of three actions that anyone can do regardless of age, talents, abilities or character.
The first way you can help create a higher standard of living for people throughout the world is to spend your money consciously. Think of this solution as voting with your money. Instead of buying whatever shoes jump off the rack at you, perhaps consider giving your business to companies known for paying fair wages to everyone involved in the production of those shoes. In our day and age this is easier to do than one might think. Websites such as http://www.fairtradefederation.org, http://www.onevillage.org and http://www.fairtrade.org.uk provide extensive lists of quality products ranging from food to furniture to electronics all direct from farmers and manufacturers around the world who are guaranteed a fair price for their efforts. Taking this a step further, you can make sure that you only spend your money on companies and products that you truly believe in. For example, I believe in organic farming, so I make it a point to shop at stores that provide organic produce and frequent restaurants that use organic foods. As another example, many vegans (people who believe that animals should not be harmed by humans in any way) refuse to buy any animal-based apparel or food, buying instead certified vegan products. Many people spend money at stores that contribute a portion of their profits to certain foundations that they themselves believe in and support. Every dollar you spend has the potential to do enormous good. By thinking before you spend, you create the possibility of promoting your highest values throughout the world.
A second way that you can promote equality in the world is by committing to serve others through genuine involvement and empowerment. Empowerment is different than charity. Charity is direct aid such as a monetary contribution or a service rendered to those in need. Empowerment is creating the space for those in need to help themselves. It is meeting someone on their own turf and saying, “I believe that you are smart enough and capable enough to help yourself. How can I support you to do that?” Charity is “giving a man a fish,” and empowerment is “teaching him how to fish.” It is the difference between the father who only sends child and spousal support (charity) and one who actually raises a family (empowerment). Sending a check to your favorite charity, though extremely important, will not provide complete relief. Complete relief is the result of a combination of charity and empowerment. By actually meeting face to face with those suffering, you have the chance to perceive the problem yourself and ask them how you can really help. You might be surprised to realize that in many cases it could even cost you less than the money you would have sent. People need charity. People crave empowerment. If you’re unsure about this last point, go find a little kid and tell him you’re going to teach him how to ride his bike by taking it for a spin around the neighborhood while he watches, instead of guiding him while he does it himself. Charity is a short-term fix. Empowerment is a long-term solution. It is important to give both to provide real service.
Finally, I believe the greatest service any individual can do for humankind is to do what one does best and to live the life of one’s dreams. The inspiration that spreads to everyone witnessing a truly purposeful and intelligently created life cannot be overstated. That inspiration can be responsible for all manners of good deeds which the one causing the inspiration could never have hoped to have accomplished alone. In “The Foundations of Morality” the late world renowned economist Henry Hazlitt (1998) suggests, “The most promising way to maximize the happiness of humanity as a whole is not by each individual’s trying to achieve that result directly but …by doing his own special job well.” (p. 193) It is not necessary to try to save the whole world in order to make a difference. Former United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold once said, “It is more noble to give yourself completely to one person, than to labor diligently for the salvation of the masses.” (as cited in Covey, 1992, ¶ 9) In order to make a real difference in the world, you really need go no farther than your own backyard. There is plenty of good to be done in your family and community. It may seem a bit redundant to say, but you can do nothing better than what you do best. This being the case, what you do best represents your best and most unique contribution to the world. It is a chance to give something that no other person can give, your own special gift to bestow. I have also observed that people are none happier than when they are fully engaged in what they do best. The highest standard for a utilitarian is “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.” (Bentham, 1776, p. 1)
I think even Mr. Singer would have to agree that doing what you do best represents the finest expression of utilitarian logic.
Bentham, Jeremy. (1776). A Fragment on Government (p. 1). London.
Covey, Stephen. (1992). The Quality Life. Utah: Franklin Covey. Retrieved August, 2000 from
Haber, Stephen, & North, Douglass C., & Weingast, Barry R. (2003). If Economists Are So
Smart, Why Is Africa So Poor? Hoover Digest, 4(Fall). Retrieved August, 2005 from
Hazlitt, Henry. (1998). The Foundations of Morality (p. 193). New York: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.
Phillips, Amy. (n.d.). Peter Unger’s Illusion of Guilt: Moral Obligations to the Poor. Retrieved
August, 2000 from http://www.50minutehour.net/writing/livinghigh.htm
Singer, Peter. (1999). The Singer Solution to World Poverty. The New York Times Sunday Magazine,September 5th, 60-63.
Unger, Peter. (1996). Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence.
New York: Oxford University Press.
At the end of the movie, in cinemas in the affluent nations of the world, people who would have been quick to condemn Dora if she had not rescued the boy go home to places far more comfortable than her apartment. In fact, the average family in the United States spends almost one-third of its income on things that are no more necessary to them than Dora's new TV was to her. Going out to nice restaurants, buying new clothes because the old ones are no longer stylish, vacationing at beach resorts -- so much of our income is spent on things not essential to the preservation of our lives and health. Donated to one of a number of charitable agencies, that money could mean the difference between life and death for children in need.
All of which raises a question: In the end, what is the ethical distinction between a Brazilian who sells a homeless child to organ peddlers and an American who already has a TV and upgrades to a better one -- knowing that the money could be donated to an organization that would use it to save the lives of kids in need?
Of course, there are several differences between the two situations that could support different moral judgments about them. For one thing, to be able to consign a child to death when he is standing right in front of you takes a chilling kind of heartlessness; it is much easier to ignore an appeal for money to help children you will never meet. Yet for a utilitarian philosopher like myself -- that is, one who judges whether acts are right or wrong by their consequences -- if the upshot of the American's failure to donate the money is that one more kid dies on the streets of a Brazilian city, then it is, in some sense, just as bad as selling the kid to the organ peddlers. But one doesn't need to embrace my utilitarian ethic to see that, at the very least, there is a troubling incongruity in being so quick to condemn Dora for taking the child to the organ peddlers while, at the same time, not regarding the American consumer's behavior as raising a serious moral issue.
In his 1996 book, ''Living High and Letting Die,'' the New York University philosopher Peter Unger presented an ingenious series of imaginary examples designed to probe our intuitions about whether it is wrong to live well without giving substantial amounts of money to help people who are hungry, malnourished or dying from easily treatable illnesses like diarrhea. Here's my paraphrase of one of these examples:
Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. The Bugatti is his pride and joy. In addition to the pleasure he gets from driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its rising market value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement. One day when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a railway siding and goes for a walk up the track. As he does so, he sees that a runaway train, with no one aboard, is running down the railway track. Looking farther down the track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the runaway train. He can't stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where his Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed -- but the train will destroy his Bugatti. Thinking of his joy in owning the car and the financial security it represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch. The child is killed. For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.
Bob's conduct, most of us will immediately respond, was gravely wrong. Unger agrees. But then he reminds us that we, too, have opportunities to save the lives of children. We can give to organizations like Unicef or Oxfam America. How much would we have to give one of these organizations to have a high probability of saving the life of a child threatened by easily preventable diseases? (I do not believe that children are more worth saving than adults, but since no one can argue that children have brought their poverty on themselves, focusing on them simplifies the issues.) Unger called up some experts and used the information they provided to offer some plausible estimates that include the cost of raising money, administrative expenses and the cost of delivering aid where it is most needed. By his calculation, $200 in donations would help a sickly 2-year-old transform into a healthy 6-year-old -- offering safe passage through childhood's most dangerous years. To show how practical philosophical argument can be, Unger even tells his readers that they can easily donate funds by using their credit card and calling one of these toll-free numbers: (800) 367-5437 for Unicef; (800) 693-2687 for Oxfam America.
Now you, too, have the information you need to save a child's life. How should you judge yourself if you don't do it? Think again about Bob and his Bugatti. Unlike Dora, Bob did not have to look into the eyes of the child he was sacrificing for his own material comfort. The child was a complete stranger to him and too far away to relate to in an intimate, personal way. Unlike Dora, too, he did not mislead the child or initiate the chain of events imperiling him. In all these respects, Bob's situation resembles that of people able but unwilling to donate to overseas aid and differs from Dora's situation.
If you still think that it was very wrong of Bob not to throw the switch that would have diverted the train and saved the child's life, then it is hard to see how you could deny that it is also very wrong not to send money to one of the organizations listed above. Unless, that is, there is some morally important difference between the two situations that I have overlooked.
Is it the practical uncertainties about whether aid will really reach the people who need it? Nobody who knows the world of overseas aid can doubt that such uncertainties exist. But Unger's figure of $200 to save a child's life was reached after he had made conservative assumptions about the proportion of the money donated that will actually reach its target.
One genuine difference between Bob and those who can afford to donate to overseas aid organizations but don't is that only Bob can save the child on the tracks, whereas there are hundreds of millions of people who can give $200 to overseas aid organizations. The problem is that most of them aren't doing it. Does this mean that it is all right for you not to do it?
Suppose that there were more owners of priceless vintage cars -- Carol, Dave, Emma, Fred and so on, down to Ziggy -- all in exactly the same situation as Bob, with their own siding and their own switch, all sacrificing the child in order to preserve their own cherished car. Would that make it all right for Bob to do the same? To answer this question affirmatively is to endorse follow-the-crowd ethics -- the kind of ethics that led many Germans to look away when the Nazi atrocities were being committed. We do not excuse them because others were behaving no better.
We seem to lack a sound basis for drawing a clear moral line between Bob's situation and that of any reader of this article with $200 to spare who does not donate it to an overseas aid agency. These readers seem to be acting at least as badly as Bob was acting when he chose to let the runaway train hurtle toward the unsuspecting child. In the light of this conclusion, I trust that many readers will reach for the phone and donate that $200. Perhaps you should do it before reading further.
Now that you have distinguished yourself morally from people who put their vintage cars ahead of a child's life, how about treating yourself and your partner to dinner at your favorite restaurant? But wait. The money you will spend at the restaurant could also help save the lives of children overseas! True, you weren't planning to blow $200 tonight, but if you were to give up dining out just for one month, you would easily save that amount. And what is one month's dining out, compared to a child's life? There's the rub. Since there are a lot of desperately needy children in the world, there will always be another child whose life you could save for another $200. Are you therefore obliged to keep giving until you have nothing left? At what point can you stop?
Hypothetical examples can easily become farcical. Consider Bob. How far past losing the Bugatti should he go? Imagine that Bob had got his foot stuck in the track of the siding, and if he diverted the train, then before it rammed the car it would also amputate his big toe. Should he still throw the switch? What if it would amputate his foot? His entire leg?
As absurd as the Bugatti scenario gets when pushed to extremes, the point it raises is a serious one: only when the sacrifices become very significant indeed would most people be prepared to say that Bob does nothing wrong when he decides not to throw the switch. Of course, most people could be wrong; we can't decide moral issues by taking opinion polls. But consider for yourself the level of sacrifice that you would demand of Bob, and then think about how much money you would have to give away in order to make a sacrifice that is roughly equal to that. It's almost certainly much, much more than $200. For most middle-class Americans, it could easily be more like $200,000.
Isn't it counterproductive to ask people to do so much? Don't we run the risk that many will shrug their shoulders and say that morality, so conceived, is fine for saints but not for them? I accept that we are unlikely to see, in the near or even medium-term future, a world in which it is normal for wealthy Americans to give the bulk of their wealth to strangers. When it comes to praising or blaming people for what they do, we tend to use a standard that is relative to some conception of normal behavior. Comfortably off Americans who give, say, 10 percent of their income to overseas aid organizations are so far ahead of most of their equally comfortable fellow citizens that I wouldn't go out of my way to chastise them for not doing more. Nevertheless, they should be doing much more, and they are in no position to criticize Bob for failing to make the much greater sacrifice of his Bugatti.
At this point various objections may crop up. Someone may say: ''If every citizen living in the affluent nations contributed his or her share I wouldn't have to make such a drastic sacrifice, because long before such levels were reached, the resources would have been there to save the lives of all those children dying from lack of food or medical care. So why should I give more than my fair share?'' Another, related, objection is that the Government ought to increase its overseas aid allocations, since that would spread the burden more equitably across all taxpayers.
Yet the question of how much we ought to give is a matter to be decided in the real world -- and that, sadly, is a world in which we know that most people do not, and in the immediate future will not, give substantial amounts to overseas aid agencies. We know, too, that at least in the next year, the United States Government is not going to meet even the very modest Umited Nations-recommended target of 0.7 percent of gross national product; at the moment it lags far below that, at 0.09 percent, not even half of Japan's 0.22 percent or a tenth of Denmark's 0.97 percent. Thus, we know that the money we can give beyond that theoretical ''fair share'' is still going to save lives that would otherwise be lost. While the idea that no one need do more than his or her fair share is a powerful one, should it prevail if we know that others are not doing their fair share and that children will die preventable deaths unless we do more than our fair share? That would be taking fairness too far.
Thus, this ground for limiting how much we ought to give also fails. In the world as it is now, I can see no escape from the conclusion that each one of us with wealth surplus to his or her essential needs should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty so dire as to be life-threatening. That's right: I'm saying that you shouldn't buy that new car, take that cruise, redecorate the house or get that pricey new suit. After all, a $1,000 suit could save five children's lives.
So how does my philosophy break down in dollars and cents? An American household with an income of $50,000 spends around $30,000 annually on necessities, according to the Conference Board, a nonprofit economic research organization. Therefore, for a household bringing in $50,000 a year, donations to help the world's poor should be as close as possible to $20,000. The $30,000 required for necessities holds for higher incomes as well. So a household making $100,000 could cut a yearly check for $70,000. Again, the formula is simple: whatever money you're spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away.
Now, evolutionary psychologists tell us that human nature just isn't sufficiently altruistic to make it plausible that many people will sacrifice so much for strangers. On the facts of human nature, they might be right, but they would be wrong to draw a moral conclusion from those facts. If it is the case that we ought to do things that, predictably, most of us won't do, then let's face that fact head-on. Then, if we value the life of a child more than going to fancy restaurants, the next time we dine out we will know that we could have done something better with our money. If that makes living a morally decent life extremely arduous, well, then that is the way things are. If we don't do it, then we should at least know that we are failing to live a morally decent life -- not because it is good to wallow in guilt but because knowing where we should be going is the first step toward heading in that direction.
When Bob first grasped the dilemma that faced him as he stood by that railway switch, he must have thought how extraordinarily unlucky he was to be placed in a situation in which he must choose between the life of an innocent child and the sacrifice of most of his savings. But he was not unlucky at all. We are all in that situation.Continue reading the main story