Bioethicist Peter Singer on Why We Don’t Help the Global Poor and Why We Should

Peter Singer at the Crawford Forum in June 2017. Photo courtesy of Crawford Forum/Creative Commons

Article by Charles C. Camosy. Camosy, though a native of very rural Wisconsin, has spent more than the last decade as a professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University. He is the author of five books, including, most recently, “Resisting Throwaway Culture.” He is the father of four children, three of whom were adopted from the Philippines. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.

Last week my column focused on my improbable decade-long friendship with the Princeton University bioethicist and committed atheist Peter Singer and our exchanges on topics from abortion and euthanasia to animal rights.

On the occasion of the republication of his popular book “The Life You Can Save” for its 10th anniversary, I recently interviewed Singer on the topic that put him on the map: our moral duties and obligations in light of profound global poverty.

Singer, who is the rare academic who has genuinely affected the broader culture, has been particularly influential when it comes to arguing that aid organizations serving the most vulnerable deserve our support. Here he tells how he became interested in poverty issues and the influence of “The Life You Can Save” over the past decade. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Some readers know you only as a bioethicist. Can you tell us a bit about your personal history with global poverty?

I can’t remember a time when I was not aware of the fact that there are people in the world who are so poor that they don’t get enough to eat. In 1967, when I was 21, the eastern region of Nigeria declared itself independent as the Republic of Biafra. That led to a civil war and blockade that triggered a famine in which an estimated 2 million people died. The media showed vivid photos of starving children. I was troubled by those photos, but did I do anything significant about it? No.

In 1971, when I was a graduate student, studying philosophy in Oxford and already married, an autonomy movement in what is now Bangladesh was brutally crushed by the Pakistani army. Nine million people fled across the border into India, which appealed for assistance to feed and shelter this huge number of people, but not enough was given. It can’t be right, I thought, that people like me in affluent countries should have much more than they need while others have so little that they are in danger of dying.

I had come to Oxford on an Australian government scholarship, and my wife and I went to talk to (the humanitarian aid organization) Oxfam, which had its headquarters in Oxford, and after learning about what they were doing for the refugees in India as well as for people in poverty more generally, we decided to give 10% of our income to Oxfam. This also led me to write my first publication on global poverty, the article “Famine, Affluence and Morality.”

One of the places it has ended up was in your book “The Life You Can Save.” What were your goals in writing the book?

My initial goal was to reach a wide audience with an extended version of the argument I had made in “Famine, Affluence and Morality” — essentially, that if you are middle class or above in an affluent country, then to live an ethical life it is not enough to refrain from lying, stealing, injuring or killing, and so on. We also have to do something to assist people who, through no fault of their own, lack the necessities they need to survive. My ultimate goal was to bring about a new ethic of giving to people in extreme poverty.

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Source: Religion News Service