Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Fighting Poverty

Thousands die daily from lack of food. What can we do?

At this very moment, you have the power to save a life. To justify this claim, consider an argument from contemporary philosopher Peter Singer. His paper, "Famine, Affluence, and Morality", has been widely anthologized in philosophy textbooks. The argument can be summed up as follows:

  • (1) Dying from starvation is bad.
  • (2) If I can prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything of comparable moral worth, then I ought to do it.
  • (3) I can prevent death by starvation by donating money to famine relief, without sacrificing anything of comparable moral worth.
  • Therefore, I ought to donate money to famine relief.

The plausibility of the argument will be influenced by how one interprets "comparable moral worth". How much should I sacrifice in order to help those who are worse off than I? Singer himself has admitted that in his view, at least in principle we are obligated to sacrifice quite a lot. He also admits that he does less than his views entail. However, Singer also points out that there is much to be gained if the rest of us follow him as far as he has gone (giving 20-25% of his income to charities such as Oxfam).

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Consider an analogy from Singer's paper. Imagine that you come across a young child who is drowning in a shallow pond. Nobody else is around. You are wearing new shoes and pants that together cost about $200, and they will be ruined if you go into the pond to save the child. Are you morally obligated to save the child? It seems pretty clear that the answer is yes. Even though it will cost you $200 worth of clothing, that pales in comparison to the value of the child's life.

We are in a similar situation at this very moment, according to Singer. By donating money to a Oxfam or Unicef, we could save a child's life and provide the food and care she needs to survive. This is one of the few things Singer believes that I also believe. It seems to me that we at least are obligated to sacrifice some of our luxury items in order to save lives. For example, if I check out 5 books from the library to read, rather than buying them, I can use the money I save (roughly $100) to feed a starving child for one year. Or I can eat out 6 or 7 fewer times this year, and use the money I save to feed the child. These seem like relatively easy things to do, especially when a human life is at stake.

There are other actions we can take to fight poverty. Go to the Hunger Site, and just by visiting and clicking on the button you can donate food to those in need in the U.S. and around the world. Five seconds of your time each day can feed a person for that day! Or make a microloan through Kiva and help someone become economically self-sufficient. Become informed and involved through organizations such as the ONE campaign. Lastly, consider these ideas from the book, Our Day to End Poverty:

  • Contribute: Use buy one, get one free offers as a way to contribute goods at no cost. Donate the free items to a local charity or food bank.
  • Volunteer: Local food banks and other groups need your help. Find one in your area by visiting SecondHarvest.org.
  • Organize a school-supply drive or a book drive through your school, workplace, civic group, or place of worship. Donate the supplies to a school in the United States or overseas.

The problems related to poverty and hunger can seem overwhelming. Roughly 30,000 people die each day of hunger or hunger-related illnesses. But if each of us who are able to act take the time to do something on a regular basis to combat this, we could make a real and lasting difference in the lives of millions of people on the planet.

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Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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