Peter Singer, an applied ethicist, is one of the world’s best-known philosophers. His new book, The Life You Can Save (Random House, $22), argues that it is ethically indefensible not to donate a certain portion of your wealth to NGOs and aid groups fighting extreme poverty around the world (thelifeyoucansave.com). Such inaction, he says, is like walking past a child drowning in a pond. –Christine Smallwood
Why not institute a compulsory tax rather than rely on NGOs?
If you’re asking about the United States, it’s because the US is not very effective in its aid program. NGOs really do have a better record of working more with the grassroots, of not going through governments and not making the governments dependent on them. If we were in Sweden, maybe there would a better, less politically directed aid program where a compulsory tax might be a reasonable option.
Are vastly unequal distributions of global wealth ineradicable?
We don’t have a better system of encouraging people to be productive in ways that are useful for others. In theory, if you were to sketch out, as people did in the nineteenth century, utopian blueprints of how our society should function, then obviously you would have a more equal distribution of wealth. But insofar as we’ve ever tried those things, they don’t work. I don’t think you can criticize people for being rich if what they have done is effectively produce things that people want or produce them more cheaply than other people have done. Those are good things to do. I don’t see the problem with getting rich in the first place. I see a problem with getting rich and not seeing that as an opportunity to do an immense amount of good in the world. There’s always going to be relative poverty. I don’t think we’re going to get rid of that, due to the nature of the system of production that we have. But I don’t think there has to be this constant state where there are a billion people living in extreme poverty, even in countries that don’t have terribly repressive governments.
How does one know when to stop giving?
That’s the most difficult question. On the one hand, there’s this very demanding implication of my original argument, that as long as I have something that’s a luxury that I don’t need and the money I spend on it could save a child’s life, I should really keep giving until I don’t spend anything on luxuries at all. I still see the pull of that argument. But it’s also important to think about what we would achieve by setting that as the standard–we would not achieve nearly as much. In that sense, the answer is something like, we should give to the point where if others gave similarly, we would be able to more or less solve the problem. And we should feel OK if we reach that standard and encourage others to reach it, because that will produce the best results.