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Rich and Poor by Peter Singer: Struggling to Survive

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Chapter 8 “rich and poor” by Peter Singer published by Cambridge University press argues that we all human beings have a duty to aid all those suffering from absolute poverty, in his essay Peter describes absolute poverty as life at the very margin of existence, the absolute poor are severely deprived beings struggling to survive. Peter throughout his essay does not describes exactly what rich and poor means, but rather gives suggestion that anyone who is able to do something for anyone has a moral obligation to do so.

I think that Singer creates a pretty vivid picture of the concept of absolute poverty. He starts with incorporating general information which pertain to human health/needs. E.g. how he mentions 14 million children under 5 die every year from malnutrition and infection, etc. Then later he brings about McNamara’s absolute poverty definition stating how it is the lack to meet the most basic needs of life. What is most interesting is how he states the more privileged nations experience ‘absolute affluence.’ And he rightly points out that that is in regards to being affluent by any reasonable definition of human needs rather than comparing to that of your neighbour as he had put it. That clarification was a very valid one and is pertinent for our understanding as he further clarifies that we should provide for those dependent of the affluent.

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The essay provides Peter’s arguments formally splitted into 3 premises, firstly if any person is able to do something good for any other person then this is his moral obligation to do so, secondly absolute poverty is very bad, thirdly there is an absolute poverty that we all can prevent without sacrificing much from our side. At the end Singer concludes that if we are able to prevent some of the poverty then it becomes our moral obligation to prevent it.

Only the third premise of Peters argument becomes the main topic of controversy for so many people as this premise claims that only absolute poverty can be prevented. Singer argues that if we do nothing about absolute poverty we are allowing someone to die, and since there is no difference between allowing someone to die and killing someone you are a murderer. I as an individual absolutely do not agree with him at all, we cannot compare these two things there are many differences, the blame for absolute poverty cannot be put on ourselves as an individual, but the blame for killing someone can be, so therefore killing a person cannot be compared to not doing something about the absolute poverty because if you kill someone you only are going to face the consequences but not doing anything about absolute poverty may or may not have any consequences on you.

Peter Singer brings up the critical concept that if one does nothing to mend ‘absolute poverty,’ then that individual is allowing others to die. Singer goes further to say that this same individual could in fact be considered a murderer. Although this is an extremely hard judgment, I have learned from this class alone that Singer seems to enjoy putting minds to the test by presenting extremes. In this case, if one looks at the idea, it does seem to make sense. As in the position of active/passive euthanasia, it is the same if one pulls the plug or allows a patient to die. If people like Americans, who live in countries where surplus is far more common than a deficit, it makes perfect sense to see how we are, in fact, letting many people die across the world. In a time when no country is able to maintain a truly isolationist international policy, it is the responsibility of some to see to the general welfare of all. By not helping with food distribution and working to mend this ‘absolute poverty’ we are basically killing the people we could have helped.

When I was reading this article I felt the same way about Singer’s approach to solving the problem of absolute poverty. He instructs his readers to donate ‘what we consider to of comparable moral value to the poverty we can prevent,’ but then tells them that it would not be socialist because it is all voluntary. To me that makes no sense at all. Yes, it is voluntary to give all of your money to end poverty, but it is essentially not because if you don’t then Singer would say that you are a murderer for not doing your part to end the suffering of others.

I agree with Singer that we do have a moral obligation to help those in absolute poverty, however it would be extremely difficult to impose a law that requires one to do so. I also agree that the right type of aid needs to administered; i.e. educational efforts, agriculture advancements, and contraceptive measures, in order to ensure no greater harm is done. Because this may prove to be extremely hard, particularly in countries with corrupt or insufficient governments, is no reason to refuse aid. Helping on a minimal level is better than not helping at all. 

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