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Peter Singer’s Article Rich and Poor

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English 1A

7 February 20

An Obligation to Help

In Peter Singer’s article “Rich and Poor,” he states that affluent people of the world have a moral obligation to help the poor, so long as it involves no significant moral sacrifice, otherwise they are committing a sophisticated form of murder. This requirement to assist isn’t a universally shared idea, nor should it be comparable to killing someone. People of a free and democratic society have a choice when it comes to helping those less fortunate, and by saying they are obligated probably does more harm than good. Also, the inability of knowing the contributions are making an impact on the impoverished reduces the likelihood of people giving freely. Singer’s utilitarian view on poverty and how to remedy this global issue is extreme by most people’s standards because helping everyone is not feasible.

There is no moral ambiguity when it comes to outright killing someone. Putting a gun to someone’s head and pulling the trigger with cruel and malicious intent, is just murder. However, is there any difference between pulling the trigger and withholding aide? Singer’s argument is based on an obligation to assist and appeals to people’s inherent desire to help those in need. He frames this theory around three principles: “First, extreme poverty is bad. Second, if we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we ought to. Third, there is some absolute poverty we can prevent without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance” (Singer 243). Additionally, Singer uses two key terms that resonate throughout the article: absolute affluence and absolute or extreme poverty. Absolute affluence, by Singer’s definitions, is “a significant amount of income above the level necessary to provide for the basic human needs of oneself and one’s dependents” (Singer 235). Conversely, absolute poverty, as defined by the World Bank is “… not having enough income to meet the most basic human needs for adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, sanitation, healthcare or education” (Singer 234). Struggling is a part of life, and it always will be. However, the requirement to assist those struggling to make ends meet should never be mandated because it is a personal choice as to how or if we render assistance.

        Singer begins his article by appealing to the reader's sympathies and articulating what it means to live in absolute poverty. According to research gathered at the end the twentieth century, the World Bank describes absolute poverty as “being short of food for all or part of the year, [the inability to] save money, [being unable] to send your children to school, living in a semi-permanent dwelling, and having no close source of drinking water”(Singer 233). The thought of living in absolute poverty, per this definition, is not something that the average citizen living in an industrialized nation can find relatable. We all struggle at some point in our lives, but to have all these things happen simultaneously is unlikely, short of being homeless. Though I agree with this description of absolute poverty, Singers call to action is not plausible to most Americans. Additionally, Singer advocates for the donation of all remaining income once basic needs have been met. Unfortunately, this is not something most Americans are willing to do. In fact, doing this would be financially irresponsible. If we all subscribed to Singer’s logic, we would live at the same poverty level as those we are supposed to be helping. Furthermore, Singer admittedly fails to abide by his logic when it comes to helping others.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have absolute affluence. Singer presents the notion of absolute affluence in such a way that makes every one of us do some self-reflection on our spending habits. According to the World Bank, for the miserly sum of $1.25, we could bring upwards of 1.4 billion people out of absolute poverty. Singer is quick to point out that this $1.25 is not in U.S. dollars, rather it is adjusted for the equivalent sum in the native currency. It is hard to imagine anyone not having the ability to provide this amount as most people spend more than this on a bottle of water each day. On the individual level this amount is quite insignificant but multiplied by millions, if not billions, and we’d quickly amass enough to address most if not all absolute poverty. In this example, the problem lies not with the dollar amount, but with the assumption that everyone who has the means to give, does.  “…in 1970, the United Nations General Assembly set the modest target for the amount of foreign aid that rich nations should give: 0.7 percent of Gross Nations Income, or 70 cents for every hundred dollars a nation earns” (235). One of the defining characteristics of absolute affluence, as described by Singer, “… is their ability to purchase luxury items after all their basic needs are met” (235). Singer incorrectly assumes that all affluent people can and should live by the same standard. What the author considers a luxury item may be an absolute necessity to another person. That is not to say that there aren’t people living in excess and spending frivolously, but most live within their means and are fiscally responsible. Consequently, Singer concedes that he is “…[not] making [an] ethical [judgement] about absolute affluence; [he is] merely pointing out that it exists” (235). It is intriguing that Singer berates the United States and her fellow industrialized nations on the monetary front, yet ultimately gives the affluent an out. There’s no question we as American’s can and should do more to help our fellow citizens and neighbors in need, but the choice remains ours.

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