Peter Singer

This article is a preview from the Spring 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

The philosopher Peter Singer first published “Famine, Affluence and Morality” in 1972. It argues that richer nations could give enough assistance to reduce further suffering in less developed nations and that individuals ought to do more to alleviate suffering. A new edition, introduced by Bill and Melinda Gates, is published by Oxford University Press.

You wrote “Famine, Affluence and Morality” over four decades ago. Has poverty risen or fallen?
The reduction of trade barriers is certainly an important factor in making the number of people in extreme poverty fall dramatically since 1972: especially if you consider the increase in global population. So if you take it proportionately – rather than in absolute numbers – the reduction in extreme world poverty has been quite impressive.

You use the analogy of rescuing a drowning child in a pond in front of you, versus a starving child far away. Can you explain?
The child in the pond example says: if there was a child in front of you, and you could easily rescue that child at a modest cost to yourself, not only would you do it, but you would think badly of somebody that didn’t. I believe we should also make a negative judgement about somebody who refuses to help refugees living in extreme poverty somewhere far away from their own country.

The idea of helping the poor at all costs sounds similar to the Christian doctrine of virtue.
My ethic is secular based, and it doesn’t make any appeals to religion. But when speaking about poverty, it’s worthwhile to make common cause with people of various religions. This emphasis on helping the poor is everywhere in the Gospels. So we should be pointing the finger at those Christians who don’t regard it as a dominant obligation.

Do we need to take moral responsibility for our own lives to curb global ills?
That’s right. We certainly are all participating in changes to the world. Most obviously in the case of climate change forecasts, which predict that there will be hundreds of millions of people who will become refugees as a result of changing rainfall patterns, and rising sea levels. We are all going to have to bear responsibility for that because we are continuing to emit greenhouse gases, despite the knowledge that this is highly damaging for our planet. Crucially, it’s going to hit hardest on the very poorest. So we should all be doing our fair share to reduce the impact of that.

You make a connection between starvation outside our society and property norms within our society.
Some Catholic theorists, when it comes to poverty and the basis of property, hold the view that property exists in order to satisfy basic human needs. Thomas Aquinas, for example, says that if you have superabundance, and a man who cannot get enough to eat steals from you – well, then, that is not theft.

In other words: this man would have a moral right to steal because of his natural need for food?
Yes, and [those] who have this superabundance don’t have a right to hold it against him. This view is still upheld in Catholic teachings. It’s been repeated by a number of recent popes, including Pope Francis. Clearly, this seems to violate the property norms that most people accept. In other words: what seems to be a basic violation of our property norms – theft – is really less important than the meeting of those basic needs.

Has consumerism affected world inequality?
Of course it has. Instead of – as one might have hoped – a more caring global economy, you have an economy whereby people accumulate what is, by historical standards, fantastic wealth and luxury, while others are left in extreme poverty. Also, I believe that consumerism doesn’t bring satisfaction or fulfilment to those who pursue it. It’s just a hedonistic treadmill, where you keep running at a furious pace to keep up your happiness levels. If we could actually think about what will make our lives meaningful, we would be living in a way that means we share our lives more with others. Much of the consumer economy cuts against that. We need to try and resist this, and promote a different idea of how to live instead.

In 1999, you argued that if we really valued the life of a starving child, we wouldn’t waste money in fancy restaurants. Is this overly purist?
People have their own priorities. I’m not interested in placing a guilt trip on individuals. But we all need to realise that the decisions we make in our lives have consequences.One doesn’t have to live on bread and water. But there are things that we can see as frivolities, or indulgences, that we might want to at least reduce in our lives.

Some say this is a golden age of philanthropy. Don’t these billionaires add to the cycle of poverty?
Certainly the gap is getting wider, creating a number of problems. But it also means those with vast wealth are doing a lot of good with it. The other thing worth talking about in terms of the one per cent vs the 99 per cent is this: most people think they are not part of the one per cent – that it’s just the Bill Gateses and the Warren Buffetts of this world who are in that group. But we need to look at this issue globally.

Are you essentially saying that most people in the middle class are in this bracket?
Take, for example, many New Humanist readers. They will be in the one per cent. If you are earning roughly $54,000 (£38,000) a year or more, then you are in the top one per cent of the world’s income earners. So when we talk about that gap between rich and poor, we shouldn’t just think about the billionaires. We should think of everybody who is earning $54,000 or more.

How hopeful are you for the future?
The reduction of poverty since the 1970s has been very promising. The number of people in poverty from the latest World Bank figures is below 10 per cent of the world’s population for the first time ever. In 1970 it would have been something like 25 per cent. Global warming is, however, going to change things radically. If we could bracket off climate change and say, it’s not going to be as bad as you think, then I would be hopeful. But because I don’t think we can do that, there is a huge question mark over what would have been a reasonably optimistic picture.