Giving to Get

Do you lead an ethical life? That appears to be the million-dollar question Australian ethicist Peter Singer sought to tackle before a room of roughly 100 people at the University of Chicago’s International House on March 9. Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and is more widely known as the author of “Animal Liberation.” His visit to speak on this pertinent topic was part of his US tour to promote his latest work, “The Life You can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty” and to increase awareness about what he calls the “obligation we have to help” the roughly one billion people living in conditions of extreme poverty around the world. Singer cited the World Bank, defining “extreme poverty” as those living on the “purchasing power equivalent of 1.25 dollars a day.”

An ardent supporter of preference utilitarianism, which judges the rightness of an action by the satisfaction one wins from its performance, Singer advocates helping those in dire circumstances “at a relatively modest cost to yourself.” He suggests that one may do so by dint of donating to humanitarian organizations if there is at least some chance of that saving someone else’s life. In response to the fact that most people are hesitant to contribute if they don’t know who exactly their money is going to, Singer pointed out that it shouldn’t make a difference to our moral obligation whether we directly know the person we are helping or not. If there is a chance that your money is going to a cause which will benefit someone more than the loss which will accrue to you, he believes you should probably take that chance.

On a similar note, many people do not feel as morally obligated to participate if they are surrounded by similarly minded people. As a utilitarian, Singer constantly emphasized the individual action that we can take, relative to our own lifestyles or socioeconomic situations, in order to alleviate the staggering statistic of 27,000 children estimated to be dying each day. Leading an ethical life consists not in merely adhering to all the “Do Not’s” we encounter in our everyday lives, but in positive obligation and assuming a proactive stance.