You're walking home after a long day and you pass a pond where a child happens to be drowning. You look around and you see no parent or any other person for that matter. If you don't jump in and do something to help this child they will surely drown. That's all good and well now, but doing so will ruin your shoes and outfit that you bought yesterday. By the time you save the child and hand them over to a responsible adult, you will miss your dinner date with your partner. What should you do in this situation?
This is a thought experiment proposed by philosopher Peter Singer and there is more to it than meets the eye...
You're saying you should jump in the water and save the child? You may have just opened a can of worms for yourself.
Singer argues that if you choose to save the child while forgoing your own pleasures, you should then look to donate your time/money/resources so that poverty can be dealt with because you have the opportunity to save countless lives by being selfless, as you have shown by saving the drowning child. Why is it different when it comes to helping the poor?
The basic argument can be structured in the following manner:
1) Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad.
2) If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.
3) By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter or medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.
Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies you are doing something wrong.
If you can deny any of 1-3, then I please urge you to come forward and defend your stance. How could suffering from lack of food, shelter or medical care be justified? Jesus had a point when he said "do unto others as you would have them do to you". Even if you don't like to think of it in religious terms, if you were a parent of a child in say Ethiopia and they were to die from cholera, you would want someone who is able to do something to actually do something to save your child, right?
We need to remember that we do not live in this world in isolation, particularly in Africa 'Ubuntu' is rife; “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore, I am”. We need to come together so that we can be.
It is reasonably to say that once you reach a certain level of income, your standard of living does not change drastically, only the level of your disposable income and minor luxuries you are afforded.
Singer proposes that we should all play a part in poverty alleviation and one should actively look to make a difference in any way that they can. Since most people don't want to inconvenience themselves, the best way to do it is by donating money.
We must note that we will be making a small dent in the large vehicle that is poverty and if it is to be stopped completely, which is possible, more and more people need to step up and play their part.
Philanthropy is another way change can be made but some have argued that this glamorised form of giving has become more of an ego game for those giving. This has some element of truth to it but if it takes selfish reasons for people to make a difference, we should look to use any means necessary to make a change. There's a reason people are willing to give if it will be broadcast on live television or have a building or foundation named after them.
What about forced taxation, you ask? That's another story for another day...
Some of you may even say 'I work for my money so I should get to decide what to do with it' or 'we owe nothing to those who we have done nothing wrong'. Some may go as far to say that 'giving freely to alleviate creates dependency'. There is also the issue of charity organisations mismanaging funds given to them. These are genuine concerns but with the correct structuring measures and accountability* we can make this work.
If still have serious concerns about giving, then perhaps next time you happen to see a child drowning, you should just walk on by and continue with your day.