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The issue of global poverty appears to be getting worse with no clear end in sight. The rich are getting richer and those who need help aren’t getting enough support. It’s clear that most people believe that everyone, no matter where they live and who they are, should not have to live in extreme poverty conditions but don’t know how to help. One utilitarian philosopher, Peter Singer, has proposed a generous yet controversial solution to poverty. However, Singer’s argument that we need to give up our luxuries to help out those in poverty around the world was criticized by Andrew Kuper who believed this sort of philanthropy stands in the way of more effective long-term strategies and ultimately harms the poor. I will build on Kuper’s argument and suggest that our moral obligation is not to financially provide for the poor but rather to use our voice to demand political change.
In an article published in The New York Times, Singer suggests that North Americans with a disposable income ought to give away their excess wealth to needy children overseas rather than spend it on luxurious goods for themselves. Singer discusses to fictitious cases, one involving a lady named Dora saving the life of a homeless child whom she gave to organ dealers for money to buy a new TV and the second involving a man named Bob who lets a child get run over by a train rather than flip a switch to have the train smash his Bugatti instead. Through the analysis of these two cases, Singer suggests that we all face similar dilemmas and it is our moral obligation to sacrifice our luxuries to save the lives of children.
While Kuper believes that Singer’s argument is deeply flawed, he, just like Singer, agrees that “the interests of all persons (Singer would say animals) must count equally in moral deliberation, and that geographical location and citizenship make no intrinsic difference to the rights and obligations of those individuals” (Kuper, 2002b). Kuper suggests that donating to the poor is a simple way to appease our consciences but would ultimately hurt those in need because their problems are rooted in a complex interaction of political and economic relations. He argues that most of the luxuries Singer tells readers to stop buying are manufactured in developing countries which would hurt their economies. In order to make real change, we need to create and reform political institutions and economies through activities such as lobbying and tourism.
It is important to note that Singer did in fact respond to Kuper’s criticism in his article “Poverty, Facts and Political Philosophies” in which he claims that while powerful political figures may interfere with some of the money being given to charity, that does not mean it would have been better if the donation had never been. Singer discusses how charitable organizations such as Oxfam are aware of the corrupt political rulers and have made extensive procedures to overcome these barriers and pull out of a country when necessary. He also mentions that these organizations help with Kuper’s ideas by providing better tools and equipment that allow people to participate in the global economy but that isn’t always helpful to people, especially those in rural areas that can’t transport goods to international markets.
In response, Kuper emphasizes no amount of money will solve the global poverty epidemic and that more needs to be done. He discusses how those in rural areas excluded from the economy, as Singer mentioned, should be helped by providing transportation rather than looking for other solutions outside of trade. In his final rejoinder, Singer states that Kuper’s argument does not contradict his central claim that it is morally wrong to not sacrifice one’s luxuries to help to extremely poor. He states that he would support those who follow Kuper’s solution however he believes that it is challenging to make changes to established political systems and that donating money would not be harmful in the meantime.
While Singer raises some strong disputes to Kuper’s argument that does not mean his argument should be thrown out or invalidated. I believe that Kuper’s argument can be strengthened by providing more in-depth explanations as to how poverty is a result of a lack of political rather than monetary support. It is clear that by providing billions of dollars in aid relief to the poorest countries in the world will not solve the poverty pandemic, this is evident by the amount of money that has been donated throughout history with no clear end to poverty still in sight. Kuper claims that by providing charitable donations we are doing more harm than good but rather than explain how this happens, he goes on a tangent about how money sent to prevent the AIDs epidemic in South Africa from continuing is being overridden by President Mbeki’s fabricated views that HIV does not cause AIDs. This argument has been heavily criticized by Singer who deems it irrelevant because some funds will still help those in need and charitable organizations have ways to provide the proper medication. I agree with Singer in the sense that even if all the money doesn’t go towards helping those in need that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still give what we can, granted there are no other ways to help. However, simply prolonging someone’s life does not mean we are helping them.
Let’s think back to the two examples Singer highlighted in The Singer Solution to World Poverty. The hypothetical case in which Bob allows a child to die rather than destroy his Bugatti lacks the ability to accurately portray the life of a needy child in a developing country because in this case, we assume that the child Bob let die would have led a life similar to those of an average North American. Singer’s first case, involving a homeless child, portrays a more accurate representation of the future of those in impoverished countries but he does not address it. While Dora saves the homeless child from having his organs harvested, she is not increasing his quality of life. What if the audience saw Dora save the child only to drop him back off at a street corner where he continued to be without a home and food, would viewers still be happy with Dora’s actions? By providing clean drinking water to a small village in Africa or mosquito nets to children to avoid malaria we are providing recipients with tools to prolong their life but this will not pull them out of their pre-existing poverty.
There is no doubt that many charitable organizations including Oxfam work hard in assisting those who need it. However, they have to operate within the regulations set in place by the government of the country they are assisting. While it is nice to provide more sanitary conditions and healthcare to those in need, true aid comes from national governments funding and legislature that leads to things like better transportation routes and accessible education to citizens. While Singer briefly mentions the obligation of governments to increase their foreign aid, he fails to recognize that governments receiving aid need to be using the aid appropriately. In North America, political figures are pressured to maintain and enhance the lives of those living within their country by developing strategies to help social and economic growth while also implementing social safety nets to those who need it. This includes welfare programs, unemployment insurance, universal healthcare, free education, homeless shelters, and public transport to make sure residents have the tools to not only survive but live a meaningful, positive life. Without such services, those receiving help from foreign aid and charitable organizations will lack to ability to support themselves and live the enriching lives we all deserve.
While I believe that Kuper is on the right track, I believe his approach lacks the accountability to make real change. To strengthen his argument, I believe that he needs to embrace rather than refute the public’s desire to help the globally impoverished. While Singers attempt to dissolve poverty is extremely idealistic, he places the onus of responsibility on the reader, those in the general public. The large-scale solution proposed by Kuper will not be effective without clear obligations set in place surrounding individual morality.
While it is clear that politicians are often the ones in a position of power and authority, they rely on others to keep them in this place. In North America, politicians need to campaign to citizens and develop ideas that help better the lives of citizens in order to get elected. If people feel as though an elected official is not following through on their promises or implementing harmful legislatures than the politician is at risk of getting kicked out of office. We often take an active role in deciding what governments do and pressuring them to make decisions that help society. Take for example LGBTQ rights, if it weren’t for the constant lobbying and protests held within the United States, politicians who do not directly feel impacted by such laws would likely avoid legalizing gay marriage for another ten, twenty, even thirty years. However, in North America, politicians are seen are public servants and it is not acceptable for those in power to put their own personal needs above those of the general public. The sort of pressure sent through lobbying and protests should be done to politicians around the world.
Often times people and governments hand over foreign aid to nations in need and expect that those in power will equally and fairly distribute the money to those who need it. However, politicians can often be corrupt and succumb to greed. In addition, in some places around the world, political leaders rig or even eliminate elections to stay in power. Of course, in these cases they are not worried about appeasing citizens in order to earn their vote however that does not mean we stop holding them accountable. To truly solve poverty, we need to address the deep-rooted corruption of political structures that allow politicians to withhold help to those who need it. By raising awareness and demanding change political figures may take this issue seriously and address it with more realistic and long-lasting solutions.
While it is hard to assess the outcome of such large-scale lobbying, there is no reason they should not work based on the success of previous small-scale attempts. By placing restrictions on the politics that we choose to engage with, we wrongly prioritize group identities such as nationality over individual moral obligations which both Kuper and Singer would believe is incorrect. We should actively participate in elections over the world, by spreading awareness of the plans politicians would like to implement and pressure them into making the right choices.
Similar to Singer’s response to Kuper’s argument, I can assume that he would have a similar disagreement to the argument I have presented which is, why not do both? He may suggest that there is nothing wrong with lobbying for equal rights around the world and holding politicians accountable but that does not mean you should not donate your money to help those who need it more. However, I believe that donating money will make it impossible to have governments change the ways in which they fund and take care of their citizens. Think about it this way, why would a government spend time and money setting up a form of universal healthcare within their country when they know that organizations like Oxfam will provide citizens in critical condition the medication they need? By providing aid we are encouraging politicians to continue to act recklessly and narcissistically with their money and power because we will take care of their citizens. Governments will not sense any urgency or need to fix their social and economic problems. In fact, they may become dependent on foreign aid to run their economy and fund their own greedy spending.
For decades now people have been using philanthropy as a way to help the less fortunate, however, major issues like global poverty still persist. Singer’s attempt to solve poverty is insightful and good-natured but it is clear that the work done by charitable organizations has not stopped the systemic oppression of those in extreme poverty. Like Singer, I believe we all have a moral obligation to help those in these unfair circumstances, however, I believe that obligation lies in the motivation to speak and demand change from those in positions of political power. In this way, we don’t allow people to simply survive in suboptimal conditions but thrive and live enriching lives. It is clear that Singer’s argument is not directly against political change, in fact he would probably support it. However, my argument is a clear objection to Singer’s solution because trying to help the poor simply survives stands in the way of long-lasting changes. It’s growing more and more apparent that global poverty is a problem that can be fixed, and it is time we use our voices and fight for what is right.
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