How much should you and I be doing to fight global poverty?

Would you be willing to give away all of the income you spend on luxuries to fight global poverty?

This might mean giving up 50% of what you earn or not going out to that club/restaurant/movie this weekend with your friends. Or not buying a new pair of shoes or the latest videogame or a new ipod. It might mean foregoing foamy starbucks lattes that power you through class or a season ski pass to your favorite mountain. Basically it would mean sacrificing anything that you don’t need to survive. Because every time you spend $1 on a luxury, you are choosing not to spend that $1 on saving an innocent child’s life.

Philosopher Peter Singer makes an effective case for this using the following analogy:

Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. The Bugatti is his pride and joy. In addition to the pleasure he gets from driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its rising market value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement. One day when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a railway siding and goes for a walk up the track. As he does so, he sees that a runaway train, with no one aboard, is running down the railway track. Looking farther down the track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the runaway train. He can’t stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where his Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed —but the train will destroy his Bugatti. Thinking of his joy in owning the car and the financial security it represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch. The child is killed. For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.

Bob’s conduct, most of us will immediately respond, was gravely wrong. Unger agrees. But then he reminds us that we, too, have opportunities to save the lives of children.

This might be something to think about next time you’re out buying a latte or an ipod or a new pair of shoes. That money could be saving an innocent child’s life. You could be giving money to an organization to buy a $10 bed net to save 1 of the 3000 African children that dies from malaria everyday.

Singer concludes that:

When Bob first grasped the dilemma that faced him as he stood by that railway switch, he must have thought how extraordinarily unlucky he was to be placed in a situation in which he must choose between the life of an innocent child and the sacrifice of most of his savings. But he was not unlucky at all. We are all in that situation.

This is a difficult dilemma which I’m not sure how to resolve. The world economy might very well fall apart if we all stop spending our income on consumption and devote it to saving lives in developing countries. I would also argue that it is difficult to draw the line between what is a luxury and a necessity. Where would music and literature fall, for example?

I read the essay a few years ago and found it to be quite thought-provoking. I still haven’t gotten it out of my head and reflect on it every once in a while. Any thoughts? What would you be willing to give up?

Click on the following link if your interested in checking out the rest of the essay, The Singer Solution to World Poverty.

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