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The life you can save

Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, has written a new book about world poverty which looks set to grab wide attention. In “The Life You Can Save,” he writes, “On a planet full of so much obvious and widespread suffering… there is something deeply askew with our widely accepted views about what it is to live a good life.” I would suggest that his arguments are flawed.

A review in the New York Times explains that Singer has been working out the ideas in this latest book since at least 1972, when he published his influential essay “Famine, Affluence and Morality.” The review describes the latest work as part rational argument, part stinging manifesto, part handbook… a volume that suggests, given that 18 million people are dying unnecessarily each year in developing countries, that there is a moral stain on a world as rich as this one… we are not doing enough to help our fellow mortals.” Singer proposes the following logical argument:

“First premise: Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad.

“Second premise: 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.

“Third premise: By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.

“Conclusion: Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong.”

To reject this argument, Singer writes, “you need to find a flaw in the reasoning.”

Muddled thinking

There is nothing wrong with donating to aid agencies when those agencies confine their activities to front-line help. But they do not. They also operate as political campaigners. There is nothing in principle wrong with that either, given that poverty arises from particular systems of economic organisation and political changes are needed to change those systems. What the aid agencies almost all fail to recognise is that poverty arises almost invariably and inevitably when people do not have access to productive land. The few agencies that acknowledge the relationship see land reform as the cure but then go on to advocate land distribution, which in itself is no cure at all. Such political campaigning does more harm than good, since it spreads confusion and misconception.

Whenever people qualify the term “poverty” by referring to “world poverty”, “child poverty” or “fuel poverty”, beware. There is only one poverty. Considering that Singer has been developing his ideas for so long, his failure to notice the connection between poverty and the restriction of access to land is an indication of a lack of clear thinking. But then Singer was also the author of a book called “Animal Liberation”, which makes him a founding father of the “Animal Rights” movement and the initiator, therefore, of considerable mischief. The harm is this. Through the use of confused arguments, the good principle that animals should not be treated with cruelty has been appropriated by fanatics and in consequence has come to be regarded with cynicism and ridicule in some quarters. It makes one wonder whether Singer’s failure to endorse land value taxation might not be just as well. It also makes one question the quality of thinking in the leading universities in the USA.

New York Times review