What Do We Owe the Bottom Billion?
Thursday, February 18, 2010
Princeton philosopher Peter Singer has been a prominent, often controversial, figure. His most recent book, The Life You Can Save, looks at the responsibilities of individuals for addressing global poverty.
Q: You have written that in addition to an obligation to not harm, we also have an obligation to help. Could you explain that?
It’s a mistake to think that our obligations are only to do no harm. I use the example of the drowning child in the pond. If you were walking through a park and came across a child drowning in a shallow pond, you knew you could save the child by wading into the pond and nothing would happen to you except that you would ruin the expensive shoes that you’re wearing, what’s the right thing to do? Everyone would say, you ought to save the child. It’s agreed that if you just walked past saying “I don’t want to spoil my shoes,” you’ve done something seriously wrong.
That’s an example of the idea that you can do something wrong by not helping. Although that’s not exactly the same situation with children dying of poverty-related causes in the world, I think there is a parallel that holds sufficiently to say we ought to be doing something to help those children.
Q: What is the role of business people?
I’d like to see a program of workplace giving specifically to relieve global poverty. Companies could have a line on the forms presented to new employees saying it’s the company’s policy to donate some percentage of employee salaries – it might just be a quarter of one percent – to aid the world’s poor, but if you don’t want to do that, then tick this box. That arrangement preserves freedom of choice, but the effectiveness of simply reversing the default, so that you give unless you opt out, is enormous. This sort of behavioral economics was the subject of a recent book by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, Nudge.
If corporations then match all donations, I think that would set an excellent example. It would get employees thinking more about global poverty. And it would also help create the feeling that the company is an ethical enterprise doing its part to solve world problems, which has been shown to have a beneficial effect on the morale of the workforce and on things like workforce retention.