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Ernesto Rodriguez

Philosophy 12: Ethics

Summer 2004

 

Final Question 8

 

As an ethical theorist what does Singer say about poverty, refugees and the environment? Explain his position in each of these areas. Do you agree with his positions here? If so, what can you personally do to make a difference in these areas.

 

Singer begins his section on poverty by defining the idea of “absolute” poverty. By drawing this distinction between relative, controversial poverty and true, inarguable poverty; Singer is able to isolate the ethical issue from other political issues that might obscure the argument. Singer attributes the problem to the inefficient practices of feeding grain to animals which western culture use for food.

 

Singer makes an interesting, if not alarming statement: “If, then, allowing someone to die is not intrinsically different from killing someone, it would seem that we are all murderers” (Singer, 222). He takes five points which would normally lead us to believe that buying a stereo is not tantamount to murder and contests them. The first point and third points are that we are not deliberately killing people by enforcing absolute poverty on them, nor can we be certain that we are directly causing a death. Singer agrees that this ethically contradicts his claim, but adds that it “could” be comparable to killing someone as a result of reckless driving. The second point is that it is easier to abide by rules that prohibit killing people than it is to abide by rules that mandate continuously saving people. Singer argues that this still does not prove that the act is not ethically wrong. The fourth point is that our “victims” are not immediately identifiable, which Singer refutes by saying that this fact has no moral significance. The fifth point is that since we did not create absolute poverty, we are not responsible for the deaths that result from it. Singer in turn, argues that this is relative to our definitions of responsibility and neglect.

 

I am inclined to ask which came first, Singer’s premises or his conclusion? I ask because it would seem that Singer went to great lengths to construct the premises supporting his argument. In reading Singer my mind reverts back to a statement I read from Nietzsche about the natural biases of the philosopher, that “most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract – that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact.” In light of this I would venture to say that Singer had already decided on his conclusion, and then spent long nights devising premises to support it.

 

I would argue that it is an act of compassion for wealthier nations to provide aid to those underdeveloped nations. Likewise, if a person should elect to donate their wages (we should stop looking at money as something that falls out of the sky) then they should do so out of their own sense of morality and compassion and be commended accordingly.  I cannot agree with Singer’s claim that to spend money (wages?) on a stereo is the equivalent of murder. Furthermore I would ask Singer that if I were to quit my job today and cease to earn wages, if he would consider that murder as well (If I do not work I cannot donate, thus by Singer’s logic someone will die because of my idleness). Looking at my life as a student, and the ways in which I can invest my time, time becomes equal to money. I could go so far as to say that the time spent reading his book, Practical Ethics, could have been spent earning more money to donate to third world countries, and thus would result in someone’s death. So, by Singer’s own logic, was reading his book not essentially murder as well? If so I dearly empathize the poor souls that I killed by reading Practical Ethics.