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Humility Kills

Peter Singer is routinely described as "the most influential living philosopher" and occasionally as "the most dangerous man in the world," so it's with much giddiness that we introduce him for a second time as a contributor to Jewcy. The … Read More

By / May 24, 2007

Peter Singer is routinely described as "the most influential living philosopher" and occasionally as "the most dangerous man in the world," so it's with much giddiness that we introduce him for a second time as a contributor to Jewcy.

The background: Jewcy Senior Editor Joey Kurtzman recently paid enthusiastic tribute to his own $1000 contribution to the anti-poverty campaign Idol Gives Back, and railed against the expectation that charity should be given quietly and anonymously. Joey claimed this was "destructive nonsense" and "insufferable twaddle" foisted upon us by Jesus, Maimonides, et al. Instead, charity ought to be given publicly and "with a sneer at the lowly neighbors," because extreme poverty can be whipped if middle-class people would come to regard charitable contributions as a source of status and an opportunity for "conspicuous consumption." 

The response was mixed. "What a pretentious douchebag!" observed one commenter. "Hope you get a brain tumor and die while spasming and foaming at the mouth uncontrollably," noted another.

But Singer was more sympathetic to Joey's argument. He weighs in now.

 

Joey Kurtzman has made a significant point in his post titled “I Donated $1000 to American Idol. But You, You're Trash.”

Many of us already know that more than 10 million children die every year from avoidable, poverty-related causes. (That’s 27,000 a day, almost ten times the number of casualties in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.) Some of us might even be dimly aware, when we ponder what type of iPod to buy, that a billion people have less to live on for an entire year than we are contemplating spending more on a totally frivolous consumer toy.

Yet widespread extreme poverty is not inevitable. A UN task force led by Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs recently estimated the cost of achieving the Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000. On that occasion, the largest gathering of world leaders in history jointly pledged to meet, by 2015, a list of goals that include:

  • Reducing by half the proportion of the world’s people in extreme poverty (defined as living on less than the purchasing-power equivalent of one U.S. dollar per day).
  • Reducing by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.
  • Ensuring that children everywhere are able to take a full course of primary schooling.
  • Ending sex disparity in education.
  • Reducing by two-thirds the mortality rate among children under 5.
  • Reducing by three-quarters the rate of maternal mortality.
  • Halting and beginning to reverse the spread of H.I.V./AIDS and halting and beginning to reduce the incidence of malaria and other major diseases.
  • Reducing by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.

The cost, according to his Sachs and his colleagues, is between $121 billion and $189 billion per year between now and 2015. Since there are roughly a billion affluent people in the world, the math is not too difficult. If we each gave $200 a year, we could pull it off.

Unfortunately, we are not doing that. Isn’t that just plain morally wrong? How can we defend spending money on luxuries for ourselves when that same money could save the lives of sick kids, get a few years schooling for children who otherwise will have none, and help women to control their fertility so that they can give all of their children a decent shot at a good life? The problem is that we don’t see it as wrong to give nothing or next to nothing to NGOs working for poverty relief. Somehow we think morality is all about how truthful we are, how good a friend or partner we are, maybe who we sleep with, or what substances we put into our bodies, and not about how many kids we save from dying of malaria or diarrhea.

So Joey is right to point out that if this situation is ever going to change, we need to start talking openly about it. It’s time to stop being so reverential towards those remarks of Jesus and Maimonides about giving anonymously or not blowing our own trumpet. Sure, we don’t want to humiliate those to whom we give, or make them feel that they are indebted to us, but the world has got so much bigger than it was when Jesus and Maimonides were around, so that’s not really a problem any more.

At the moment, many people would feel strange about giving away, say, 10 percent of their income to fight global poverty. Talking about it may make that seem a more normal thing to do, and would encourage others to do the same. It may also make people realize that it’s not really a sacrifice. You probably will enjoy life just as much with a little less money – in fact you will probably enjoy it more, because you will feel good about yourself and what you are doing.

That’s not to say we have to be distastefully boastful about it… but yes, if you are living comfortably while others are hungry or dying from easily preventable diseases, and you are doing nothing about it, there is something wrong with your behavior.

Want to know more about what you can do? My favorite poverty-fighting NGO is Oxfam. Check out www.oxfam.org or www.oxfamamerica.org

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