Thursday, February 05, 2009

Peter Singer Lecture in Brisbane

This evening I joined several hundred others attending a lecture by the philosopher Peter Singer. Singer was speaking at a Brisbane 2009 Ideas Festival event at the State Library of Queensland. The event was timed to launch his new book "The life you can save: Acting now to end world poverty". The book is about what people in the Western world should be doing about the crisis of the extreme poor.

The 62 year old Australian born Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University's Centre for Human Values. He also lectures at the University of Melbourne's Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. Introducing him tonight, the Vice Chancellor of Griffith University Professor Ian O’Connor described him as “one of Australia’s greatest thinkers” and someone who in his 25 books has set the agenda in ethics and causes his audience to ponder their own role in the global community. O’Connor said there was a congruence in his material and the way Singer lives his own life and all royalties from the sale of the new book were going to Oxfam.

Singer then took the stage and said he was honoured to speak at the first public event of this year’s ideas festival. He said his contribution would be a discussion of what our obligations are to those people living in extreme poverty. Singer said this was something he had thought about all his professional life. He tackled the subject in one of his earliest articles “Famine, Affluence and Morality” (ppt) which was published in the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs in 1972 and said it was a “novel idea at the time” for philosophers to tackle the issues of the day.

The article was published just twelve months after the crisis in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) which was agitating for independence from the western wing. Millions fled the violence into India which at the time did not have the resources to feed them. The richer nations were not giving nearly enough to sustain them. At the time Singer was living in Oxford and employed by the University. He felt that by giving money to Oxfam, he personally could do something to help the Bangladeshi people who were in “desperate straits”. This began a lifelong commitment of giving to the aid agency.

Meanwhile the 1972 article began to be discussed and its ideas reprinted elsewhere. It kicked off a debate that Singer followed closely. He returned to the topic in his 1979 book Practical Ethics. More recently he realised that the issue had risen in the public consciousness and that given the amount of recent literature he would devote an entire book to the subject. Singer said “the time was right” to bring attention to the matter as the capacity of the developed world to combat poverty had drastically increased in the last 30 years.

Singer then challenged the assumption that think global poverty is always going to be with us and there is not much we can do about it. However the World Bank (which defines extreme poverty as living on $1.25 or less a day) says that in the last 30 years the proportion of the world’s poor has halved from 40 percent of the total population to 20 percent.

These people have no buffer for when things go wrong. All it takes is a poor harvest or an illness in the family to push them over the edge. The most heartbreaking aspect of this poverty, said Singer, is knowing a child is sick and a cure is available but not being able to afford it, or travel to where the cure is available. The lack of a small amount of money can ruin lives. This is where the West can make a difference, says Singer. Everyone he meets in the US or Australia has spare resources. “If you drink bottled water or juice wherever there is a tap, then you are spending money on luxuries,” he said. "We all have the capacity to contribute to organisations that promote sustainable development and help people get out of poverty in their own ways".

Singer then addressed the question of how much money people should donate. Should they donate all of their discretionary spend, or keep going until they themselves are on the poverty line? That would be heroic, he said, “but not something I would do myself”. Singer suggested that those earning up to $105,000 a year should donate one percent of their income. Above that it should be scalable; beginning at five percent while those above $250,000 should donate 10 percent. He said that if this scale was commonplace, it would easily raise the amount economist Jeffrey Sachs said would be needed for the world to meet the UN Millennium Development goals established in 2000 which aimed to halve world poverty by 2015.

Singer urged Australians to go to the website associated with the new book where they could pledge to meet the standard donation based on their income bracket. Singer said a hundred people had already pledged (and there were 149 at the time of writing a few hours later) and he expects this number to grow exponentially as the book is released in the US next month and Europe in the months after. By pledging, Singer said, people will also help change the public standard of what is involved in living an ethical life in a world of great affluence and extreme poverty.

Singer concluded his talk by taking questions from the floor. One person asked why he concentrated on individual donations and not those of governments. Singer responded by saying that while Australia’s aid budget had gone up from 30c to 32c in every $100 under the current government, it was still below the pre-election pledge of 50c, and well below the $1 donated by the likes of Sweden. Government aid is often also tied to conditions or goods and services purchased in the country and is also usually locally directed. Australia, for example, gives hardly any aid to sub-Saharan Africa. By contrast, individual aid to NGOs is usually better targetted.

Another good question related to motivation: why should I donate? Singer said that some people donate because “it is the right thing to do”. Others want to prevent bad things from happening the world. He also cited Henry Sidgwick’s “point of view of the universe” which enables people to lift themselves out of their own perspective. Finally he acknowledged an egoistic element in that helping others gives people’s own lives meaning. Singer called this practice “enlightened self-interest”.

Another questioner asked Singer whether anyone in Australia qualifies in the category of “extreme poverty”. Singer said no, even the poorest here are entitled to financial support. There is a social security net that provides a certain standard of health care, safe drinking water, and shelter. Together these entitlements put them above the extreme poverty line. The extremely poor are mostly in Africa (50 per cent of the total population) and also in the South Asia sub-continent (33 per cent – but largest overall in absolute numbers). The very poor, as UNICEF states, “die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world.” Singer is on a mission to change that.


Paul said...

I have the greatest respect for Peter Singer. He is one of our greatest thinkers. So I read your article with a sense of anticipation. Only to be disappointed, I'm afraid. The solution to world poverty is not generosity. That is an infinite well that the best will in the world won't fill. The solution is a fundamental change in the world is organised, a radical redistribution of wealth and an acknowledgement that there will be no peace without justice.

Derek Barry said...


Excellent points and I certainly see where you are coming from. But how is that "radical redistribution of wealth" supposed to occur?

A worldwide revolution of the poor is unlikely, and self-interested governments are not going to vote away the financial rights of those that elected them.

At least Singer is proposing practical (albeit optimistic) measures which if embraced on a viral level have the potential to tackle known metrics such as the Millennium development goals (and yes, I admit they are flawed).

While he didn't address in the speech last night, I also believe Singer is aware of the nexus between peace and justice. He is not suggested that generosity be a salve for the failure to act politically. In fact, I would argue that those who might take up Singer's pledge are more likely to demand that their governments do likewise.

Anonymous said...

I was disappointed that I missed Peter's lecture, but I am hoping to see him at the Idea's Festival in March!

I think Peter will be remembered as a very important philosopher for a very long time. 'Writings On an Ethical Life' is one of the best books of the century.

Anonymous said...

I was also at the lecture and think your blog did an excellent job of providing an overview.
Unfortunately, Peter Singer will not be part of the Brisbane Ideas Festival in March but other interesting speakers will.

Intercept said...

I'm Australian like Peter,I like the confronting approach. I believe he is doing much to open a 'real conversation' and to 'intercept selfinterest'. However the solution I see is actually the following: Problem solving savvy, combined with enterprise thinking combined with replicable models. I call this the combination of Social Entrepreneurship and Micro Franchising. There will always been crisis where immediate solutions are needed and our organisatio actually engages in raising funds for some specific needs.

But beyond the short term, in the long term - How to do this? For instance, Australian Franchisors could do some intellectual property sharing and develop annexe brands to what they have already developed. I.e. Workforce extensions, or labour hire, or book keeping or tutoring etc etc. Then, they could share intellecutal property in what Intercept calls 'Eternal Enterprise' Centres on the ground in local underdeveloped communities. Foster self reliance, economically and emotionally. This grows dignity and grows skill that third world environments do not have. Modelling a culture in developing nations of look for / train for a job is not the answer. Teach them to own, run and replicate the business, not look for job. Enterprise is our way through this. But this takes will and a care factor from enterprising public and enterprising private sector business leaders and their innovative teams. I often ask CEO's how much is enough. When a business leader can define the 'cap' to their success and know when their cup is full, then the balance can be shared. The cup may be full of resources such as; ideas, intellectual property, discretionary time, effort and energy not necessarily money. This is a generational challenge, it is also cultural on both the part of the developing mentor and the underdeveloped commumity - mentoree. It will take time and committment, it will take leadership in action. And, it is a sustainable way forward. More resource on this at examples of successful micro-franchises already working in the world and also I have just written an article for business franchise magazine in Australia which touches on these issues. Peter's book helps in having the real converstion in the mainstream. Thank-you Peter and thank you Woolly Days. Tanya Lacy