Is it immoral to ignore people 2

Millions live in poverty and we still buy a television. Is that justifiable?

He's been donating up to half his income for 20 years and thinks we should all do that: The Australian philosopher Peter Singer thinks: Money that you don't really need should be given to the poor. His book "The Life You Can Save" was published ten years ago. Now it has been reissued. In the STANDARD interview, Singer, who initiated the animal rights movement and effective altruism, explains his vision of a moral life.

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DEFAULT: They say most people live immorally. Why?

Singer: The standard of living in the west has risen a lot. We buy a lot of things that we really don't need. At the same time, there are 700 or 800 million people living in extreme poverty. To live an ethical life, it is not enough that I don't hurt or cheat anyone. We have to do something to help those who live in more difficult conditions.


Singer: That comes on top of that. We have the opportunity to do that today. In the past, we knew relatively little about what happened in distant places. Now there is the internet and we have a lot of information about which organizations are really effective at helping. Our morals developed at a time when none of this existed.

DEFAULT: An example of this, please.

Singer: If a girl drowns in a pond, we would consider it wrong to just move on. We have to help! Even when our clothes get dirty. There are children in the world who die who would not have to die if we would help. For example, if we would send money to distribute malaria bed nets or to treat drinking water so that children do not get diarrhea and die. Psychologically, this is different from the drowning child before our eyes. But my argument is that ethically, it's the same.

DEFAULT: If you accept your morals, what conclusions do you draw from them?

Singer: If you want to do everything you can, then the right thing to do would be to stop spending money on luxuries. But that's too radical a requirement to convince people. If you donate five percent of your income, that's not a big cut for most people. The money should not go to any NGOs, but to those with very effective programs. There is a lot of research on this that can be found on the internet at and If everyone did that, we could radically reduce or eliminate extreme poverty in the world.

DEFAULT: How do you do that?

Singer: At the end of the year, my wife and I will see how we are financially. Then we decide how much to donate. We just did that. In the past 20 years that has always been at least a third to half of our income. Then we look at the latest research on which NGOs are effective. We donate to Give Directly, the Against Malaria Foundation and Oxfam.

DEFAULT: For many, the expensive vacation, the beautiful car or the good restaurant are part of life and the social environment. Don't people themselves know best what is right for them?

Singer: I do not believe that. There's a huge advertising industry out there that convinces us to buy things we don't need. There is psychological research that shows that this doesn't make us happy in the long run. When we do good and help others, on the other hand, it does increase satisfaction. It's also about not being influenced by those around you. Or maybe even find one that shares the same values. This is why the movement of effective altruism is so important. All over the world there are groups who exchange ideas and try what I am talking about. That frees you from the consumption trap.

DEFAULT: There is government development policy. Why is it the job of the individual?

Singer: Ideally, that would be solved simply with a tax, yes. But that is not the case. The states give too little money. Austria does not even give half of the promised development aid. The money does not always go to the poorest either. We can be politically active. But until that changes, we as individuals also have responsibility.

DEFAULT: Poverty is a political, a social problem, not a technical one. We can vaccinate, deworm, distribute nets. But the most important reason for poverty is local, institutional. Is there limited outside funding?

Singer: It is true that institutional factors contribute to poverty. But they are very difficult to change. I don't know what we can do to improve the situation in the Congo. But in the meantime, the Against Malaria Foundation is distributing bed nets there to keep people from getting malaria. That may not mean that while these factors exist, poverty will be eliminated. You are right there. It's a shame that we can't do more. But that's no reason to say that we can't help people at all.

DEFAULT: Outside help can also backfire. One criticism is that NGOs may undermine local health care in the long term because they do not develop their own structures.

Singer: I know these theories, but I don't see the evidence. There is a study that looked at what happens when development aid is reduced. The countries are then worse off, not better. As long as there is not much evidence that this does not happen, further help should be given. Otherwise it would be a game with people's lives.

DEFAULT: Effective altruism seeks to express effect precisely in numbers. That works with a worming pill. But what if an NGO subtly influences politics over decades like Amnesty?

Singer: That's true. You can easily evaluate NGOs that only do one thing, like handing out bed nets. It's more difficult at Oxfam. For example, you have helped NGOs in Ghana get the government to pay out the money from new oil and gas fields to poor farmers. It worked and brought tens of millions for these people. The campaign cost maybe $ 200,000. But you can't measure that so precisely with every campaign. But if you manage such large chunks, then that is worth supporting even without precise impact measurement.

DEFAULT: You talk a lot about donations and little about politics. It has great leverage in climate, migration and trade policy.

Singer: Many people feel powerless there. I am not advocating not being politically active. Climate change is having a major impact on the poorest. We should all be politically active. My home country Australia has terrible climate policy. I'm trying to influence that. But with my donations, I am more certain that it will bring something.

DEFAULT: If you want to donate as much as you do, how do you start?

Singer: For some, it's hard to believe that anything meaningful will happen to the donations. But there have been people for a long time who are concerned with how we can best help. If it is difficult, you can start slowly. Like running. Some strive to trump their best times. This is how you can do it here: Donate a little something. Is there more next year? Most people who do it are pretty happy to help others afterward.

If you liked the article, sign up for the newsletter. I will write to you when a new one appears in the series. (Andreas Sator, December 22nd, 2019)

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