Once upon a time, I started university with the very practical ambition of becoming a philosopher. As you might expect, many people asked me “why?” and like any good philosopher, I was able to reply with an answer that wasn’t really an answer (“why not?”). I’m still waiting for my first paycheck for all the philosophical work I’ve conducted over the years. Perhaps it got lost in the mail.
Philosophy, while not contributing to my finances (yet), has made a considerable difference with understanding the role of foreign aid and my place inside that framework as someone who has in the past, is currently, and plans to continue to work in non-governmental organizations (NGOs). This sort of second-guessing of my career path started with the reactions I get when I tell people that I’m working for an international NGO. There is a broad spectrum of reactions, but there tend to be three general categories: (1) enthusiastic “oh that’s great that you’re helping people!”, (2) dubious “why would you do that? What can you do to help?” and the cringe-worthy (3) “why can’t they fix their own country?”
In my experience, reactions tend to vary depending on the media the person consumes, their age group, and their level of optimism and enthusiasm for our increasingly connected global community.
As a human, my natural inclination is to sort the responses into categories of “good reaction” and “bad reaction”, followed by judging “good person” or “bad person”. But I think that is the wrong approach to take. There’s nothing wrong with being critical about who we give aid to, when we give aid to them, and most importantly, why. In fact, blindly believing anything about aid (whether you think aid is a bad thing or a good thing) is problematic.
It’s important to consider the values and attitudes that underpin foreign aid, as well as the social, political, and moral implications of aid. Only then can we understand the potentially harmful effects of foreign aid and ensure we’re taking the right actions for the right reasons.
This may surprise you (or not, depending on how attentive you were during your “Philosophy 101” courses) but philosophers are not all old dead white men in togas. Some are alive old white men and if you are quiet and patient enough, you just might see one in his natural habitat, lecturing from incomprehensible old dusty textbooks or giving a TED talk. One such creature is Peter Singer, a contemporary philosopher from Australia. He gives the following thought experiment:
Imagine you are walking in a park where there is a shallow pond. Suddenly, you see a child in the pond who is drowning. Do you (a) keep walking or (b) jump in and save the child?
Most people have the moral intuition that (b) is the correct response.
Now, imagine the same situation but you are wearing a new pair of expensive shoes. Do you (a) keep walking and keep your new shoes in perfect condition or (b) jump in, save the child, and ruin the shoes?
Again, most people (myself included) feel quite strongly that (b) is the correct response. I feel morally obligated to save the child, regardless of the effect on my new shoes.
However, if a child is dying from an easily preventable disease like malaria in a distant country, I don’t feel any moral obligation to save that child. But why not? What is the difference between these two cases? Is it because the child dying from a preventable disease is far away, and the child drowning in the shallow pond is near?
Singer argues that distance to the person who needs saving shouldn’t matter, not in the moral sense. It’s simply not morally relevant. Therefore, if you decide not to donate the $5 necessary to give one child a bed net to protect against mosquitoes in a different country, I’m effectively doing the same as walking past the child drowning in the shallow pond. Worse, if I decide to use the $5 to buy a new pair of shoes, I’m deciding not to save the dying child because I don’t want to spoil my new shoes.
For most of us, this seems quite sensible. Saving children is good, letting children die from preventable causes is bad. However, the analogy doesn’t have a one-to-one relationship with reality. For instance, the child drowning in the shallow pond is only one child who has accidentally fallen into the pond one time. Poverty doesn’t affect only one child, it affects a huge number of people in a variety of situations. Roughly half the world — over three billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day (Shah, 2013). Identifying the cause of vulnerability and addressing sustainable increases to income is essential, but also incredibly difficult. Distance from the problem, it seems, is not morally relevant, but it is relevant in a practical sense.
Failing to understand the underlying sources of poverty and focusing only on surface-level analyses is not enough to address poverty. Deeper considerations of the political, social, and environmental context must be made.
As a general rule, philosophers are great at asking questions but terrible at answering them so, even though my degree still proudly proclaims that I am a philosopher, I can’t give you answers to questions about our moral obligation to help people experiencing poverty. But I hope this discussion at least gives you something to mull over the next time you’re faced with a charity donation collection dish.
- Shah, A. (2013) Poverty Facts and Stats — Global Issues. [online] Available at: http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats [Accessed 27 Nov. 2018].
- Singer, P. (1997). The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle. [online] Utilitarian.net. Available at: https://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/199704–.htm [Accessed 11 Dec. 2018].