It's unethical not to give in recession

Author Peter Singer

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: In the final stop of his trip to Africa today, Pope Benedict called on the rest of the world to share the earth's natural resources more fairly. Remembering the continent's poor was a main theme of his week-long visit. It's especially easy to forget the needy when the economy slows down. Bioethicist Peter Singer says in his latest book, "The Life You Can Save" it's called, that not only should we give more in a recession, it's unethical not to. I asked him for an example.

PETER SINGER: You're walking across a park, and you see a small child fall in a pond. The child might drown in the pond if you don't rescue the child because nobody else is around. So of course you jump in. And you jump in even if you're wearing your most expensive shoes, and you know they will get ruined. If that's just something we will automatically take for granted as the right thing to do, then at the very least you should give up the equivalent of the cost of a pair of expensive shoes to save a child's life. And I don't think it makes any difference if the child is there in front of you, or the child is somewhere in Africa or India.

Ryssdal: You actually make the point that this particular moment in history is a pretty good time to be thinking about helping the really, really poor.

SINGER: I think it is. I think that despite the economic downturn we have the capacity now to make great inroads into the number of people who have to live in extreme poverty. I think we have the means, and we're developing the knowledge of how to do that. And I think the economic downturn actually might lead us to think more about underlying values. I think a lot people are saying, well they're starting to reevaluate the importance of what they're spending money on, and maybe to think about ethical values, and of course, that's what I'm all about.

Ryssdal: You actually lay it on, and I don't want to mischaracterize this, but you make a very strong and a very pointed argument that it's unethical, really, not to give if you have the means.

SINGER: I think we have to accept that in a world in which there are a billion people living in such extreme poverty, that they may not be able to feed their children, or may not be able to get basic health care for them, or send them to school, and another billion people, that's most of us, who have a level of comfort that really throughout history people have not had before. I think it's unethical for us not to accept some responsibility.

Ryssdal: So how do we do it so that it makes a difference?

SINGER: According to the estimates that are around by people like Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia University economist, it's not really going to cost us a fortune to make substantial progress on this. In the book, I try to calculate some levels that seem to me realistic, starting with just one percent for people on an average American income, and then moving up to five and then 10 percent if you're earning more.

Ryssdal: So let me ask you this. Is $1 given to the arts in Kansas City not as good as $1 given to eliminating roda virus in Africa?

SINGER: It's not. I think the arts are a good thing. But you shouldn't think of it in the same way. If you think of it, the world is one in which children are dying, and not just children, adults too, but according to UNICEF, it gives us figures on the number of children dying, it says 27,000 children die every day from avoidable poverty-related causes. If we can do something about that, isn't that much more important than Kansas City getting a new art museum, or a nice, new concert hall?

Ryssdal: It's a question, though, of not only ethics and morality but political will I suppose, both individually and on the larger scale nationally.

SINGER: It is. I'm focusing on the individual level because I do think it's going to be difficult politically to change. I mean, I hope that President Obama will keep the pledge he made as a candidate to increase U.S. foreign aid. I hope also he will make it a lot more effective and a lot more targeted to where the world's poor really are. But in the meantime, there's no barrier to stop individuals from saying I can contribute my share.

Ryssdal: Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. His most recent book is called "The Life You Can Save." Professor Singer thanks so much for your time.

SINGER: Thank You. It's been good talking with you.

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