A few months back, I read an article by Peter Singer, the Princeton philosophy professor, arguing that the major ethical demand of our time is to feed the hungry and provide for the basic needs of the world's poor. Singer maintained that since the average American family can get by on $30,000 a year, each has a moral obligation to give any earnings above that amount to anti-hunger charities.
So a family earning $50,000 a year should give $20,000 to, say, Oxfam America. If they earn $100,000, they should donate $70,000. In Singer's view, to spend $100 on a restaurant meal for two when others are starving is not only immoral but tantamount to watching someone die and doing nothing to help. As resistant as I am to Singer's thinking--I certainly don't want to give away so much of my income to charity--his logic seems compelling, doesn't it?
--Guilty and Well Fed
Dear Guilty and Well Fed,
Having also read Peter Singer's argument that people are morally obligated to donate a substantial part, and perhaps most, of their earnings to the poor ("The Singer Solution to World Poverty," The New York Times Magazine), I'm not persuaded.
First, it seems to me that an ethical argument detailing human obligations must also take into account human nature. And this is precisely what Singer is ignoring. In effect, what he's asking people to do, once their earnings exceed a certain level, is to work full-time on behalf of strangers. Other than to practice the most extraordinary and unusual altruism, what would motivate a person to earn more than $30,000, since anything over that would, in effect, be "taxed" at 100 percent? Because many people would rather relax than work, it seems to me that Singer's proposal would discourage human initiative.
|In Singer's no-frills world, no one would eat out except at greasy spoons, no one would go to the opera or the theater, and no one would matriculate at fancy schools like Princeton.|
Second, once one accepts Singer's premise that people are morally obligated to donate excess income to the needy, there's no end to the demands one can make of people. For example, Singer chooses to earn his living as a philosopher at Princeton. I have no idea what he's earning there, but let's guess it's $90,000 a year. Let's also say that if Professor Singer were to become a commodities broker, he could earn $300,000 a year. By his reasoning, it seems to me that he would be obligated to take whatever job paid the most, so that he would be in a position to help more of those people who might otherwise starve. After all, what moral right should one have to practice the profession one wants if, by practicing another, more people's lives could be saved?
I have yet another objection to Singer's reasoning, one suggested by radio talk show host Dennis Prager. If Singer's thinking were to become popular, the upshot would be a significant rise in unemployment. In Singer's no-frills world, no one would eat out except at greasy spoons, no one would go to the opera or the theater, and no expensive fountain pens would be made. And, for sure, no one would matriculate at fancy schools like Princeton, where annual tuition and expenses alone would eat up the $30,000 a year that we're supposed to live on.
It so happens that many, many people work in jobs creating items that are not essential for survival. In Singer's scenario, all such businesses would close up, the workers would be discharged (and might find themselves in need of charity), and all luxury items would eventually disappear from the face of the earth.
What would be the upshot of Singer's plan to cure world hunger? A world in which most people, deprived of material rewards for working harder, might well work less (and therefore have less income to give away), a world in which people would be morally obligated to make career decisions based on pay and not on personal desire, and a world in which all goods beyond life's basic necessities would be viewed as decadent and immoral.
A wise principle in Jewish law, the religious tradition with which I'm most familiar, states that "a decree may not be imposed on the community unless the majority can bear it." Thus, a person should give at least 10 percent of his or her net income to charity, but not more than 20 percent, lest the giver become poor. Obviously, there are people who can afford to give more than 20 percent and still remain wealthy, but they are the exceptions.
It strikes me as both more moral and more helpful to the hungry to make reasonable demands of people (demands that insist on far higher levels of giving than is the prevailing norm) than it is to make utopian demands that will be ignored--and that will produce some very unpleasant side effects.
Having said that, I think we should thank Professor Singer for prompting people to think about whether they should give more to charities that help the truly needy. I have long been moved by the words of the great Christian thinker C.S. Lewis, who wrote in " Mere Christianity": "If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditures exclude them."
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Joseph Telushkin, a rabbi and Beliefnet columnist, is the author of 10 books, including "The Book of Jewish Values," just out from Bell Tower/Crown.