generosity poverty

Saving lives

Guest post by Steve at Next Starfish

Imagine you are walking to work and see a toddler flailing about in a pond, drowning. No one else is around to help. Without any risk to yourself you can easily wade in a few steps and pull the child to safety and save its life.

Surely none of us would ignore the child’s cries and carry on to work ?

But what if you’re wearing brand new shoes – they’d be ruined by the muddy water. Would you still rescue the child ? Again surely all of us would say ‘yes, of course – a child’s life is worth far more than a pair of shoes !’

This is the question posed by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer in his powerful work The Life You Can Save.

But he’s not posing it in some abstract way, like some kind of ethics problem thought-experiment.

Every day tens of thousands of children die from preventable illnesses across the world, all with poverty as their root cause.

Just giving a small amount, about the cost of a pair of shoes, can really save a life. And if we gave more, we’d save and change more lives.

So why don’t we ?

Most of us like to think of ourselves favourably: as moral, ethical, fair – yet every day we fritter away some of our wealth on things we clearly don’t really need. Singer uses the example of buying bottled water, even though we have perfectly safe water available from our taps for a tiny fraction of the price. By making one choice rather than another, it could be argued we are choosing to let more children die! Is that the right way to think about it ? Is it as simple a moral choice as that ?

This is a relatively modern dilemma. Before the Second World War there was little general awareness of extreme poverty elsewhere in the world, and virtually no prospect of doing anything about it. But things have changed.

Now we live in an age of global media and communications. The world is connected. We know where the poverty is – we watch the news reports, see the photos and read the harrowing stories. Global media and the internet can put it in front of your eyes with just a couple of clicks.

And we now have the means to make a difference – food, clean water, santitation, vaccines and medical care. Even distance is not the problem it used to be – there isn’t anywhere on the planet we cannot deliver aid and humanitarian support in the matter of a few days.

The rich world is richer now than its ever been – even if it doesn’t feel like it for many of us right at the moment.

Does our self interest and limited and begrudging response to the plight of others make us monsters ?

I don’t know. I’ve no answers. I donate a percentage of my income to various good causes, but like everyone else, I could clearly give more. I don’t have such a clear vision of what living a moral and ethical life now entails. Should I give 1% of my income, 10%, 25%, or even everything I don’t need to keep a roof over my own families head and food on the table ?

We must decide for ourselves what is the right thing to do.

We have our reasons. We are angry that some of what we give is wasted by corruption or inefficiency. We might feel reluctant to give ‘more than our fair share’. We empathise more with those nearest to us, or most like us – and might sometimes feel that ‘charity should begin at home’ as a result. We might even feel that people and countries are somehow often to blame for their plight – perhaps because of war. Or we might struggle with the feeling that we’ve been here many times before, poverty is never ending and we could give everything we have and it still wouldn’t make a difference.

Of course there are many questions and concerns about how aid is delivered and how we can best help, in both the long term as well as the short. But we should be on guard against using these concerns as excuses to do nothing, or little. Perhaps WE should also do more to fight corruption, or to encourage others to give, perhaps by supporting tax funded national giving more vocally ?

Perhaps we should also occasionally point out that being generous to others has been shown to raise oxytocin levels (the love hormone) – and so giving, might just prove to be better than receiving after all !

Why people are generous or not is the subject of a lot of study. The economist John A List, has carried out research that seems to show that a good proportion of people who give, are mainly motivated simply by not wanting to seem mean in comparison to others – no one wants to seem mean.

Perhaps those of us who do give more substantially and regularly, should be a little more open about it, rather than keeping our giving quiet and private – not to ‘big-up’ ourselves, but to help create a social culture where giving is normal and expected.

There is something even more important we can do – the more we become familiar with the lives and concerns of the poor, both in our own communities and across the world, the more compassionate and caring we will inevitably become.

It’s hard not to care about another human being once you’ve met them.

Or as Mother Theresa put it:

“Today it has become fashionable to talk about the poor, but it’s not so fashionable to talk to them”

1 comment

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