Suppose that on my way to give a lecture I pass a shallow ornamental pond, and notice that a small child has fallen in and is in danger of drowning. Would anyone deny that I ought to wade in and pull the child out? This will mean getting my clothes muddy, ruining my shoes, and either cancelling my lecture or delaying it until I can find something dry to change into; but compared with the avoidable death of a child none of these things are significant.
A plausible principle that would support the judgment that I ought to pull the child out is this: if it is in our power to prevent something very bad happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it. This principle seems uncontroversial. It will obviously win the assent of consequentialists (those who think we ought to do whatever would have the best consequences); but nonconsequentialists should accept it too, because the injunction to prevent what is bad applies only when nothing comparably significant is at stake. Thus the principle cannot lead to the kinds of actions of which non‑consequentialists strongly disapprove ‑ serious violations of individual rights, injustice, broken promises, and so on. If non‑consequentialists regard any of these as comparable in moral significance to the bad thing that is to be prevented, they will automatically regard the principle as not applying in those cases in which the bad thing can only be prevented by violating rights, doing injustice, breaking promises, or whatever else is at stake. Most non‑consequentialists hold that we ought to prevent what is bad and promote what is good. Their dispute with consequentialists lies in their insistence that this is not the sole ultimate ethical principle: that it is an ethical principle is not denied by any plausible ethical theory.
Nevertheless the uncontroversial appearance of the principle that we ought to prevent what is bad when we can do so without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance is deceptive. If it were taken seriously and acted upon, our lives and our world would be fundamentally changed. For the principle applies, not just to rare situations in which one can save a child from a pond, but to the everyday situation in which we can assist those living in absolute poverty. In saying this I assume that absolute poverty, with its hunger and malnutrition, lack of shelter, illiteracy, disease, high infant mortality and low life expectancy, is a bad thing. And I assume that it is within the power of the affluent to reduce absolute poverty, without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance. If these two assumptions and the principle we have been discussing are correct, we have an obligation to help those in absolute poverty that is no less strong than our obligation to rescue a drowning child from a pond. Not to help would be wrong, whether or not it is intrinsically equivalent to killing. Helping is not, as conventionally thought, a charitable act that it is praiseworthy to do, but not wrong to omit. It is something that everyone ought to do.
This is the argument for an obligation to assist. Set out more formally, it would look like this.
First premise: If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we ought to do it.
Second premise: Extreme poverty is bad.
Third premise: There is some extreme poverty we can prevent without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance.
Conclusion: We ought to prevent some extreme poverty.
The first premise is the substantive moral premise on which the argument rests, and I have tried to show that it can be accepted by people who hold a variety of ethical positions.
The second premise is unlikely to be challenged. It would be hard to find a plausible ethical view that did not regard extreme poverty, with the suffering and deaths of both adults and children that it causes, not to mention the lack of education, sense of hopelessness, powerlessness and humiliation that are also its effects, as a bad thing.
The third premise is more controversial, even though it is cautiously framed. It claims only that some extreme poverty can be prevented without the sacrifice of anything of comparable moral significance. It thus avoids the objection that any aid I can give is just `drops in the ocean' for the point is not whether my personal contribution will make any noticeable impression on world poverty as a whole (of course it won't) but whether it will prevent some poverty. This is all the argument needs to sustain its conclusion, since the second premise says that any extreme poverty is bad, and not merely the total amount of extreme poverty. If without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance we can provide just one family with the means to raise itself out of extreme poverty, the third premise is vindicated.
Nevertheless, some will argue that I can’t have any confidence that my donation to an aid organization will save a life, or will help people to lift themselves out of extreme poverty. Often these arguments are based on demonstrably false beliefs, such as the idea that aid organizations use most of the money given to them for administrative costs, so that only a small fraction gets through to the people who need it, or that corrupt governments in developing nations will take the money. In fact, the major aid organizations use no more than 20% of the funds they raise for administrative purposes, leaving at least 80% for the programs that directly help the poor, and they do not donate to governments, but work directly with the poor, or with grassroots organizations in developing countries that have a good record of helping the poor.
Measuring the effectiveness of an aid organization by the extent to which it can reduce its administrative costs is, however, a common mistake. Administrative costs include the salaries of experienced people who can ensure that your donation will fund projects that really help the poor in a sustainable, long-term way. An organization that does not employ such people may have lower administrative costs than one that does, but it will still achieve less with your donation.
GiveWell.net is not an aid organization, but an organization that seeks hard evidence about which organizations are most effective. It has, for example, compared the cost per life saved, of various organizations that work to combat the diseases that kill many of those 8.8 million children who die each year from poverty-related causes. According to GiveWell, there are several organizations that can save a life for somewhere in the range of $600-$1200, and on the GiveWell.net website, you can see which it ranks most highly. Since you can give to one of the top-ranked organizations, it seems clear that the third premise of the argument is true,at for people who spend at least a few hundred dollars a year on things they do not really need. They can save a life, or prevent some extreme poverty, without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance.
I have left the notion of moral significance unexamined in order to show that the argument does not depend on any specific values or ethical principles. I think the third premise is true for most people living in industrialized nations, on any defensible view of what is morally significant. Our affluence means that we have income we can dispose of without giving up the basic necessities of life, and we can use this income to reduce extreme poverty. Just how much we will think ourselves obliged to give up will depend on what we consider to be of comparable moral significance to the poverty we could prevent: stylish clothes, expensive dinners, a sophisticated stereo system, exotic holidays, a luxury car, a larger house, private schools for our children... For a utilitarian, none of these is likely to be of comparable significance to the reduction of extreme poverty; and those who are not utilitarians surely must, if they subscribe to the principle of universalizability, accept that at least some of these things are of far less moral significance than the extreme poverty that could be prevented by the money they cost. So the third premise seems to be true on any plausible ethical view ‑ although the precise amount of extreme poverty that can be prevented before anything of moral significance is sacrificed will vary according to the ethical view one accepts.
There are many possible objections to this argument. The one I take most seriously is that to set so high a standard is likely to be counterproductive. If we argue that people are obliged to give to the point at which by giving more we sacrifice something of comparable moral significance, many will just throw up their hands and say “If that is what morality demands, too bad for morality.”
Is it true that the standard set by our argument is so high as to be counterproductive? There is not much evidence to go by, but discussions of the argument, with students and others have led me to think it might be. On the other hand the conventionally accepted standard ‑ a few coins in a collection tin when one is waved under your nose ‑ is obviously far too low. What level should we advocate? In my book The Life You Can Save – and on the corresponding website, www.thelifeyoucansave.com – I have suggested a progressive scale, like a tax scale. It begins at just 1% of income, and for 90 percent of taxpayers, it does not require giving more than 5%. This is therefore an entirely realistic amount, and one that people could easily give with no sacrifice – and indeed, often with a personal gain, since there are many psychological studies showing that those who give are happier than those who do not. I do not really know if the scale I propose is the one that will, if widely advocated, achieve the greatest total amount donated. But I calculated that if everyone in the affluent world gave according to that scale, it would raise $1.5 trillion dollars each year – which is eight times what the United Nations task force headed by the economist Jeffrey Sachs calculated would be needed to meet the Millennium Development Goals, set by the leaders of all the world’s nations when they met at the UN Millennium Development Summit in 2000. Those goals included reducing by half the proportion of the world’s people living in extreme poverty, and the proportion of people who suffer from hunger, as well as reducing by two-thirds the death toll among children under 5 – thus saving six million lives every year – and enabling children everywhere to have a full course of primary schooling.
This surprising outcome – that if everyone with abundance were to contribute to the effort to reduce extreme poverty and all that goes with it, the amount each of us would need to give would be quite modest – shows that the argument with which this essay began is demanding only because so few of those with the ability to help the poor are doing anything significant to help them. We do not need to transfer half, or a quarter, or even a tenth, of the wealth of the rich to the poor. If few are helping, those few have to cut very deep before they get to the point at which giving more would involve sacrificing something of comparable moral significance to the life saved by their gift. But if we all, or even most of us, gave according to the scale I have suggested, none of us would have to give up much. That is why this is a suitable standard for public advocacy. What we need to do is to change our public ethics so that for anyone who can afford to buy luxuries – and even a bottle of water is a luxury if there is safe drinking water available free – giving something significant to those in extreme poverty becomes an elementary part of what it is to live an ethical life.