Peter Singer’s Solution to World Poverty

Peter Singer’s Solution to World Poverty

Since my post last week about billionaire giving, I have been thinking a lot about the ‘why,’ ‘how,’ and ‘how much’ of charitable giving. It led me to dust off an old essay that I remember reading in high school that has remained for me one of the most thought provoking essays on poverty and giving that I’ve ever read. In this short essay, Peter Singer advances a proposal about giving that is as simple as it is radical. I won’t tell you his thesis, as the whole point of the essay is in the analogy he draws; however, I find this essay personally very convincing, and, to that degree, equally unsettling. What do you think? If you agree, even if only reluctantly, then what are the implications for your own habits of spending and sharing?


Steven Cottam

Steven Cottam hangs out in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Va, alongside a lot of cool folks who are up to a lot of good. He works as an outdoor educator, working to get urban youth out and enjoying God's creation. He lives with his wife Megan, his (soon to be born) daughter Jackie, his dog Wanda, and their roommate Kelly. Past adventures have included getting his Master's in Theology from Catholic Theological Union, serving as a elementary school religion teacher, and living in a Catholic Worker house in Phoenix, AZ.

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  • Daniel Oerther

    Interesting essay… It serves as a useful point for discussion. Most, many, some? folks would agree with the straight forward premise that each of us has the opportunity to ‘save a child’s life’. One of the difficulties with this essay is that the choices are few (ie to give $200 to UNICEF or not…), and that’s at least a part of the problem. Sure, some aid doesn’t reach the child at the end… But more so the aid isn’t directed into a sustainable solution set. Getting one child from 2yo to 6yo isn’t the ‘sole goal’. For example, you’d like to get that child to mature, productive adulthood where s/he would learn to have their own kids at a replacement rate rather than an over population rate. So, yes, while a simple trade off between an expensive car and a child’s life can draw at our heart strings, it leaves open too many additional outcomes in a complex situation (ie what if I said that the car would be used to transport a mother to a hospital to deliver her baby… And what if that event was expected to take place later the same afternoon… Would you then sacrifice the baby’s future safe birth for the immediate child’s life immediately?). These types of thought exercises are very helpful to raise awareness and stimulate thought, and its a great place for jumping off in the discussion. Thanks for sharing!!

  • Brenda McCandless

    This essay explains the unease that I have with my comfortable life and accumulated goods. I’m trying to reevaluate and redistribute but maybe at too slow of a pace. Lots to ponder….thanks for sharing.

  • John Toler

    Fact, every countries economy is different. So let us as Americans stop going out to eat, stop buying computers, cell phones, TV’s, certain automobiles, taking vacations, etc…. Now lets watch what happens to America’s economy. Now I can’t give to a needy child in a third world country because I just lost my job. I had a job in the technology field but that is a luxury not a need so I am now unemployed. Same for the waitress, restaurant manager, the factory worker building the luxury car, the towns and folks that depend on the tourism industry. Let’s shut them all down by not spending on anything except necessities and give our extra money to the poor. Wait now we have more people in America that are poor because our economy went bust.

    Those who give nothing to the poor should be ashamed but those who give to the poor and buy a TV should not be racked with guilt. I agree with Daniel’s earlier comment and point that a lot of the problem is there is not a sustainable solution to helping the severely poor.

    • Brett Anderson

      I once read in a book somewhere that ‘when the rich meet the poor’ poverty will end and i think there is a lot of truth in that.

      When we refer to them as “the poor” it is a lot easier to have the mentality of because I”m giving to “the poor” it is okay for me to have a tv [yes, but is it okay for you to have three tvs?] but when me having a tv means that Richard down the road is sleeping in the gutter, then it becomes a harder thing to simply ignore or brush off.

      And the question of ‘how much do I give?’ is a huge one, John, with severe implications when we start looking at the extreme examples like you mentioned above, but the strong likelihood is that it is never going to go that far [because it would need most of the people to be asking the same kind of questions to get there] but then how far? Keep giving til I don’t have anything to give because that doesn’t feel helpful to anyone in need after that. Or is there perhaps a level of giving that might be different for each person depending on their context and means? I think what is of the most importance with the question of poverty is starting with asking the question or asking the questions which I don’t think most people do [maybe because we are scared of what some of the answers might be]

      And ask them in community. Get together with a bunch of people who have a similiar heart and vision [so for me it would be a bunch of Jesus followers who I trust, for you it might be family and friends or a group of work colleagues etc] and wrestle these things out with each other and try and come up with some creative ideas that help you as a group to be giving well. To be lessening the gaps for some people, if not everyone. We need to start making steps in the right direction if we ever hope to get there.

      So ask the question. And let’s do this together.

  • Daniel Oerther

    Great point, Brett. Group thinking helps provide a context where some helpful discussion can occur! And even ‘some’ actions towards the end goal of eradicating relative, extreme poverty is good (good not being the enemy of great…). Peace be with you!

  • Brett Anderson

    MY friend Nicole shared this post on Facebook and it got quite a conversation going amongst a number of people so i thought i would move it across to here so more people can benefit and respond to what has been said:

    Nicole Masureik: Ummm… Read this if your life is comfortable, if you enjoy eating out, new clothes, going to gym, driving your new (albeit 2nd hand) car…. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. Reading this could change your life, for the better. Although the argument is based in humanism, it still holds true for all followers of Jesus. Surely this what it means to love our neighbour? Thanks Brett Fish Anderson for pointing me to it. Will have to rethink my life, again

    Bronwyn Lea: Wow.

    Charlotte Knowland: Really interesting.

    Debbie Masureik: This philosopher is a God-hater! Nothing good comes from such inspiration, and I am horrified by his (Singer’s) worldview. Introduction of compulsory “altruism” sounds like Communism to me.

    Jacqui Tooke: Such a huge topic to tackle – the great inequality in our world. An issue thats so close to my heart. This article is a good conversation starter and prompts people to think. But I disagree with the conclusions. It really feels so guilt-inducing and legalistic that it stands in stark contrast to the freedom of Jesus’ kingdom. May I share what bubbles in my heart as I read it.

    1 key thing that is missed by the writer is that the whole system we live in is broken and that means that the wealthy are as hurt by the system as the poor. It just looks different. Jesus invites us to give not just because others need what we have more than enough of. But because our freedom from materialism starts happening when we give our possessions away. And for Jesus it’s an invitation because He loves us who are wealthy and wants us free. He is the only one really who can transform us to want to give so that it becomes a joy not a burden to share. He also loves the poor and is inviting us to partner Him in bringing His kingdom – which is a privilege and brings us such life in our souls! So giving out of a sense of “guilt” or “I ought to” doesn’t exist in His kingdom.

    2nd thing is that giving to the poor is not necessarily gonna end the problem of equality- I can elaborate on this if you wish, but the system needs to change – not just more people giving. By the system I mean trade laws and systems etc which stunt the the poor by boosting the rich. Wouldn’t it be better if we all purchased things at a fair price? Where the poorer countries gained dignity from producing. Then using the income from fairly traded exports to develop their own country rather than rely on AID?

    3rd and last point Jesus says love is the defining factor for all that we do- 1 Corinthians 13 is radical : stating that ANYTHING we do that is not motivated and birthed and done out of love is USELESS. Even giving all our possessions to the poor. From a kingdom perspective that is the biggest downfall of this article, which is understandable given its humanist roots. So though the questions raised are relevant and the stats are spot on, and the motivation for the article is well intended; I wonder how much fruit it will produce and how many people will be transformed to become givers. [to be cont.]

  • Brett Anderson


    Jacqui Tooke: May I point you in the direction of Greg Boyd who did a very helpful, non guilt-inducing, inspiring, freeing sermon series on our response to poverty. I was deeply transformed by these truths.

    Adam Katz: Thanks Nicole, I really enjoyed reading that article and I found it very thought provoking and quite enlightening.

    I do want to respond to two of the commentators if thats ok?

    Debbie: I am not not sure where you got the word compulsory from? No where in the article does he advocate making giving charity a legal requirement. What he is saying is that this is what he believes is the right way to act and if you follow his logic you will agree with him.

    Jacqui: I think you misunderstand the point of this article and altruism in general. Altruism is about giving, its about the act of charity for the other person, for no selfish reason. If you are giving out of guilt then it is not altruism, as you are giving for a selfish reason, you are giving to placate your own guilt.

    In the article he is not saying you must give out of guilt. He is saying you must give because it truly will make the world a better place. Not because you must feel bad about enjoying your money, not that you must feel bad about the way other people suffer, its really not about emotions at all.

    He is saying that a rational person will understand that there money can be better spent then on luxury items.

    As for your second point, “. 2nd thing is that giving to the poor is not necessarily gonna end the problem of equality-”

    The writer does not advocate ending the problem of equality. He does not pretend that giving charity will do this. He is merely saying that your money can be better spent in a charity organisation then on yourself. if yo donate 200 dollars, you may not end poverty, but you can make one childs life significantly better, and isnt that more worthwhile then eating out for a month?

    Debbie Masureik: It’s certainly a thought-provoking topic! Thanks Jacqui, you so eloquently expressed the two exact points that have been burdening me ever since I read (Ok, I’ll admit it, glossed over…) the article. I picked up a few very obviously anti-Christian standpoints and thought I’d summarise with “God-hater”. But you’re right, he was probably well-meaning, but totally misguided in his assumptions. He’s building on the wrong foundation, the goodness of Man.

    Adam, maybe “compulsory” was not mentioned by word, but the overall message in the article was that we all should be contributing all the time, and if we don’t, it’s therefore our fault that people remain poor. Thus the poor are owed something by us. If that were true (which it adamantly is not) then our giving would be required by God to show that we are good, and would be compulsory to us in that sense.

    [to be cont.]

  • Brett Anderson


    Debbie Masureik: I’m trying to avoid such blog sites Adam, as I’m all too aware of my natural argumentative streak, and have already plenty of experience of my failure to adequately contribute in this medium! People are so easily offended when someone else holds a differing view, and it can become ugly! Apologies for declining your offer!

    On another note, this article by Peter Singer was published in 1999, do you think it had any impact on how world poverty is treated?

    Nicole Masureik: I believe that the whole point of shalom, which Jesus came to bring, is that it’s not just about our spiritual condition (although this is much more important than our physical condition). Shalom is wellness, health, in EVERY aspect of our lives. As God’s hands and feet on this earth, we have a responsibility to care for ALL God’s creation, to bring his shalom to all people, as well as to all parts of creation, as imperfectly as we can, until his return. The problem in this materialistic Christianity we are often surrounded by, we forget that for every luxury we have, we could have chosen a different way, a way that brings life to another person.

    If we add up the tithes in the OT, it’s a lot more than 1/10th, yet Jesus came to exceed that level of giving, by giving everything. We are called to the same level of giving. Where, and how, is not dictated by Scripture, but by the prompting of the Spirit. Remember the woman who, at the Temple, gave her last coin. Jesus applauded her, not for the value of the coin, but because, despite her poverty, she continued to value the Kingdom above her own needs. How many Christians today are willing to go to that level of giving and sacrifice, for the sake of the Kingdom? We are too concerned with the things of this earth to value another’s very life above our pleasures.

    God loves a cheerful giver; if you give out of guilt, then the gift has less value (note: not less effective for the recipient, but definitely less effect for your own life). However, because God freely gave EVERYTHING for us, do we not respond by giving everything in return, joyfully, out of gratitude for the Gift that is beyond all gifts? If we choose to spend our money on image building, on designer clothes, the latest model phones, etc; or on activities that are solely for own benefit, like eating out a lot, or going to movies all the time, what message are we sending to God? I can’t answer that for you, because that is between you and God. You need to be able to stand before Him with a clear conscience for the way you have stewarded the money he has given you.

    I think this article merely raises the point that a relatively small sum of money can have a HUMUNGOUS effect on the lives of those who live in poverty. When you stand before God to give account, when he says that “if you failed to do it for the least of these, you failed to do it to me”, how will you respond?

    I struggle with this. I want to be a cheerful giver, but the love of money is a deep and ever-present idol I battle against. I don’t think my giving at present reflects a heart of gratitude that is overflowing with love at the awesome Gift I have received. This article has challenged me to take a fresh look at why I give, when I give, how I give. God has spoken to me through this humanistic person’s writing. If you’re happy with your level of giving, that’s great. In that case, ignore this article. But be open to the fact that God may want to say something to you though this.
    [to be cont…]

  • Brett Anderson


    Tarryn Atkinson: I usually manage to bite my tongue at these things but what on earth does his religion or lack thereof have to do with anything?

    Nicole Masureik Tarryn Atkinson, some Christians believe that truth can only come through the Bible, and that other religions, or people from other faiths, have no truth in them at all. Other Christians believe that if people of other faiths do speak truth, it must come from the wrong foundation (because they’re not Christians and therefore can’t understand the Truth), it is therefore actually evil and designed to lead us away from the truth. So, for some Christians, whether a person who gives advice and counsel is a Christian or not is a HUGE deal. For me, not so much. I think those are incredibly arrogant viewpoints. I believe that God is bigger than that, that there is much we can learn from people of other faiths and backgrounds, that God can and does speak through non-Christians, and that he often chooses to use non-Christians to challenge Christians and make us think more deeply about what we believe and why.

    Tarryn Atkinson: I appreciate your balanced view Nicole. Sadly too many truly believe that to be non-religious means you are immoral and evil.

    Debbie Masureik: Suffice it to say, my point about the unsuitability of this medium to discuss such deep and philosophical matters has been proven!

    I wouldn’t label the average non-Christian immoral or evil, just deceived, as I once was. I’m not anywhere near knowing everything there is to know about Him, but I do know that the God of the Bible is bigger than Western culture, and bigger than we can imagine. But He has revealed himself in His Word and nowhere else. He does not confuse. I don’t think that is an arrogant opinion, just a simple one Nicole.