Ethics & International Affairs Volume 16.1 (Spring 2002): Debate: Global Poverty Relief: More Than Charity: Cosmopolitan Alternatives to the "Singer Solution" [Full Text]

May 2, 2002

The history of poverty relief is littered with serious failures. Peter Singer, influential philosopher and controversist, claims to have a "solution." It is simple and severe: We, the relatively rich, have an obligation to give away every cent in our possession that is not devoted to buying "necessaries." For the average American household, that means donating all income over $30,000 to charities. Widespread donation of this kind would, Singer claims, end poverty. Singer and his critics then tend to debate: "Are we morally obliged to sacrifice so much?"

The present article shifts the terms of the debate. It asks: "Would a charity-focused approach to alleviating poverty actually work?" The answer is "no." At a global level especially, we interact with one another through a complex web of political and economic arrangements; the poor remain poor because these arrangements exclude them in important ways. Charity may at times help to redistribute wealth, but it is a very limited vehicle for improving people’s situation on a sustainable basis. For that we need not merely charities and NGOs like Oxfam, but above all fundamental reforms to the rules and institutions of global order. We need to abandon the narrow language of "selfishness versus sacrifice" in favor of an approach that emphasizes "exclusion versus inclusion;" the real issue is how the poor can also come to benefit systematically from mechanisms of social cooperation.

This approach sets an immensely complex challenge, and we cannot dispense with a political philosophy that helps to orientate reforms in the right direction––reforms in production, consumption, aid, and more. Drawing critically on the works of John Rawls and Karl Marx, the article explicates the three dimensions that would characterize an effective political philosophy of this kind. Contrary to Singer's view, there is no royal road to poverty relief. But it is possible to draw a map of many intersecting roads that together take us to a place without poverty.

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