Act Without Hope: charitable giving, effective altruism, and the life you can save Julian Baggini The Skeptic

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 22, Issue 1, from 2011.

I recently read moral philosopher Peter Singer’s latest polemic, The Life You Can Save. I say polemic, because it is not a dry piece of theory, but a carefully calculated attempt to get people to give more of their wealth away to help ease global poverty and disease.

It certainly succeeds in making you feel guilty. Yet there are those who would say that western guilt about poverty in the developing world is one of its most futile manifestations. What’s more, they have a compelling case for why we should stop feeling it. As Immanuel Kant argued, ought implies can: you are only obliged to do things which you can actually do. You may well be obliged to look after your own children, for example, but you’re not obliged to find a cure for cancer by Monday.

Armed with this rock-solid moral maxim, the argument then runs that there is nothing we ought to do to help the developing world, because there is nothing we can do. Indeed, well-intentioned help more often than not ends up causing more harm than good.

For example, the Commission for Global Road Safety last year reported that roads built with international aid were causing unnecessary deaths, particularly among children, because they are not being made safe enough. The saying that the road to hell needs to be paved with more than good intentions has never been more apt.

As private citizens we have even more reason to feel sceptical about whether our giving can actually make a difference anyway. Our hard-earned donations are tiny compared to the amounts doled out in government aid. What’s more, we know the root causes have more to do with international trade laws, war, and governance in developing countries than they do western generosity. Add to that the law of unintended consequences, by which the gift of a road ends up killing people and you’d be forgiven for dropping the moral debt we feel we owe.

The arguments against guilt stack up and there is plenty of truth in all of them. However, they do not let us off the moral hook for the simple reason that the case that we have a duty of assistance is just too strong, whether or not we are responsible for the suffering we seek to alleviate.

Moral philosophers have used a number of analogies to pinpoint the source of this duty. Onora O’Neill asked us to imagine a lifeboat which had room and supplies for drowning people, yet refused to change course even a little bit to pick them up. We would rightly deplore the people in charge of the boat. But by the same logic, we should be prepared to make a relatively small effort to save our fellow human beings, even if we did not cause them to be in the desperate plight they are.

Most of us recognise that there is something obscene about enjoying the incredible wealth and prosperity we do while others die for lack of a few pence per week. The moral imperative to do something about it is so strong that it is no wonder we seek to forget about it, or try to deny it. That’s where the idea that we do need to help because we are not responsible and cannot change anything comes in. It’s the ultimate get out of jail free card for the tortured western conscience.

But our duty is not so easily removed. Our moral obligation to help is not predicated on us having caused the problems we seek to solve, merely on the fact that we have find ourselves with so much while others have so little. It’s not good saying you shouldn’t have pulled a drowning child from a pond because you didn’t push her in: when the stakes are so high, the mere fact that you can save her at so little cost means that you must.

Nor is the fact that much aid doesn’t work an excuse not to give any. If it could be shown that aid causes more harm than good in the long run, then we should stop giving straight away. But that is far too pessimistic a diagnosis.

Jean-Paul Sartre, who was very politically committed, said something very important about social action. He said we should act without hope. What he meant was that we should not seek to build a better future on the basis of over-optimistic illusions about the inevitability of our success. That’s exactly how we should approach aid. It is good that we no longer naively believe that popping a cheque in the post will make everything better. That does not mean we shouldn’t send the cheque, it just means we should realise that achieving lasting change requires more than we alone can do. Scepticism about aid is therefore entirely justified; using it as a reason to withhold it is not.

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From the archive in 2011, philosopher Julian Baggini reflects on charitable giving and what moral obligation we have to help others
The post Act Without Hope: charitable giving, effective altruism, and the life you can save appeared first on The Skeptic.