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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The burden of global misery - let's actually do something

One of the most obscene things about the burden of global misery - the extremes of poverty and disease we see in the developing countries - is that the money is actually there to relieve it. All that we need is the political will. Every rational calculation shows that the resources available to richer nations could be put to work with truly massive impact in improving the plight of the world's poorest people, and with no real harm to the lifestyles of any well-to-do Westerners.

In a new article, Peter Singer has produced a set of calculations that show how much money would be available just from the upper echelons of the wealthy in the US, without taxation at a level that would force any of them into a significantly less luxurious way of life. When you add in other wealthy Western countries, it becomes apparent how conservative UN goals for tackling poverty and related problems really are. They could easily be financed many times over.

Readers of this blog will know that I am not a radical egalitarian. I don't believe that wealth differentials need to be justified all the way down into some kind of metaphysical bedrock. If some people are fortunate enough to be born with talent and social support that provide them with a greater than average chance of success in life, I think that is something to be accepted - I'm not going to argue for state action to equalise everybody. But that is not the practical issue which confronts us when we look out at the world. We don't actually have to adopt any radical political philosophy to realise just how horrific the situation is at the moment in much of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia (and other places, too), and how easy it would be for the West to do something effective about it. We don't even have to make any significant sacrifice, just show a determination to tackle the problem with the resources that are readily available to us.

My heart sinks whenever I hear good-willed people complaining that we spend too much on foreign aid. The misunderstandings are so common, and so total, that it is difficult to know where to begin in setting the record straight. It would take someone far more articulate and far more patient than I ever manage to be in such situations.

We actually spend far too little, though it's true that much of what we actually spend is misdirected in an attempt to shore up supposedly friendly regimes, rather than to change the lives of the world's poorest people. But what I can't help wondering is how so much misinformation has got "out there" into the community, creating a completely wrong impression of how much is actually spent by wealthy nations such as the United States and Australia - and making it unnecessarily difficult for those of us who do have some understanding of the situation to get past first base in explaining it. Who sees a benefit in obscuring the truth about an issue of this kind, involving death and misery on a huge scale that it is in our power to avert for no significant sacrifice? Perhaps I am naive, but this aspect of the puzzle leaves me feeling frustrated and almost despairing.

Sometimes, when I contemplate this, I feel a moderate degree of shame that the causes I devote most of my intellectual energy to - such as defending stem-cell research - pale into insignificance beside the problem of how to help the millions of people in absolute poverty. Not everyone can be immersed in every issue, of course, and we all have our pet topics that fascinate us. What is so galling about the stem-cell research issue is that it shouldn't even be controversial. It takes a totally irrational mentality to be concerned about "harm" to tiny, insentient blobs of protoplasm. This does need to pointed out again and again and again. But there is an even more harmful irrationalism in refusing to face the facts about global poverty and disease, and our moral complicity in its persistence.

Given my meta-ethical views, I can't say that someone who frankly tells me that they don't care about other people's misery is making an intellectual mistake. Even psychopaths are not making an intellectual mistake in showing a lack of empathy for their victims. That's fine. If anyone wants to take the hard line of admitting to be a psychopath or a total psychological egoist, I'll accept that there is nothing I can say to you to prove you wrong - the philosophical quest to do so is understandable but futile, in my opinion. Of course, I'd rather not live in a society with too many people like that.

I'm confident, though, that most of us are not like that. For most of us, the salient fact is that there is a terrible burden of human misery in the world in which we find ourselves, but we have the resources to address it on a grand scale with no real harm to our own lifestyles. What are we going to do about it?

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