Does Jesus Agree with Peter Singer About Global Poverty?

October 2, 2017

 You're walking past a pond. Suddenly, you see a small child drowning. No one else is around to help her and you're an able swimmer. Do you have a moral obligation to save her? Intuitively, yes. What if doing so meant you'd ruin the fancy clothes you're wearing? Should you still do it? Intuitively, yes. The child is more valuable than the clothes. Raise the stakes. To save the child, you'll have to give up a fancy dinner you're heading to. Or to save the child you'd have to crash your fancy car (otherwise you won't be able to stop in time to jump out and save her). Isn't the life of the child worth more than your luxurious dinner, car, clothes, etc.?  If you agree, then what about the actual children in the world who are being "drown" by poverty? To be consistent, shouldn't you give up some of your luxuries to save their lives? Ethicist Peter Singer thinks "yes."

 

Singer has argued that we have a moral obligation to give away our wealth surplus to aid those living in severe poverty [1]. One’s wealth surplus includes everything that isn’t necessary for acquiring food, shelter, health and other basic needs. Depending on where you live, it might even be necessary to spend money on other things that help you acquire the basic things -- e.g., a vehicle to help you get to work, a nice outfit for work, a computer or phone, etc. But you don’t need a luxurious vehicle. You don’t need too many expensive outfits. You don’t need to eat out (hardly ever, at least). And you certainly don’t need vacations. And so on. Singer summarizes his view as follows:

 

I can see no escape from the conclusion that each one of us with wealth surplus to his or her essential needs should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty so dire as to be life-threatening. That's right: I'm saying that you shouldn't buy that new car, take that cruise, redecorate the house or get that pricey new suit. After all, a $1,000 suit could save five children's lives... [2].

 

Singer gives us a simple moral formula to follow: whatever money you're spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away. That means that you should only stop giving when giving more would put you at risk of not having enough for yourself.

 

Singer thinks that his strong ethic of beneficence and self-sacrifice is endorsed by Jesus. And recently, Christian philosopher Tom Crisp has argued that Singer is right: “Do Jesus’ teachings on wealth and poverty suggest a similarly demanding conclusion about the moral requirements of affluence? I think so” [3]. Crisp’s conclusion differs from Singer’s on one point: The goal is not merely to secure life, but to secure the shalom-life. Roughly, shalom is the Hebrew inspired notion of a state of wholeness between humanity and creation, and between humanity and God, wherein goods like food, shelter, joy, friendship, and so on, are possessed to the degree that God intended them. We were created to live the shalom life.

 

Crisp states his Singer-like conclusion as follows:

 

But putting the pursuit of neighbor shalom on a par with pursuit of my shalom does require a level of generosity and sacrifice up to and including the point at which, were I to continue sacrificing, I would be putting the shalom of me and mine at risk -- we'd be threatened with not having enough food, clothing, shelter, safety, etc. The love command is demanding [4].

 

Crisp argues that Jesus’s love-commands support this conclusion. He’s especially convinced by the story of the good Samaritan. I'm skeptical. When it comes to an ethic of charity and sacrifice, I suspect the differences between Jesus and Singer are greater than the similarities.  

 

First, the shalom-life of certain individuals ― like my children and spouse ― is intimately bound up with receiving special attention from me (as a father/mother or spouse), whereas the shalom-life of others (say, the cashier at the gas station down the street) isn’t. If I don’t pay special attention to my kids, but instead devote my attention, energy and resources to loving my needy “neighbors” in a manner that literally puts their needs on a par with my own, I’ll likely undermine the shalom-life of my kids/spouse. 

 

I recall a friend telling me that the last gift he received from his parents was a pair of soccer cleats in high school when he played varsity soccer. Five years had passed since then. It was a source of deep hurt for him. His shalom was undermined. But what if his parents told him, “Sorry, Son. We’ve been sending the money to a reputable charity, in hopes of saving lives. More gifts would just be luxurious spending.” Singer might tell us that the parents were doing the morally right thing. After all, the cleats are luxuries compared to the needs of impoverished people. But if Crisp is right about Jesus’s desire to bring shalom, I doubt Jesus would agree with Singer. Soccer cleats (or meaningful gifts of some sort) might be crucial  to the quality of your child's shalom-life, even if they are luxuries in Singer's sense. 

 

So, on pain of undermining the shalom of certain people in my life, I will likely need to invest extra into those people, even when the money could be used to help others living in more dire circumstances. How else can I realistically be an effective shalom-bringer to my kids, spouse, and so on? Probably, I shouldn’t buy the extravagant vacation to celebrate my wedding anniversary (or buy the most expensive cleats for my child). But what about a romantic dinner date, consisting of flowers, a modest meal and a movie at the end? Singer might point out that the money spent on each of those things could have saved a few lives. But if I iterate this thinking each time I intend to communicate love to my spouse in a way that costs anything, I will likely fail to love him/her properly, undermining shalom in their life and in my marriage. Hence, securing the shalom of certain relationships may require prioritizing time and resources for certain relationships. It’s hard to see how Singer’s ethic creates space for this sort of prioritization.

 

The bottom line is this: shalom is more holistic and complicated than mere life-preservation. What’s sufficient for one isn’t always sufficient for the other. For that reason, I suspect Jesus’s ethic of love turns out to be radically different than Singer’s ethic, though both are radical. I’ve pointed out how this is the case with parent/spouse relationships. Bringing God’s wholeness to those relationships will inevitably require spending extra to bless and affirm those whose “wholeness” is intimately connected to you, the parent or spouse. But it extends to other relationships as well. Nurturing good friendships (which Crisp thinks is part of the shalom-life) will likely require that we spend a little extra on “non-necessities.” Spending extra on gas money to meet up with a friend or a small group isn’t necessary for Singer’s basics. But without it, it’s hard to see how we could effectively secure the shalom-life that Crisp has in mind. 

 

I think Singer and Jesus agree on this much: we should spend far less than we do on luxuries. In other important respects, however, I doubt whether Jesus and Singer agree [5].

About the author. Joel studies philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He enjoys Fritos Scoops with Hummus, a camp fire with a guitar around, and daydreaming about playing soccer. His research interests include the philosophy of science (especially issues concerning hypothesis evaluation and confirmation theory), epistemology (he thinks evidentialism is great, and he holds out hope for strong foundationalism), metaethics, and the philosophy of religion. He's also interested in the ethics surrounding global poverty.

 

Footnotes

 

[1] See Singer's seminal paper, “Famine, Affluence and Morality.”

[2] Singer, “The Singer Solution to World Poverty.” 

[3] Crisp, “Jesus and Affluence.” 

[4] Ibid.

[5] For further reflection on the issue of global poverty (and especially on Singer's argument), see the excellent collection of essays in Morality and World Hunger (edited by Hugh LaFollette and William Aiken).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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