If Oxfam ran the world

Martha Nussbaum

  • Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence by Peter Unger
    Oxford, 187 pp, £35.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 19 507584 6

The basic life chances of human beings vary dramatically around the world. According to the 1996 Report of the United Nations Development Programme, the life expectancy of a child born today in Sierra Leone is 39.2 years, the life expectancy of a child born in Japan 79.6 years (US 76.1, UK 76.3). In the developing world, daily calorie supply per capita ranges from 3223 in Barbados to 1505 in Somalia. The availability of these calories is not equally distributed in any nation, which means that there are many who suffer acute hunger. In Hong Kong in 1996, 100 per cent of the population had access to safe water, in China 67 per cent, in Haiti 28 per cent, in the Central African Republic 18 per cent, in Afghanistan 12 per cent. These facts suggest that there are big problems of human misery in the world, problems that should be addressed by theories both of personal morality and of global justice.

Peter Unger argues that we are culpably indifferent to this misery, and that our daily thinking about our duty to others is marked by self-serving irrationality. We typically believe that we do have a moral duty to rescue others who are at risk, especially where this can be done without great cost to ourselves. For example, most people would agree that a bystander has a duty to rescue a child who is drowning in a shallow pond (an example originally introduced by Peter Singer). On the other hand, we typically deny that we have a moral duty to send money to save children’s lives at a distance, even though most people could do this with less effort than they would expend in saving the drowning child. This arbitrary distinction between the near and the far, Unger argues, can’t ultimately be supported by any good ethical argument.

So, too, with another distinction we are fond of making to let ourselves off the moral hook: between doing harm and allowing harm to occur. If a trolley-car is about to run over six people and, by flipping a switch, we could divert it onto a track where it would kill only one person, we would no longer feel that inaction was a secure moral refuge (an example introduced by Judith Jarvis Thomson). But this suggests that the ‘out’ we allow ourselves when we fail to do all we can to save people who are dying in poor countries is also irrational and self-serving; for we tell ourselves that we are not doing any harm, we are simply failing to intervene to prevent a harm that is occurring anyhow. Unger’s vigorous investigation of irrationalities in our daily thinking, through these and related examples, suggests convincingly that we owe others far more than we typically think we do.

This, then, is a book on a topic of great importance, written with much moral passion by a skilful and ingenious philosopher. And yet its conclusion suggests that something is amiss. For Unger argues that a relatively affluent person, ‘like you and me, must contribute to vitally effective groups, like Oxfam and Unicef, most of the money and property she now has, and most of what comes her way for the foreseeable future’. Unger’s entire argument about our duty to give aid culminates in this recommendation; so we must take it seriously. Suppose all the people to whom it is addressed followed Unger’s advice: what would the world then be like?

Oxfam and Unicef would suddenly become very rich, receiving both an annual fraction of people’s incomes and significant amounts of their land and other property. Since Unger instructs us to choose these two above other charities such as religious groups and universities, for reasons I shall discuss, those other organisations would become impoverished. Religious groups would no longer maintain the charitable efforts they now support. Many universities and research centres would close their doors, no longer offering future world leaders training in economics, law or the foundations of democracy, and no longer conducting basic scientific research on issues from Aids to agricultural development. Nor would national and local governments be able to maintain such welfare efforts as they now fund, since so much property would have been given away. Within a few years, governments from India to Britain would be in disarray, as Oxfam became the owner of increasing amounts of everything. Although they would retain de jure authority, it is likely that governments would need to turn an increasingly large proportion of their operations over to these organisations (as, even now, NGOs operate the public education systems in some parts of the developing world).

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