Why we all should give away 25% of our pay
June 9, 2007
YOU are wandering through Hyde Park and spot a friend gasping for breath and flailing in a
shallow pond. You decide not to wade in and help her because you don't want your new shoes to
get wet. She dies. Is this wrong?
Consider another scene. You have received a pay rise, and oops, manage to blow $100 on a
celebratory dinner. While clinking glasses in the restaurant, a Sudanese child you've never met
dies of malnourishment. Is this wrong?
Peter Singer, the Australian ethicist and contrarian pot-stirrer, offers up these scenarios and says,
sorry, you have the same duty in both situations: to prevent poverty and death, simply because
This week Professor Singer returned to his old stamping ground, Oxford University, where in
1972 he catapulted to fame with an essay that has stood the test of time.
Famine, Affluence and
can still make the reader cringe with shame.
"The fact that a person is physically near to us … may make it more likely that we shall assist
him, but this does not show that we ought to help him rather than another who happens to be
further away," it reads.
Singer continues his 35-year anti-poverty crusade, splitting his time between Princeton
University in the US and the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Melbourne
University. He donates a quarter of his income to charities such as Oxfam, and says we all
In a series of lectures at Oxford that coincided with the G8 summit in Germany, Singer has been
calling for an end to "frivolous consumption". He argues that donating to alleviate poverty is a
moral duty, not just a generous act of charity. People who do not donate should be condemned,
as they would be for standing by while a person drowns.
"There is this thing that we get from that remark of Jesus, about 'don't show your alms before
others'. We get that sense of somehow it's not nice to talk about what you're doing; you should
just do it quietly," he says.
But studies show that people are influenced by their peers who give, he says. "Maybe Jesus
didn't know the market research."
The amount needed to reduce extreme poverty - defined as having the spending power of
$US1.08 ($1.28) a day- is humbling when divided among the world's affluent. Singer quotes
Jeffrey Sachs, an economist instrumental in developing the 15 United Nations Millennium
Development Goals, which include halving the number of people living in extreme hunger and
poverty, ending sex disparity in education, and reducing the mortality rate among children under
five by two-thirds, by 2015.
Sachs's top-end estimate to achieve these is $224 billion, requiring $240 each year to 2015 from
the world's roughly 1 billion well-off people.