International aid: When giving becomes a vice

Social Philosophy and Policy 23 (1):69-101 (2006)
Abstract
Peter Singer and Peter Unger argue that moral decency requires giving away all one's “surplus” for the relief or prevention of “absolute poverty,” because not doing so is analogous to refusing to save a drowning child to avoid making one's clothes muddy. I argue that there is a crucial disanalogy between the two cases and, moreover, that there are four independent moral objections to their thesis: it is monomaniacal in ignoring the variety of morally worthy ideals and elevating self-sacrificial aid to the global poor into the sole ideal; it is misanthropic in its indifference to the happiness of those it adjures to give; it is incompatible with integrity; it would have disastrous effects for the poor if it were generally adopted. I argue that genuine beneficence aims at creating or restoring the conditions that enable its beneficiaries to become self-sufficient creators themselves — creators of wealth and of meaningful and enjoyable lives. Small-scale beneficence is necessary for moral goodness, but large-scale beneficence is optional, so long as its absence is not due to a lack of regard for those in need. The uncharitable person violates the neo-Lockean non-waste proviso that we acquire or keep for ourselves and those we love as much, but only as much, as we can use or invest meaningfully or enjoyably, now or in the long run. But someone who invests all his resources in creating something of worth leads a morally worthy life even if he reserves nothing for large-scale charity. Both our capacity for beneficence, which bids us stretch out a hand to those in need, and our capacity for creation, which bids us reach for the stars, are important aspects of our humanity. The Singer-Unger ideal advocates not genuine beneficence but the profligate giving away of wealth to prolong lives, while failing to appreciate what makes life worth living. a Footnotesa I am grateful for helpful comments on this paper from Ellen Frankel Paul, Larry White (who commented on the paper at the 2005 conference of the Association for Private Enterprise Education), David Blumenfeld, and Garrett Cullity (whose comments from Australia were a wonderful example of voluntary international aid to a stranger). I would also like to thank Georgia State University, Bowling Green State University, and the Association for Private Enterprise Education for inviting me to present this paper, and the audiences at these presentations for their helpful discussion. Finally, I would like to thank Harry Dolan for his expert copyediting, which saved me from some embarrassing mistakes and infelicities.
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