The prospect of ending the entire world’s problems has always been an attractive one, but there are so many, where is the civilized person to begin their search for world harmony? While on the quest to create a society free from suffering, it is easy to get caught up in the overall goal of such a mission, rather than actually defining how the goal is to be achieved. This “forest through the trees problem,” however has not stopped some of our brightest minds from attempting to tackle the task themselves. Two such bright minds are those of Garrett Hardin and Peter Singer. These two men represent two very different schools of thought, and two extremely different and opposing approaches. An ancient Chinese philosopher once spoke of walking on two roads simultaneously, and in order to do so he advocated a kind of detachment that allowed one to see a situation from both vantage points at the same time (Chaung Tzu 31-36). With that in mind, it is safe to say that it is probably necessary to summarize both men’s arguments in order to get a better handle on the situation, so that we too can walk two roads concurrently. The particular topic up for discussion in this instance is the problem of world poverty. On the one hand, we have Garrett Hardin, who essentially suggests that we ought to let sleeping dogs lie so to speak. On the other hand, we have an altruistic utilitarian philosopher by way of Peter Singer’s solution to world poverty, which suggests that richer countries are to donate their excess income (Singer suggests that an individual ought to be able to live on $30,000 annually) to charity. Let us take a look at both points of view in some depth in order to provide a greater measure of clarity which can then be used to construct a better argument.
Hardin’s proposition, he admits may seem morally abhorrent to many Western thinkers who have been indoctrinated to believe that it is our moral responsibility to look after our fellow man or as Cain so aptly puts it when God asks him where his brother is, “am I my brother’s keeper?” Hardin’s answer to that very fundamental question is a resounding no. He likens his ethical system to that of a lifeboat. The basic analogy is this: the earth is like a lifeboat, in order to safely carry those aboard it, we must bear in mind that there is a certain kind of maximum carrying capacity, and Hardin argues that we either already have exceeded the capacity, or that we soon will. He makes the very apt assertion that if we are to safely journey across the ocean of life, we must not overflow our vessel, or it will eventually capsize, thereby killing everyone aboard. His solution as he sees it, is to simply allow those countries and peoples who cannot readily support themselves to die off, thereby bringing the population down, and restoring Earth’s supposedly natural homeostasis (Hardin).
Peter Singer’s position however is almost the exact opposite of Garrett Hardin’s. As Singer sees it, we Westerners are living in a state of extravagance when compared to the rest of the world, and he has a point, many of us have more resources than we readily know what to do with on a given day. So what is Peter Singer’s point of view when it comes to solving the problem of world poverty? Some would call this the Jesus solution with a hint of Aristotelian moderation. In the Bible, Jesus was once approached by a very rich man who happened to have been a very religious Jew. As a religious Jew, this man has lived his life purportedly totally in accordance with Judaic law, and so he asked Jesus what else he was to do in order to achieve entry into the kingdom of God, to which Jesus replied, “go and relinquish all your possessions, give them to the poor, and follow me.” Upon hearing this, the man skulked away heavy-hearted, because he was attached to the many things he had acquired throughout his life (New International Version, Mark. 10. 17-25). Singer suggests a very similar idea, though as stated before, with a tinge of Aristotelian moderation, Singer proposes that many of us can live on $30,000 annually. Now we have to be careful of the word live in this case, I think it’s safe to say that “live” in this case means to be able to provide for one’s necessities, so that they are not worse off for lack of health or shelter. This certainly does not indicate that we should be able to buy big-screen TVs, nor does Singer seem to support the notion that we developed nations should embrace very many luxuries, if they are to be embraced at all. The solution is simple; whatever surplus is left after one provides for what is needed, the rest should be donated to charity. His logic is simple, if we give freely of what we do not necessarily require, then there will be more resources available to allocate toward those peoples and nations who are less fortunate than ourselves (Singer).
Now that both positions have been examined more closely, it is possible to construct a more commonsensical solution to this problem. Both extremes contribute something very valuable to the argument over this issue; however, neither manages to fully encapsulate all of the contingencies that are required to compensate for unseen variables such as human greed, pettiness, or the inability of a certain segment of the populace to contribute to a given solution. Both of these very bright fellows are right in their own ways. That is not to say, however that the two solutions are wholly incompatible with one another. For example, Garrett Hardin makes a good point when he makes his case that the earth’s population is growing at a rate that will eventually exhaust all of its available resources, rendering the earth as essentially nothing more than a barren wasteland, has become less fantastical and more of an eventual certainty. Peter Singer on the other hand, is also right when he says that developed nations have become far too decadent and accustomed to living with a kind of average extravagance, at least in large part. Through the murky waters of heated debate, and with enough reflection and clarity it is possible to see that a marriage of these two extremes, similar to the marriage of Yin and yang in Taoism, it is possible that through the union of these two points of view, a more balanced solution can begin to reveal itself.
To begin, Harden’s astute insight into human nature is a critical base that must be established before we jump ahead to Singer’s flowery solution. Human beings, despite the noble attempts by poets and artists to portray them as higher than other sentient creatures on the planet, are still animals with animal urges and base motives. A man of poor impulse control would sooner sleep with his best friend’s girlfriend based on a moment of a sexual need rather than follow some abstract principle of morality. So it is with other areas of human affairs, where everyone strives to be on top and the only way to get there is through manipulation, backstabbing and subverting conventional morality. This is what Singer sorely misses in his argument since he fails to consider the human craving for power and the satisfaction of the ego. Essentially, humans are selfish by nature, and if not restricted by ethics will use any means to achieve power. To modern civilization, such base power games seem archaic but the reality is that domination of other groups is now subtle. (Greene xiv).
It is at least slightly apparent that Peter Singer must know a thing or two about Marxist economics in so far as it is relevant to his ethical theory. Marxist ideology, when looked at closely, actually seems like a fairly decent solution to many problems, and not just poverty. Marxism in the relevant sense, can be explained like this: a strong central government should be the instrument of equality in a given society; that is, the people should pay their government all of their earnings, and in turn, it is the responsibility of the state government to distribute the earnings of the people equally, thereby eliminating classism in one fell swoop, or as Marx sees it, eliminating the disparity between the haves and have-nots (Marx). While this does in fact seem like a viable, and in many cases a good idea, what history has shown us when the state seeks to establish itself based on Marxist principles, is quite different from the Marxist ideal. The problem with the Marxist solution is that it relies on there being an altruistic nature within man, that man inherently desires to create equality in his world; but what so often happens in these cases is that you end up with a government that goes unchecked, creating an even wider disparity between the haves and the have-nots, until its eventual implosion.
Now, if we are to apply the Hardin’s insight to the Singer solution, a middle ground can be found between the two extremes. In order to help poor countries, developed nations will have to attend to their own needs, such as solving the homeless problem, fixing the struggling economies, and keeping the middle-class happy. The reason for this can be explained psychologically; humans must have their basic needs met before other needs such as security, comfort and self-esteem are to be considered (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.) Once physiological needs are satiated, and security and belonging are achieved, then the cogs in the machine of a rich nation can run at full capacity and only then, can we begin to help those poorer than us.
To put it in more blunt terms, Singer’s solution only becomes viable once the excess fat is trimmed off using a touch of Hardin’s logic. The only way that world poverty is even remotely solvable is if we first bring the earth back to some type of equilibrium, a state where we have enough resources to provide for the people on the planet now. This may mean that we sacrifice such nations as Haiti, as they are unable to fend for themselves for a variety of reasons that are irreparable by normal political means. If we can first focus on the problem of domestic poverty within each of the nations that participate in global organizations like the UN, then we may be able to begin helping those countries who happen to be less fortunate than us. As I’ve stated before the Marxist ideal is not a terrible one, at least not in its entirety. Perhaps once we have our safety factor somewhat under control, it would be possible to appoint an oversight committee within an organization like the UN, which is strictly concerned with the problem of world poverty. The officials appointed to such a committee would be much more effective if they were elected by popular vote, so that each nation participating in the UN has a say in the creation of such a political body; and while all nations participating in the UN may not be democratic in nature, it is important to remember that world poverty is something that affects us all, and therefore deserves to be handled by us all.
Harden and Singer come from two extreme perspectives that address the problem with radical methods. Hardin takes a cold, Machiavelllianesque approach with lifeboat ethics and Singer takes a more Marxist approach to utilitarian logic, meaning that the greater good is ought be achieved. The realistic solution is to combine altruistic idealism with practical insight into human nature. With that being said however, we must not forget that human poverty is an age-old problem that has yet to find its solution. I have some problems with our definition of the word solution itself, which to so many of us means to get rid of a problem, and to find a way in which the problem no longer occurs. Just like math, some equations have no solutions. And just like other things in life, sometimes there are no solutions, only workarounds.
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