give all your money to impoverished countries

One common argument against utilitarianism is that it demands too much. Maximizing utility would often require extreme sacrifices. For example, almost everyone in western countries would have to give up a huge amount of their wealth so that those in more impoverished countries could live better lives.

One common response from utilitarians is that while morality does require such colossal sacrifices, it may not be utility optimizing to blame people for failing to meet them. In other words, one need not feel especially bad for not giving all their money to charity, even though that is what morality requires. The idea is that overall consequences are better if people in the west didn’t stew in their moral inadequacy. But this is an argument from consequences, and I think it’s just as plausible to think that we could drastically increase utility by inflicting crippling guilt on those who didn’t give all their money to charity.

Another, maybe better response by utilitarians, is to point out that non-utilitarianism is also very demanding in what it requires. Imagine that you put most of your wealth into a nice house. A train is traveling toward a young child and will hit it unless you hit a switch to move the train onto a track that leads to your house (I know ethics examples get ridiculous, but their ridiculousness is part of what clarifies our intuitions). This is supposed to represent the current situation of westerners, who could part with a large amount of their money to save a  child who will soon die of disease or malnutrition in another country. The idea is that we would of course throw the switch in the case I just gave, so why don’t we give much more of our money to international charities?

Notice also that this not a utilitarian position. One could say “the only reason we would flip the switch is if we believed in utilitarianism” but this isn’t true. We would flip the switch even if we were under the sway of various other moralities. For example, I could imagine someone believing that he should rescue the child even if the utility loss were greater by destroying his house because losses that leave someone above some minimal threshold of well being are discounted. Since me without my house would still have a minimal threshold of well being (I would still be healthy and able to feed myself etc) and since kids in impoverished countries are below this threshold, I should give large amounts of my money to them. This is a version of Rawls’ position (any amount of sacrifice is justified to help the very worst-off).

We might also say that we have a duty, not to maximize utility, but rescue people from immediate death. Once the children in poor countries are not in danger of death due to starvation, then our duty to them ends, even if they are still very undernourished and living bad lives overall.

Or finally, we might have to give all of our money to poorer people, not on utility grounds, but on equality grounds.

Under a range of theories, our duties to the world are pretty demanding.


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