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charity, economics, health, development


Development economists have long debated the proper targets for foreign aid contributions from wealthy countries. Philosophers like Peter Singer and Peter Unger now suggest that these countries' citizens have a parallel moral responsibility to tithe a portion of their income directly for the relief of the suffering of the poorest. These thinkers would prefer a systematic global redistribution of income - some public mechanism for accomplishing worldwide what the tax systems of egalitarian social democratic states accomplish. But they all realize that such global governance is unlikely to come about in any of our lifetimes. So they turn their attention to individuals, arguing that giving more to the poor is necessary and not simply supererogatory (i.e., something beyond duty that it would be especially admirable to do.).

Unfortunately, both Singer and Unger avoid many of the hardest questions their approaches suggest. Neither convincingly draws a line between necessity, convenience, and luxury - essential distinctions for those urging others to rethink their unnecessary consumption. By failing to concretize their ethical arguments, they leave themselves vulnerable to attacks by pragmatists who find their worldviews absurdly demanding.

A clearer theory of the ethics of consumption may help save tithing ethics from pragmatist critiques. An ethic of consumption and charity - based on either religious or secular humanist traditions - would give their ideas real weight and force. There is some middle ground between the saintly rigor of a Mother Teresa and the unreflective materialism so common in developed countries. The financial health of NGO's, and the fate of poverty relief generally, depends on the ability of the well-off to adopt such an ethic.


Economics | Growth and Development