The respected social philosopher Peter Singer asks us to give to charities to help save the world’s poor from misery and death — but he doesn’t urge a challenge to the economic order that immiserates and kills, writes University of Pittsburgh graduate philosophy student Mathew Snow at Jacobin magazine.

Singer, author of the 2009 book “The Life You Can Save,” is one of the English-speaking world’s many public thinkers who appears to have decided — dubiously — that a political revolution resulting in universal wellness and prosperity is not possible. His thinking forms the ideological basis of a growing social movement that calls itself Effective Altruism. Due to the group’s efforts, more than 17,000 people have pledged at least 1 percent of their annual income to causes it endorses, while more than 1,000 people have pledged to give at least 10 percent.

Some millennials have called the group “the new social movement of our generation.”

But Singer’s analysis is too limited to merit our respect, Snow writes. Its cardinal sin is in exonerating capitalism and capitalists — people who “make it their business to control what others need for life and a minimum standard of living” — of responsibility for the suffering that Singer and the Effective Altruists say they want to alleviate.

“The result,” writes Snow, “is a simultaneously flawed moral and structural analysis that aspires to fix the world’s most pressing problems on capital’s terms” but leaves intact the forces that create poverty and the evils that spring from it.

“If we look at the institutions that make and allocate the resources others so desperately need,” Snow writes, “we must ask whether it is wrong to withhold those resources from others for the sake of payment and profit. Doing so not only seems morally reprehensible, it is morally reprehensible for precisely the same reason Effective Altruists argue it is wrong not to donate money to charities: it’s immoral to value some small sum of money (or what it might buy) over a human life or minimum standard of living.”

Snow continues:

That subsidizing capital accumulation has become the only readily available way for most to act on compassion for others is perverse. Even if charity were extremely efficacious, which it is not, choosing between a modest sum of money and another human life is no choice at all. But it is one we are faced with because capitalists have already made their choice and shaped the world to suit it. …

The problem [according to Effective Altruists], apparently, isn’t that capitalism’s institutionalization of immoral maxims ends up leaving billions in poverty and hundreds of millions in existential need of food, water, shelter, and basic medical care. Instead, the problem becomes that relatively affluent individuals haven’t bought those necessities from the capitalist class for the hundreds of millions that need them; the comparatively wealthy have been “living high and letting die” either out of ignorance of what their money could buy or out of weakness of will in the face of a consumerist society.

The solution, then, is to raise awareness of what money can buy and create a “culture of giving.” But this misdirects the impetus to address these issues into little more than a critique of personal spending habits.

“This insidious state of affairs could be avoided,” Snow continues, “if we just consistently applied the uncontroversial moral principle underlying Effective Altruism: we ought to help others when we can do so without sacrificing anything nearly as important.” But capitalists and their apologists seek to escape accusations of responsibility for their role in the creation of suffering by arguing — in defiance of the accumulated findings of nearly two centuries of social science research — that their mode of economics is necessary. Therefore, writes Snow, “When people die from lack of food, clean water, and medical care, members of the capitalist class say, ‘it is not owing to me; it is owing to the market.’ ”

“Rather than asking how individual consumers can guarantee the basic sustenance of millions of people,” Snow urges, “we should be questioning an economic system that only halts misery and starvation if it is profitable. Rather than solely creating an individualized ‘culture of giving,’ we should be challenging capitalism’s institutionalized taking.”

Citing the Chicago State University philosopher Paul Gomberg, Snow further argues “that the resources required to successfully relieve poverty through philanthropy or achieve radical systemic change are so huge that ‘in doing more of one we do less of the other.’ So, [charity, on the one hand, and efforts to replace unjust political and economic systems, on the other,] must be construed as ‘competing ways of using our time, energy, and other resources.’ ”

“We don’t have to accept capital’s terms for addressing its own problems or purported moral imperatives that presuppose them,” Snow concludes. “We can overturn those terms completely.”

Read Snow’s whole essay here.

— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.