Philosophical Interventions: Book Reviews, 1986-2011

By Martha C. Nussbaum | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIFTEEN
If Oxfam Ran the World

PETER UNGER (1996), Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence

The basic life chances of human beings vary dramatically around the world. According to the 1996 Report of the United Nations Development Programme, the life expectancy of a child born today in Sierra Leone is 39.2 years, the life expectancy of a child born in Japan 79.6 years (U.S. 76.1, UK 76.3). In the developing world, daily calorie supply per capita ranges from 3223 in Barbados to 1505 in Somalia. The availability of these calories is not equally distributed in any nation, which means that there are many who suffer acute hunger. In Hong Kong in 1996, 100 per cent of the population had access to safe water, in China 67 per cent, in Haiti 28 per cent, in the Central African Republic 18 per cent, in Afghanistan 12 per cent. These facts suggest that there are big problems of human misery in the world, problems that should be addressed by theories both of personal morality and of global justice.

Peter Unger argues that we are culpably indifferent to this misery, and that our daily thinking about our duty to others is marked by self-serving irrationality. We typically believe that we do have a moral duty to rescue others who are at risk, especially where this can be done without great cost to ourselves. For example, most people would agree that a bystander has a duty to rescue a child who is drowning in a shallow pond (an example originally introduced by Peter Singer). On the other hand, we typically deny that we have a moral duty to send money to save children’s lives at a distance, even though most people could do this with less effort than they would expend in saving the drowning child. This arbitrary distinction between the near and the far, Unger argues, can’t ultimately be supported by any good ethical argument.

So, too, with another distinction we are fond of making to let ourselves off the moral hook: between doing harm and allowing harm to occur. If a trolley-car is about to run over six people and, by flipping a switch, we could

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