Sunday, February 01, 2009

Not all philosophy is pointless - action against extreme poverty

Philosophers have a bad name in society. It's mostly well-paid academics going on about stuff that serves no real point, and certainly no real people. Most mainstream philosophers happily repay this compliment by talking down to colleagues concerned with real-world problems such as poverty, public health issues and such topics. Real philosophy, to them, to be good, has to be inconsequential, but inconsequential in a formally elegant way.

Well, the good news is, and I'm trying to rehabilitate practical philosophy here, that an ever-growing number of philosophers disagrees with such sentiments. A trail blazer for useful applied philosophy has been the Australian utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. Singer is the author of countless books, some of which made it even on to the New York Times bestseller list. His most recent project is very much worthy of support.

He is responding to a growing debate among philosophers about how we ought to respond, as citizens of the wealthiest parts of the world, to the continuing occurrence of extreme poverty. Political philosophers such as Thomas Pogge came up with a couple of grand theoretical ideas, including a rejigging of the world economic order and the institutions that support them. It goes without saying that their impact on the real world outside academic talkfests has been non-existent (much as I would also like to see some of the changes Pogge and his acolytes are aiming for - albeit for different reasons, I'm a closetted philosopher after all).

Singer is not so much concerned with building grand theoretical edifices and singing the song of human rights and ever growing human dignity, he's concerned about practical changes that would immediately benefit real people.

Coinciding with the launch of his latest book he also started a campaign trying to get as many of us to pledge to donate immediately a percentage of our annual income to charities that have a proven track record at improving the living conditions and quality of life of those of us living in extreme poverty. I urge you to check it out and consider supporting a charity that has an immediate positive effect on the living conditions and quality of life of those living in extreme poverty.

This should not prevent you from participating in academic philosophical talkfests on poverty reduction of course, just don't delude yourself into thinking that that in itself would make any discernible difference to anyone at all.


  1. Dear Udo:
    you are right about talkfests. Here in the South we are tryng to do some talkfests mixed with actfests, such as the World Social Forum. We also try to give theoretical support to current debates such as the one that is behind new Constitutions (Bolivia, Ecuador, etc), indigenous conceptions of property and development and, of course, poverty and equality. These are matched by strong actions and people movilization.
    So, the divide between talking and acting, at least in this side of the world, is perhaps not so deep.
    Luis Justo
    Bioética Latinoamericana

  2. Sure, that's what poor countries need to solve the problems of poverty and inequality: new constitutions and institutions dreamed up by authoritarian radicals on the left (or the right, for that matter). That worked in Cuba, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, right?

    Don't get me wrong: there is much we should do to reform national and international institutions. But social experimentation of the sort that you suggest ("indigenous conceptions of property") has always led to more misery and poverty.

  3. Udo, Thanks for reviewing this book. I am Australian like the author Peter Singer. Australians have a very direct way of not being so politically correct, which in this case really helps having an authentic discussion. is my response to these problems we face in the world. My solution is to global poverty is to 1. create awareness of what it really 'feels' like to be hungry and this impoverished condition comes is not by choice. 2. To help people not be overwhelmed and show them they can do something about it by enroling their problem solving savvy. 3.the solution in my view lies in enterprise.

    I'm an advocate for the combination of Social Entrepreneruship and Micro Franchising in combination: intercepting poverty.
    I think the enrolment of entrepreneurs who have enterprise skill then imparting this skill via 'eternal enterprise' centres. Then growing small scale franchising from this and empowering and liberating the poor through emotional and economic self reliance. This will take partnership and committment of developed world communities sharing intellectual property with third world communities to pull themselves up out of impoverishment, equiping them to be self reliant. I have adopted a son from Ethiopia and return their often. Ethiopia is an LDC or Least Developed Country (According to the UN)...there is much to do in the world if we share intellectual property and adopt a mentoring approach. This goes beyond Aid. To do this however we must intercept self interest, and while people suck on pepsi cola and watch dancing with the stars (and believe that this is real life) - we have a challenge. The media distracting us from using our inner calling as human beings to serve eachother and build community has much to answer for.
    Self Interest is what we are really battling here. I often ask business leaders - how much is enough? When they can answer 'how much is enough' they can determine when their 'cup is full' and as such share the overflow; whether that be intellectual property, ideas, time, energy, contacts or straight old money. What people fail to consider, is that whatever we 'have' that we 'possess' we cannot take it with us when we die. A great resource for your readers is also
    my blog is
    Tanya Lacy

  4. Dear Udo,

    I disagree with your statement that real philosophy, such as that written by Thomas Podge, is inconsequential. Theory is important for its ability to raise questions and create discussion. I think Singer does build a "grand theoretical edifice" in the first chapter as he discussion how we can reason it is as important to donate money to the poor as it is to save a drowning child. In Singer's theoretical discussion, unlike in discussions of large social systems like governments and economies, it is relatively simple to jump from the theory that we are ethically obligated to donate to a practicle solution of if we all donate a small amount, the effect would be significant. I think Peter's argument would lack the persuasive power it carries without the theoretical philosophy behind it. Additionally, I think practicle applications of theory on world economic and social orders take longer to achieve because it is less obvious what form practicle application might take, and effecting that change would be difficult in and of its own self. However, I think theory is a good starting point for asking those kinds of questions. Therefore, I do not think that academic discussions have no discernable difference.

    Caroline Walz


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