Poverty and the Free Market in Philosophies of Mark Zwolinski and Peter Singer
In the works of both Matt Zwolinski and Peter Singer, the two political philosophers explore the moral necessities surrounding altruistic international assistance and economic relationships, demonstrating the need for greater, more pragmatic international support for developing countries in the context of the global free market.
Singer and Effective Altruism
In the essay “Affluence, Famine, and Morality,” Peter Singer argues that people in affluent countries have a moral obligation to provide more international humanitarian assistance, especially toward disaster relief. He qualifies this with the principle, “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it” (Singer, “Affluence, Famine, and Morality” 231). In so doing, he condemns affluent countries’ over-indulgence in material luxuries while they simultaneously remain negligent toward their implicit ethical responsibilities.
Singer then goes on to argue that there is no moral difference between helping someone physically near us as opposed to helping someone in another country given today’s global interconnectivity. He supports this by objecting to contemporary acceptance of the bystander effect, asserting that it does not lessen our moral obligation to mitigate suffering whether an individual is the only person able to help or if many can do so. In this light, Singer opposes society’s modern normative view of giving to those in need as “charitable,” claiming that philanthropy is a moral obligation. He emphasizes that to not participate is less uncharitable than it is wrong and immoral.
Singer offers the position that the government should be entirely responsible for international assistance as a counterpoint to his own claims. He dismisses this objection, which claims that private contributions enable the government to avoid responsibility. According to Singer, government decisions to develop aid programs come about as a reflection of domestic public interest in the government doing so, with private philanthropy serving as a method by which citizens can demonstrate such interest. Thus, effective aid comes about as private and public efforts toward global altruism compound off one another, necessitating the ongoing and dynamic participation of both.
The final objection Singer refutes is that giving to charity provides only a temporary solution to most problems, such as food insecurity. He replies that this conundrum does not exonerate moral negligence, adding that individuals can seek out and support organizations that do address the root causes of global issues instead of their symptoms. He goes on to address how much we should donate; Singer asserts it is our duty to give to the point of marginal utility, or the point at which giving more would result in comparable harm to those being helped.
Singer’s ultimate argument is that living ethically involves consistently pursuing actions that confer the greatest benefits, whether at an individual or societal level. Another of Singer’s works, The Most Good You Can Do, centers around this idea. In the book, Singer argues that assistance should be done in the most pragmatic manner possible, offering the idea of Effective Altruism. In defining the concept, he states: “[Effective altruists] don’t give to whatever cause tugs most strongly at their heartstrings. They give to the cause that will do the most good, given the abilities, time and money they have available” (Singer, “The Most Good You Can Do” 7). This duty to the poor entails doing the most good with the excess money people have in affluent nations, not just simply doing good.
Zwolinski and Sweatshops
In keeping with the idea of morally pragmatic treatment of international economic assistance, the political philosopher Matt Zwolinski argues that curtailing sweatshops within the context of the global free market would be locally detrimental and thus morally antithetical. Zwolinski argues that the choice of many individuals in developing countries to seek employment in sweatshops represents the expression of independent preferences based upon one’s autonomy within circumstances that fail to offer better options. Thus, the decision demonstrates moral significance, as it both exhibits such individuals’ capacities for rationality as well as their dismissal of other, less beneficial options.
While it can be true that people don’t have an intrinsic desire to be a sweatshop worker, it is also true that they prefer it to alternative choices, and “acting to remove that option is likely to cause them great harm” (Zwolinski 694). In fact, they prefer sweatshop jobs as they outpay their other domestic choices significantly. For many laborers, taking away sweatshop job opportunities would ultimately take away their highest paying employment option. Furthermore, sweatshops offer mutual global benefits: not only can multinational companies reduce operating costs, but they can also provide the poor in developing nations with relatively preferential employment. Implicit to this discussion is the idea of raising the minimum wage for sweatshop workers. Zwolinski argues that doing so would produce adverse consequences, as it would incentivize companies to move to regions where labor costs remain naturally low—effectively removing the best employment options for many in poor countries, and ultimately leaving them worse off.
Our Duty to the Poor
Given the somewhat randomness of international inequity, there lies a particular moral duty to attempt to overcome the global collective action problem of foreign aid. The contemporary globalization of world markets only serves to exacerbate this dilemma, as those nations already endowed with the most advanced resources, such as the United States, receive the most tangible benefits of trade with other, less developed countries. This is apparent throughout society; the example of Professor Courtland’s cartoon juxtaposing poverty in America versus that in Indonesia, in which the unemployed American still wears expensive shoes while the Indonesian wears none at all, especially illustrated this point for me (WordPress).
To combine the points of both Singer and Zwolinski, it is ethically important that society enacts pragmatic policies toward international assistance that take into account both our moral imperative to provide aid but also the necessity to take into account the realities of the global free market. Moreover, US assistance does not have to be through outright donations or monetary transfer. As such, the United States could promote diplomatic trade platforms that provide vast economic benefits to participating countries while also requiring them to adhere to certain norms, such as a baseline minimum wage. By establishing such respectful economic and diplomatic relationships, the United States could better position itself to lead developing countries to promote their own economies in ways that respect the rights of the employed while also expanding economic opportunity for everyone.
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