PHIL 104 (STOLZE). Notes on Heather Widdows , Global Ethics: An Introduction , chapter 7. Poverty and Inequality as Ethical Problems. Relative vs. Absolute Poverty Rising Economic Inequality in the United States Four Ethical Responses Utilitarianism (Peter Singer)
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Notes on Heather Widdows, Global Ethics: An Introduction, chapter 7
“The top 1 percent of households have secured a very large share of all of the gains in income—59.9 percent of the gains from 1979–2007, while the top 0.1 percent seized an even more disproportionate share—36 percent. In comparison, only 8.6 percent of income gains have gone to the bottom 90 percent. The patterns are similar for wages and capital income. As they have accrued a large share of income gains, the incomes of the top 1 percent of households have pulled far away from the incomes of typical Americans. In 2007, average annual incomes of the top 1 percent of households were 42 times greater than incomes of the bottom 90 percent (up from 14 times greater in 1979) and incomes of the top 0.1 percent were 220 times greater (up from 47 times greater in 1979).”
(From Lawrence Mishel and Josh Bivens, “Occupy Wall Streeters are Right about Skewed Economic Rewards in the United States” [www.epi.org/publication/bp331-occupy-wall-street/].)
“On my way to give a lecture, I pass a shallow ornamental pond and notice that a small child has fallen in and is in danger of drowning. I look around to see where the parents, or babysitter, are, but to my surprise, I see that there is no one else around. It seems that it is up to me to make sure that the child doesn’t drown. Would anyone deny that I ought to wade in and pull the child out? This will mean getting my clothes muddy, ruining my shoes and either cancelling my lecture or delaying it until I can find something dry to change into; but compared with the avoidable death of a child none of these things are significant” (p. 199).
Singer’s analogy is weak: Singer fails to identify the structural obstacles that prevent the child from being rescued. A better analogy would point out that there is an intricate apparatus (e.g., netting or scaffolding) above the pond that not only (a) prevents the child from escaping on its own but also (b) makes it extremely difficult for individuals alone to know how to extricate the child from this apparatus; what is needed is combined and collective action to free the child. In other words, politics and not just charity is required to solve the problem of world poverty.
In The Condition of the Working Class in England (New York: Oxford, 1993), his classic indictment of the negative social effects resulting from nineteenth-century capitalism, Friedrich Engels wrote:
“If one individual inflicts a bodily injury upon another which leads to the death of the person attacked we call it manslaughter; on the other hand, if the attacker knows beforehand that the blow will be fatal we call it murder. Murder has also been committed if society places hundreds of workers in such a position that they inevitably come to premature and unnatural ends. Their death is as violent as if they had been stabbed or shot . . . Murder has been committed if thousands of workers have been deprived of the necessities of life or if they have been forced into a situation in which it is impossible for them to survive . . . Murder has been committed if society knows perfectly well that thousands of workers cannot avoid being sacrificed so long as these conditions are allowed to continue. Murder of this sort is just as culpable as the murder committed by an individual. At first sight it does not appear to be murder at all because responsibility for the death of the victim cannot be pinned on any individual assailant. Everyone is responsible and yet no one is responsible, because it appears as if the victim has died from natural causes. If a worker dies no one places the responsibility for his death on society, though some would realize that society has failed to take steps to prevent the victim from dying. But it is murder all the same” (pp. 106-7).
“There was once a village along a river. The people who lived here were very kind. These people, according to parable, began noticing increasing numbers of drowning people caught in the river’s swift current. And so they went to work devising ever more elaborate technologies to resuscitate them. So preoccupied were these heroic villagers with rescue and treatment that they never thought to look upstream to see who was pushing the victims in.”
—Sandra Steingraber, Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, 2nd edition (New York: Da Capo Press, 2010), p. ix.