Several days ago, Nepal suffered a massive 7.9 scale earthquake, claiming over 4600 lives in one day. The tragedy in Nepal has been horrific and the international response has been swift. Particularly, American citizens have been moved to donate to charities, providing hundreds of thousands of dollars in aid.
Such charitable donations following natural disasters are not without precedence. The earthquake in Haiti generated $4 billion in voluntary charitable donations in the US, Hurricane Katrina generated $4 billion and the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami generated $1.6 billion. The pattern is clear. Charitable donations follow the wake of major natural disaster. In the absence of such disasters, international donations are significantly lower. However, this pattern of charitable donation is inconsistent with our basic ethical principles.
Regardless of the presence of natural disasters, we are always obligated to donate money that is not essential to us to save other peoples’ lives. To demonstrate this obligation, we can consider a hypothetical ethical dilemma conjured by moral philosopher Peter Singer. Singer presents the case wherein an individual has the choice between diverting a train either towards an innocent baby or towards her newly-bought car on which she has spent a large sum of her finances. Singer offers a choice that requires the agent to evaluate the principles at work in every act of altruism: namely, the relative moral worth of an individual’s self-interest and financial security (embodied in the car) versus the life and suffering of another individual (embodied in the baby). If we choose to save the baby, then we agree that the moral value of another’s life overrides considerations of self-interest. Extending this to everyday life, we are always in a position to donate excess money to charities that will save lives. Thus, by our answer to Singer’s dilemma, we are bound to donate to such charities in order to be ethically consistent.
It is important to note that while natural disasters claim much publicity, they are not the only events for which donors have the ability to contribute excess income to save lives. Indeed, to be ethically consistent by Singer’s dilemma, the publicity of suffering should not influence the size and frequency of charitable donations. Indeed, issues stemming from systemic poverty such as malnutrition, lack of education and lack of access to clean water and shelter affect billions of individuals who are not victim to the more visible effects of natural disasters. If the US bore its proportional share of such global deaths, poverty would kill 820,000 individuals per year. The only difference between deaths due to systemic poverty and deaths due to natural disaster is that systemic reasons for death receive no meaningful public dialogue and have become accepted as commonplace, inevitable and even natural. Meanwhile, the infrequent occurrence of natural disasters and the media publicity surrounding them turn such events into moral crusades.
My intention is not condemn those who donate to disaster relief. Rather, in addition to donating to disaster relief, I hope to convince individuals to donate in order to address systemic causes of death as well, such as poverty. By Singer’s dilemma, we are morally obligated to contribute money if people’s lives will thereby be saved. This includes not only donations for disaster relief, but also donations to build schools, to provide vaccinations, to combat discrimination and to protect the environment. Donations towards such issues may not save lives directly, but they address the structural and root causes for why people die in the first place. To provide more than just “band-aid” solutions to the world’s gushing wounds, we must expand beyond our current donation patterns.
Contact Neil Chaudhary at neilaman ‘at’ stanford.edu.