Category Archives: Uncategorized

When Peter Singer was right: why we should give to the East Africa appeal

“As I write this, in November 1971, people are dying in East Bengal from lack of food, shelter, and medical care.  The suffering and death that are occurring there now are not inevitable, not unavoidable…”

“At the individual level, people have, with very few exceptions, not responded to the situation in any significant way.  Generally speaking, people have not given large sums to relief funds; they have not written to their parliamentary representatives demanding increased government assistance; they have not demonstrated in the streets, held symbolic fasts, or done anything else directed towards providing the refugees with the means to satisfy their essential needs.”

History repeating itself – a sad but true cliché.  As Britain is embroiled in a media scandal, thousands of people are slowly starving to death in East Africa, largely unnoticed.

Peter Singer has lost a few fans in the UK following the New College for Humanities scandal.   He did, however, write one of the most significant articles in contemporary political philosophy, “Famine, Affluence and Morality” .  His argument is worth re-stating here to remind us of why we should all be donating to the East African crisis appeal .

Singer begins with the assumption that “suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.”  He argues, “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”

This principle seems obvious, but in reality, it fundamentally challenges the way we live our lives in consumer societies.  To prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we would have to give up almost everything we own until the level of marginal utility; that is, until the level where we have the most basic standard of living necessary to survive.

Singer argues that this is morally correct.  He admits, however, that the demanding nature means that most people will not adopt such a principle.  He suggests instead that, “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought morally to do it.”

For example, if you walk past a shallow pond where a child is drowning, you ought to go into the pond and save the child.  All you are sacrificing are wet, muddy clothes and a loss of time; these are not as morally significant as the death of a child.

What does this mean for individuals in developed countries?  Singer suggests, it means not buying new clothes, or a new car, or whatever consumer item you feel you need, but giving that money to famine relief.  If what you already own is acceptable, owning these items is not of comparable moral significance to the death of an individual due to famine.  It would not be good of you to give that money to famine relief, it would not be an act of charity; it is a moral obligation.

If you can prevent something bad from happening (death through starvation) without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance (clothes, booze, electronics), you ought morally to do it.

What’s wrong with this argument?  Well, it is an argument about individual morality.  We know that the causes of poverty and famine are structural.  So simply appealing to individual morality is inadequate.  We need to rethink and transform the political and economic structures that allow chronic poverty and famine to occur.  Individual morality, however, is a good place to start.

If you are still not convinced, let me suggest a further reason why you should donate.  Famine is not a natural disaster; it is man-made.  As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen pointed out three decades ago, there has never been a famine in a functioning democracy.  While the years of drought that have precipitated the crisis in East Africa are natural phenomena, the ability to cope with this is not.  A functioning government, which can fairly distribute food and resources, can prevent disaster.

Why doesn’t that exist in these countries?  Bad governance?  Partly, yes.  But also as a result of IMF policies that prevented them from developing viable public sectors.  In the 90s, the IMF demanded developing countries open their markets to foreign direct investment (FDI) if they wanted to keep receiving loans.

Foreign multinational corporations and governments have bought up the most fertile land in these countries, leaving wasteland for those who live there.  This neo-colonial land grab, designed to keep Western countries functioning at their current levels of consumption, has also gone largely unnoticed.

Have you lobbied British companies that are involved?  Have you checked if you pension fund or bank is involved?  Have you written to your MP condemning this heinous practice?  No?  We are all complicit in this – this famine, and the next one, and the next one.  It’s time, at the very least, to mitigate some of its effects.

So instead of going to the pub tonight and spending £50 on booze and partying, give it to the DEC.  As Singer has shown us this isn’t a matter of choice, it’s a moral imperative.

Quotes from Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence and Morality”, reprinted in Thom Brooks ed., The Global Justice Reader, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008

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Filed under Democracy, Human Rights, Uncategorized

Crackdown on Student Occupations

Another wave of student occupations has sprung up this week in the run-up to the national anti-cuts demonstration on March 26th. Media coverage has been scant – occupations are old news now, and the story is being eclipsed by Japan and Libya. But it’s time that the brutal crackdown on students became news.

On Tuesday, the police turned up en masse at Glasgow University to evict a small group of students occupying the Heatherington Research Club. The BBC reports there were 80 police officers, 18 police vehicles and a helicopter, to evict 15 students. There were clashes between the police and protestors. One woman allegedly had concussion and another was taken away in an ambulance. As the chaos mounted, more and more supporters of the occupation showed up, with around a hundred students protesting in the university quad in the afternoon.

Glasgow University Management has since sent an email to staff and students expressing their regret over the action. The Principal, Anton Muscatelli, has said that the events were “deeply unfortunate”. He claims that staff called the police in to peacefully end the seven-week occupation, but “Unfortunately that was not the outcome, and the police then took the actions that many colleagues and students witnessed. I regret this and the train of events that was set in motion. I fully understand the concerns that many of you have that the action was excessive and unnecessary.”

Why, however, would you call the police to peacefully end an occupation of fifteen students? What did he think would happen? Using excessive, disproportionate force is not the way to peacefully end a peaceful protest; it’s surely just asking for trouble.

At the UCL Occupation, university management is using psychological rather than physical force against students. The students are occupying the university registry (the administration wing) in solidarity with the University and Colleges Union (UCU) strike on Tuesday and Thursday this week.

Management responded by threatening students with disciplinary action and with the full imposition of legal fees arising from the occupation and any other costs they deem to have been incurred. Instead of taking legal action against “persons unknown”, as is the usual practice, they are claiming to have CCTV footage of individuals involved and they will hold each of them liable for the costs. The students tried to negotiate with management, but they have flatly refused to budge from their threats, prolonging what was supposed to be a short-lived occupation in support of the strike.

Clearly university managers across the country are getting tired of this year’s spontaneous wave of direct action. But instead of bullying students either physically or emotionally, why don’t they listen to what they have to say?

Students are standing up for educational establishments, so that they continue to receive state funding and that lecturers and other staff don’t lose their jobs and pensions. They are also standing up for future generations of students, so that they too can go to university and not be lumbered with tens of thousands of pounds of debt. They are fighting for their own futures, against austerity measures that will slash available jobs and gut the public and education sectors which many of them hope to go into.

University management surely has an interest in maintaining state funding. It also has a pastoral duty to its students, and responsibilities towards staff as employees. The universities should be supporting the student protestors, not blindly doing the government’s bidding. If management welcomed the protests and got behind them, it would make the whole movement more powerful and deeply challenge the government cuts to higher education.

Their heavy-handed, domineering responses violate their responsibilities to students and striking staff. It makes no sense for them to battle their students in this way. They need to be open, to listen and to stop using bully-boy tactics. And if they don’t, anyone supportive of the students must help fight their corner.

UCL Occupation are asking people to sign their petition to end management’s threats of victimisation of individuals.

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Filed under Education, Public Service Cuts, Student Protests, Uncategorized