The Basics

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Carnelian gem imprint representing Socrates, Rome, 1st century BC-1st century AD.

Carnelian gem imprint representing Socrates, Rome, 1st century BC-1st century AD. (Wikipedia)

Socrates: Whether the many agree or not, and whether we must additionally suffer harsher things than these or gentler, nevertheless acting unjustly is evil and shameful in every way for the person who does it. Do we say this or not?

Crito: We do.

So: And so one must never act unjustly.

Cr: By no means.

So: And so one should not repay an injustice with an injustice, as the many think, since one should never act unjustly.

Cr: It appears not.

So: What next? Should one cause harm, Crito, or not?

Cr: Presumably not, Socrates.

So: And then? Is returning a harm for a harm just, as the many say, or not just?

Cr: Not at all.

So: Because harming a man in any way is no different from doing an injustice.

Cr: That’s true.

So: One must neither repay an injustice nor cause harm to any man, no matter what one suffers because of him. And see to it, Crito, that in agreeing with this you are not agreeing contrary to what you believe, because I know that few people believe it and would continue to believe it. And there is no common ground between those who hold this and those who don’t, but when they see each other’s positions they are bound to despise one other. So think carefully about whether you yourself agree and believe it and let us begin thinking from here, that it is never right to act unjustly or to return an injustice or to retaliate when one has suffered some harm by repaying the harm. Do you reject or accept this starting principle?

Plato: Crito, 49b-d. Translated by Cathal Woods and Ryan Pack

Famine, Affluence, and Morality

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Peter Singer

Peter Singer

If you have never read Peter Singer’s indispensable and highly influential article, “Famine, Affluence and Morality (1972),” I recommend taking the time to do so. And if you have read it, but only the original version, you may want to read the ‘Revised Edition,’ particularly the ‘Postscript.’ You will find it illuminating. This article is still essential reading, and, like a good movie, play, or work of art, worth revisiting again and again. You can find the Revised Edition with Postscript online HERE.

Are Citizens of Affluent Nations Violating the Human Rights of People Living in Poverty in Developing Countries?

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Citizens of affluent nations violate the human rights of people living in poverty in certain significant but restricted ways. To show how this is so, we must first clarify what we mean by human rights violations. German philosopher Thomas Pogge[1] states that human rights violations occur whenever individuals or institutions knowingly neglect the unfulfilled human rights of the poor, or whenever we “knowingly contribute to the design or imposition of institutional arrangements” under which these human rights foreseeably and avoidably remain unfulfilled.[2] Continue reading

“Why Should I Do What I Believe to Be Right?” – Henry Sidgwick

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Henry Sidgwick 1894

Henry Sidgwick in 1894

“We seldom ask, ‘Why should I believe what I see to be true?’ but we frequently ask, ‘Why should I do what I see to be right?’

“It is easy to reply that the question is futile, since it could only be answered by a reference to some other recognized principle of right conduct, and the question might just as well be asked as regards that again, and so on. But still we do ask the question widely and continually, and therefore this demonstration of its futility is not completely satisfactory: we require besides some explanation of its persistency. Continue reading

Four Ways We Gave This Month

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Image of wristwatch

Until recently, I thought donations to charities should be made anonymously, that I should hide my giving, not let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. I thought that I should not announce or ‘advertise’ my giving, that this was ego-based, self-serving, less than altruistic. Even donation plaques in auditoriums bothered me: “This seat was donated by William A. & Susan R. Jones.” But I’ve changed my view on this. Continue reading

Peter Singer on Today’s Famine in Africa

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Peter Singer

Peter Singer

Those of us who care at all may send a donation to one of the agencies trying to help: ten dollars, or fifty dollars, or perhaps even a hundred dollars. Any more would be a rare act of generosity by the standards of our society. Yet those of us fortunate enough to live in Western Europe, North America, Australia, or Japan regularly spend as much or more on holidays, new clothes, or presents for our children. If we cared about the lives and welfare of strangers in Africa as we do about our own welfare and that of our children, would we spend money on these nonessential items for ourselves instead of using it to save lives? Of course, we have lots of excuses for not sending money to Africa: we say that our contribution could only be a drop in the ocean, or that the agencies waste the money they receive, or that food handouts are no good—

My contribution cannot end a famine, but it can save the lives of several people who might otherwise starve.

what is needed is development, or a social revolution, or population control. In our more honest moments, though, we recognize that these are excuses. Continue reading

The Richest 5% of Global Household Income

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Poverty-in-India

Poverty-in-India

This stopped me in my tracks this morning: “The richest five percent of the world’s population increased their share of global household income from 42.87% in 1988 to 45.75% in 2008. Had this substantial shift of nearly three percent of global household income gone to humanity’s poorer half instead, it would have easily sufficed to end severe poverty on this planet.”

“Looking just at the richest 1/100 percent of the U.S. population, we find that it increased its share of national household income from 0.86 percent in 1978 to 5.47 percent in 2012  gaining 539% over and above the rise in the U.S. average income. These 31,000 people now have about half as much income as the poorer half (155 million) of Americans and about the same income as the poorest 35% (2.5 billion people) of humankind.”*

“Let’s sing another song, boys, this one’s grown old and bitter.” – Leonard Cohen

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* (Pogge, Thomas (2014) “Are We Violating the Human Rights of the World’s Poor? Responses to Four Critics,” Yale Human Rights and Development Journal: Vol. 17: Iss. 1, Article 3.

Available at:http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yhrdlj/vol17/iss1/3

The Dalai Lama: On Greed & Philanthropy

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The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama

When it comes to creating wealth and thereby improving people’s material conditions, capitalism is without doubt effective, but capitalism is clearly inadequate as any kind of social ideal, since it is only motivated by profit, without any ethical principle guiding it.

One of the most significant truths brought to light by the present political crisis in the US is the overwhelming depth and pervasiveness of greed in our society. The propensity to spend and accumulate is so imbedded in the fabric of our nation that it has become nearly invisible to us; it pervades every dimension of our lives; it is the way we live. With a kind of breezy nonchalance, we spend ‘our’ money with little, if any, regard for the extreme suffering of others. Continue reading