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  • [APPLAUSE]

  • PETER SINGER: Thank you very much.

  • It's great to see so many of you here

  • despite the temptations of getting out

  • in the sunshine on a beautiful day.

  • And thank you very much, [? Christine, ?]

  • for having set this up and for that introduction.

  • So I'm talking about an article that I

  • wrote a very long time ago.

  • "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" was originally

  • published in 1972.

  • And it's now been republished together

  • with a couple of more recent essays, and a previously

  • unpublished preface, and a forward by Bill

  • and Melinda Gates as this little book,

  • "Famine, Affluence, and Morality."

  • And I'm delighted that OUP have had the idea that this essay is

  • still relevant today and that it's

  • something that is worth getting out there and reminding people

  • about.

  • But let me just take you back a little bit to the circumstances

  • in which it was written, which most of you

  • will not be able to remember I can

  • see looking around the room.

  • [LAUGHTER]

  • So for those who don't know, there

  • was a time when the country that is now Bangladesh

  • was a part of Pakistan.

  • It was called East Pakistan.

  • There was a movement for independence

  • from what was then West Pakistan and is now just Pakistan.

  • And that movement for independence

  • was very brutally repressed by the Pakistani army.

  • As a result of that repression, nine million people

  • fled across the border from East Pakistan to India.

  • And this is just a small, tiny segment

  • of that mass of humanity that was

  • trying to escape the repression and widespread starvation that

  • also had occurred because of the disruption of infrastructure

  • because of that repression.

  • I was living in Oxford at the time.

  • I was a graduate student at the University of Oxford.

  • And I was troubled by the fact that despite this vast number

  • of people in great need, affluent nations were not

  • doing very much to help.

  • It wasn't that they didn't know about the situation.

  • It was well publicized.

  • The Beatle, George Harrison-- or ex-Beatle, I guess, by then,

  • perhaps-- put on a concert for Bangladesh,

  • and tried to raise money for it, and did

  • raise some money for it.

  • And Oxfam and other organizations

  • were fundraising for it.

  • But they raised I think something

  • like 20 or 30 million pounds.

  • And the World Health Organization

  • was saying that something like half a billion pounds

  • was needed to feed and provide sanitation and shelter

  • for this very large number of refugees.

  • And India was a much poorer country then than it is today.

  • So it was not really going to be able to cope with this burden.

  • So I wanted to write something about this.

  • This was at a time when philosophy, at least

  • English speaking philosophy, was just

  • starting to return to what I see as its roots and true nature,

  • going right back to Athens, and ancient Athens, and Socrates,

  • of suggesting how we ought to live.

  • It was emerging from a period where

  • it was really analyzing the meanings of moral terms

  • in what was sometimes ordinary language philosophy

  • and I think of as a phase that-- you know,

  • it wasn't completely worthless.

  • But it was less interesting than actually

  • trying to grapple with these questions of how

  • we ought to live that traditionally philosophy has

  • been about.

  • So I wanted to write something about this.

  • And this seemed a good example to ask

  • what are our obligations as people living

  • in an affluent society-- pretty comfortable,

  • pretty secure-- in terms of helping

  • in a situation like this?

  • But I didn't want to limit it either just

  • to this particular crisis, which obviously at some point

  • was going to be solved one way or the other--

  • but generalizing to what we ought to do to help people

  • in extreme poverty, which existed all over the world

  • and which was also taking lives.

  • So the argument that I put forward

  • was really a very simple one.

  • And I'll just run you quickly through the premises

  • in the argument.

  • So the first premise I think is very difficult to deny,

  • that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter,

  • and medical care is a bad thing.

  • And that was what these nine million people were being

  • threatened with at the time.

  • So there was a bad thing happening.

  • Second premise, somewhat more controversial--

  • and I'll come back to this and say a little bit

  • in defense of it.

  • But I wanted to claim that if it's in our power

  • to prevent something bad happening without sacrificing

  • something of comparable moral significance, then

  • we ought to do that.

  • You're probably saying, well, what's

  • of comparable moral significance?

  • But I wanted to leave that as a kind

  • of open expression for people to put their own values in.

  • I didn't want to make my judgment, in this article

  • anyway, as to what might be of comparable moral significance

  • to suffering and death from lack of food and so on.

  • I wanted people to ask themselves-- so, you know,

  • I could do something.

  • We're getting obviously to the question of,

  • I could donate to Oxfam's appeal.

  • I could do something.

  • What would I be sacrificing if I were

  • to make a substantial donation to that appeal?

  • Would it be of comparable moral significance

  • to the death and suffering that it would prevent?

  • And I thought that most people living in affluent countries

  • if they were honest with themselves would say, well,

  • I could give quite a lot before I reached the point where I was

  • sacrificing anything that even in terms

  • of my own values, whatever they might be,

  • would be of comparable moral significance

  • to what we would be preventing.

  • So that's the second premise.

  • And the third is a factual claim that it is in our power

  • to prevent suffering and death without thereby sacrificing

  • anything of comparable moral significance.

  • So that's obviously a claim that needs

  • to be defended as well in terms of what the factual situation

  • in the world is.

  • And I'll come back to that.

  • But from those three premises, we

  • can draw the conclusion that we ought

  • to do what would prevent the suffering and death from lack

  • of food where we can and if indeed it's

  • the case, that when that's in our power, we ought to do it.

  • So that's the really simple argument.

  • And I think one of the reasons why the article has

  • been very successful, and is still widely known

  • and discussed, and reprinted in many anthologies and textbooks

  • is because that argument is so simple.

  • It doesn't require a great philosophical sophistication

  • to spell out what the argument is.

  • Now some people see that as a disadvantage.

  • Particularly if I go and lecture on this sort of topic

  • in a place like France, they all think, oh, this can't really

  • be philosophy.

  • I can understand that.

  • [LAUGHTER]

  • It's not profound enough.

  • But I think we can get into deeper questions if we want to.

  • And we don't need to make the language more complicated.

  • OK let's, though, look at the defense of the premises.

  • And we'll start with the second premise.

  • So in defending the second premise,

  • I told a little story-- and the story

  • might be the other reason that the article has

  • been so widely read-- called "The Drowning

  • Child in the Shallow Pond."

  • I couldn't find, despite everything

  • that's on the internet-- you'd think everything is there.

  • I could not find a photo of a child drowning in a pond.

  • [LAUGHTER]

  • But I found a photo of a rather happy toddler playing in water.

  • And that's going to have to do.

  • [LAUGHTER]

  • So the story is-- it's laid out here--

  • you're walking across a park.

  • And there's a shallow pond in the park.