In Singer’s Chapter Nine – Asking Too Much? – he argues that if rescuing people from dying is the greatest good – more important than anything else one could do – then all of our resources (beyond the barest necessities of sustaining our own life) should, for us to be ethical, be given to efforts that save lives. “My argument does imply that it is wrong to spend money on those things [gourmet food, music systems] when we could instead be using the money to save people’s lives and prevent great suffering.” Later on that page 149, after the example of buying good stereo equipment, he asks, “Can it be ethical to live that way?” His implied answer is surely “No.”
Likewise, he says, giving to the arts is, in our world, “morally dubious.”
Singer, of course, does not think many people will live by his argument that any expenditures beyond our basic needs should be given to help the extremely poor. He realizes that, in fact, few of us will. He contents himself to challenging rich people to give away a mere 5% of their income, and the rest of us perhaps 1%. His challenge is quite modest, and achievable.
As compelling is his logic, and as informative are his statistics (about poverty and about the super-rich), however, it seems to me that he neglects the human need to create. We do not stay alive merely to stay alive. There is something within the human spirit that longs for beauty, for joy, for creativity – the arts. The world, of course, could easily do both: pay for amazing artistic activities, and save the dying too. If only the rich would just spare the rest of the world some change.
For our part we can donate to efforts that seek to save lives. But we can’t do that if we neglect other parts of the soul – community, art, joy, leisure, rest. A culture that neglected these, I think, would soon care little for the dying, or for each other either.
Is it possible that a dying soul is as bad as a dying body?