Unit Overview

In our last week we turn to thinking about the prospects for ending poverty. First we consider a classic essay by Peter Singer about how we all ought to be giving the majority of our income to charity. Next we consider the actual state of extreme poverty relative to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. And lastly we consider an article advocating for a universal basic income as a way of reclaiming the future in which people live a life of comfort while only work 15 hours a week that was predicted over a hundred years ago. And of course a necessary step to actually ending poverty and creating a true utopia is an economic system based on renewable energy that does not contribute to carbon emissions and climate change.

Lastly, we consider a short excerpt from Derek Parfit’s book Reasons and Persons where he suggests that human history may just be beginning and the role that moral philosophy may play in the future of humanity.


Taylor “The Ethics of Respect for Nature”

“In this paper I show how the taking of a certain ultimate moral attitude toward nature, which I call “respect for nature,” has a central place in the foundations of a life-centered system of environmental ethics. . . I argue that finally it is the good (well-being, welfare) of individual organisms, considered as entities having inherent worth, that determines our moral relations with the Earth’s wild communities of life.”

3 Parts to His Project

  1. Adopting the attitude of respect for nature
  2. A belief system that constitutes a way of conceiving the natural world and our place in it.
  3. A system of moral rules and standards for guiding our treatment of those ecosystems and life communities i.e. a set of normative principles which give concrete embodiment or expression to the attitude of respect for nature.

Very similar to Kant’s basic principle not treating other rational persons as merely a means to an end, and Tom Regan’s principles of not treating people and animals that are subject of a life as a means to an end. Kant argues humans have inherent value or dignity, Regan argues some animals also have inherent value. Here Taylor is arguing all living things have inherent value.

Life centered vs. Human centered ethical systems

“In designating the theory to be set forth as life-centered, I intend to contrast it with all anthropocentric views. According to the latter, human actions affecting the natural environment and its nonhuman inhabitants are right (or wrong) by either of two criteria: they have consequences which are favorable (or unfavorable) to human well-being, or they are consistent (or inconsistent) with the system of norms that protect and implement human rights. From this human-centered standpoint it is to humans and only to humans that all duties are ultimately owed. We may have responsibilities with regard to the natural ecosystems and biotic communities of our planet, but these responsibilities are in every case based on the contingent fact that our treatment of those ecosys- tems and communities of life can further the realization of human values and/or human rights. We have no obligation to promote or protect the good of nonhuman living things, independently of this contingent fact.”

“From the perspective of a life-centered theory, we have prima facie moral obligations that are owed to wild plants and animals themselves as members of the Earth’s biotic community. We are morally bound (other things being equal) to protect or promote their good for their sake. Our duties to respect the integrity of natural ecosystems, to preserve endangered species, and to avoid environmental pollution stem from the fact that these are ways in which we can help make it possible for wild species populations to achieve and maintain a healthy existence in a natural state.”

“Such obligations are due those living things out of recognition of their inherent worth. They are entirely additional to and independent of the obligations we owe to our fellow humans. . .Their well-being, as well as human well-being, is something to be realized as an end in itself.”


What would justify acceptance of a life-centered system of ethical principles?”

“(1) Every organism, species population, and community of life has a good of its own which moral agents can intentionally further or damage by their actions. To say that an entity has a good of its own is simply to say that, without reference to any other entity, it can be benefited or harmed. One can act in its overall interest or contrary to its overall interest, and environmental conditions can be good for it (advantageous to it) or bad for it (disadvantageous to it). What is good for an entity is what “does it good” in the sense of enhancing or preserving its life and well-being. What is bad for an entity is something that is detrimental to its life and well-being.”

Important point which is different from Kant’s original conception of which beings have value as ends in themselves:

“The idea of a being having a good of its own, as I understand it, does not entail that the being must have interests or take an interest in what affects its life for better or for worse. We can act in a being’s interest or contrary to its interest without its being interested in what we are doing to it in the sense of wanting or not wanting us to do it. It may, indeed, be wholly unaware that favorable and unfavorable events are taking place in its life. I take it that trees, for example, have no knowledge or desires or feelings. Yet it is undoubtedly the case that trees can be harmed or benefited by our actions”


“When construed in this way, the concept of a being’s good is not coextensive with sentience or the capacity for feeling pain. ”

“(2) The second concept essential to the moral attitude of respect for nature is the idea of inherent worth. We take that attitude toward wild living things (individuals, species populations, or whole biotic communities) when and only when we regard them as entities possessing inherent worth. Indeed, it is only because they are conceived in this way that moral agents can think of them- selves as having validly binding duties, obligations, and responsibilities that are owed to them as their due. I am not at this juncture arguing why they should be so regarded; I consider it at length below. But so regarding them is a presupposition of our taking the attitude of respect toward them and accordingly understanding ourselves as bearing certain moral relations to them. This can be shown as follows:

“What does it mean to regard an entity that has a good of its own as possessing inherent worth? Two general principles are involved: the principle of moral consideration and the principle of intrinsic value.”

“According to the principle of moral consideration, wild living things are deserving of the concern and consideration of all moral agents simply in virtue of their being members of the Earth’s community of life. From the moral point of view their good must be taken into account whenever it is affected for better or worse by the conduct of rational agents. This holds no matter what species the creature belongs to. The good of each is to be accorded some value and so acknowledged as having some weight in the deliberations of all rational agents. Of course, it may be necessary for such agents to act in ways contrary to the good of this or that particular organism or group of organisms in order to further the good of others, including the good of humans. But the principle of moral consideration prescribes that, with respect to each being an entity having its own good, every individual is deserving of consideration.

The principle of intrinsic value states that, regardless of what kind of entity it is in other respects, if it is a member of the Earth’s community of life, the realization of its good is something intrinsically valuable. This means that its good is prima facie worthy of being preserved or promoted as an end in itself and for the sake of the entity whose good it is. Insofar as we regard any organism, species population, or life community as an entity having inherent worth, we believe that it must never be treated as if it were a mere object or thing whose entire value lies in being instrumental to the good of some other entity. The well-being of each is judged to have value in and of itself.

Combining these two principles, we can now define what it means for a living thing or group of living things to possess inherent worth. To say that it possesses inherent worth is to say that its good is deserving of the concern and consideration of all moral agents, and that the realization of its good has intrinsic value, to be pursued as an end in itself and for the sake of the entity whose good it is.”

Taylor doesn’t attempt to prove, like Kant did with his forumula of humanity, that we ought to adopt this particular attitude of respect. He simply says it is an “ultimate moral attitude” that we can choose to adopt:

“When we adopt the attitude of respect for persons as the proper (fitting, appropriate) attitude to take toward all persons as persons, we consider the fulfillment of the basic interests of each individual to have intrinsic value. We thereby make a moral commitment to live a certain kind of life in rela- tion to other persons. We place ourselves under the direction of a system of standards and rules that we consider validly binding on all moral agents as such.4

Similarly, when we adopt the attitude of respect for nature as an ultimate moral attitude we make a commitment to live by certain normative principles. These principles constitute the rules of conduct and standards of character that are to govern our treatment of the natural world. This is, first, an ultimate commitment because it is not derived from any higher norm. The attitude of respect for nature is not grounded on some other, more general, or more fundamental attitude.”

Respect for Nature involves three components:

We may accordingly analyze the attitude of respect for nature into the following components. (a) The disposition to aim at, and to take steps to bring about, as final and disinterested ends, the promoting and protecting of the good of organisms, species populations, and life communities in natural ecosystems. (These ends are “final” in not being pursued as means to further ends. They are “disinterested” in being independent of the self-interest of the agent.) (b) The disposition to consider actions that tend to realize those ends to be prima facie obligatory because they have that tendency. (c) The disposition to experience positive and negative feelings toward states of affairs in the world because they are favorable or unfavorable to the good of organisms, species populations, and life communities in natural ecosystems.


“why should moral agents regard wild living things as possessing inherent worth?”

“We must keep in mind that inherent worth is not some mysterious sort of objective property belonging to living things that can be discovered by empirical observation or scientific investigation. To ascribe inherent worth to an entity is not to describe it by citing some feature discernible by sense perception or inferable by inductive reasoning. Nor is there a logically necessary connection between the concept of a being having a good of its own and the concept of inherent worth. We do not contradict ourselves by asserting that an entity that has a good of its own lacks inherent worth. In order to show that such an entity “has” inherent worth we must give good reasons for ascribing that kind of value to it (placing that kind of value upon it, conceiving of it to be valuable in that way).”

“The attitude we take toward living things in the natural world depends on the way we look at them, on what kind of beings we conceive them to be, and on how we understand the relations we bear to them. Underlying and support- ing our attitude is a certain belief system that constitutes a particular world view or outlook on nature and the place of human life in it. To give good reasons for adopting the attitude of respect for nature, then, we must first articulate the belief system which underlies and supports that attitude. If it appears that the belief system is internally coherent and well-ordered, and if, as far as we can now tell, it is consistent with all known scientific truths relevant to our knowledge of the object of the attitude (which in this case includes the whole set of the Earth’s natural ecosystems and their communities of life), then there remains the task of indicating why scientifically informed and rational thinkers with a developed capacity of reality awareness can find it acceptable as a way of conceiving of the natural world and our place in it. To the extent we can do this we provide at least a reasonable argument for accepting the belief system and the ultimate moral attitude it supports.”

“This belief system underlying the attitude of respect for nature I call (for want of a better name) “the biocentric outlook on nature.” Since it is not wholly analyzable into empirically confirmable assertions, it should not be thought of as simply a compendium of the biological sciences concerning our planet’s ecosystems. It might best be described as a philosophical world view, to distinguish it from a scientific theory or explanatory system. However, one of its major tenets is the great lesson we have learned from the science of ecology: the interdependence of all living things in an organically unified order whose balance and stability are necessary conditions for the realization of the good of its constituent biotic communities.”

“The belief system provides a certain outlook on nature which supports and makes intelligible an autono mous agent’s adopting, as an ultimate moral attitude, the attitude of respect for nature. It supports and makes intelligible the attitude in the sense that, when an autonomous agent understands its moral relations to the natural world in terms of this outlook, it recognizes the attitude of respect to be the only suitable or fitting attitude to take toward all wild forms of life in the Earth’s biosphere. Living things are now viewed as the appropriate objects of the attitude of respect and are accordingly regarded as entities possessing inherent worth. One then places intrinsic value on the promotion and protection of their good. As a consequence of this, one makes a moral commitment to abide by a set of rules of duty and to fulfill (as far as one can by one’s own efforts) certain standards of good character. Given one’s adoption of the attitude of respect, one makes that moral commitment because one considers those rules and standards to be validly binding on all moral agents. They are seen as embodying forms of conduct and character structures in which the attitude of respect for nature is manifested.”

“The biocentric outlook on nature has four main components. (1) Humans are thought of as members of the Earth’s community of life, holding that membership on the same terms as apply to all the nonhuman members. (2) The Earth’s natural ecosystems as a totality are seen as a complex web of intercon- nected elements, with the sound biological functioning of each being depen- dent on the sound biological functioning of the others. (This is the component referred to above as the great lesson that the science of ecology has taught us). (3) Each individual organism is conceived of as a teleological center of life, pursuing its own good in its own way. (4) Whether we are concerned with standards of merit or with the concept of inherent worth, the claim that humans by their very nature are superior to other species is a groundless claim and, in the light of elements (1), (2), and (3) above, must be rejected as nothing more than an irrational bias in our own favor.

The conjunction of these four ideas constitutes the biocentric outlook on nature.

Peter Singer “The Solution to World Poverty”

Singer’s main argument:

  1. Lack of food & shelter & medicine is bad.
  2. 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.

[Later, he says “without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant,” which weakens the requirement placed on us.]

For example, getting wet in order to save a drowning child.

  1. It is in our power to prevent this bad thing.
  2. We can prevent it without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance.

Conclusion: Therefore, we ought to prevent lack of food & shelter.

  1. The only way to prevent lack of food & shelter without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance is to give maximally (or at least very much more than we currently do).

CONCLUSION: Therefore, we ought to give maximally (or at least very much more than we currently do).


Objection: Singer’s analysis conflicts with our prevailing standards of charity. (Charity is supererogatory, i.e., beyond duty & beyond what is obligatory.)

Reply: People need to rethink their views about “charity.”

Objection: Singer’s analysis requires us to do a great deal for others.

Reply: Yes, that’s what morality requires. In fact, it’s a very traditional view; it was advocated by Thomas Aquinas!

Objection: Direct relief just a short-term solution. It simply delays additional problems.

Reply: In that case, we need to give direct relief now and, in addition, promote population control.

Objection: Singer’s ideas will hurt the economy.

Reply: But how much MORE can we do until that happens? This does not support the status quo (a mere 1% going to famine relief). Instead, it opens the door to our discussion of how far to increase relief. We should give to the level that does not reduce spending in a consumption-based society (like ours) below the point that would start to decrease what we have available to give. So expecting people to give 1% is far too little, but expecting 25% from everyone would be too much

The UN Goals and Where we are At

There are two charts that help show were we are at in terms of the levels of poverty and what has been happening in recent history. Here is the first:

What this chart shows is that at the start of the industrial revolution almost everyone in the world lived in extreme poverty. At the start of the 1900s that number was over 80%, but over the past 100 or so years that number is now down all the way below 10%. The decline has been particulary rapid in the past 30 or so years going from around 35% to just under 10% in 2015, which is absolutely staggering.

Here is one more that might explain why it doesn’t feel like extreme poverty decreasing rapidly:

This chart shows whose income has increased and by what percentage from 1988-2008. What you can see is that most people’s income has actually gone up in this period. Although the bottom 10% of the world’s population didn’t really see their income go up and the people in the top 80-90% didn’t really see their income go up. Those people in the top 80-90% are the “middle class” in the US and Europe. In this period their income did not increase. So while income is going up for most people around the world, the MIddle class in the developed world hasn’t gone up.

The United Nations has set a goal as part of their Sustainable Development Goals to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030. It is hard to overstate how amazing that is. Within a few short years extreme poverty may literally be a thing of the past. Thus far it looks like we may only get down to about 5% by 2030, but even if that is true, extreme poverty will almost certainly be eliminated sometime shortly after 2030.

That being said, elminating extreme poverty is not the same as eliminating poverty. Poverty rates in the US are extremely high yet very few of those poeple are living in extreme poverty as defined by less than 1 or 2 dollars a day. Now let’s consider what it would take to completely eliminate poverty, not just extreme poverty.

John Quiggan “The Golden Age”

In 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay titled Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.

He predicted

  • a future of leisure for all
  • a separation of work from survival
  • a golden age

Malthus predicted that as prosperity increased populations would also increase which would keep the majority of people in poverty

  • He was against contraception for moral reasons

The 19th century saw an increase in production, an increase in work, estimated at 60 hrs per week, but mass poverty.

Most economists in the 19th century agreed with Malthus, except Marx.

By the late 19th century Malthus was being proven wrong. People were having smaller families and the middle class was growing.

“The relatively novel idea of progress — that the natural tendency of human affairs was to get better rather than worse — rapidly became part of ‘common sense’.”

Then things started to really change:

“The working class had more compelling reasons to hope for better things. Over decades of struggle, workers clawed back the ground they had lost and then some. The Factory Acts outlawed child labour in Britain, and by 1870 all children in England and Wales were entitled to at least an elementary education. The hours of work were limited by legislation and union action. The eight-hour day, a norm that is still under challenge 150 years later, was first achieved by Melbourne stonemasons in 1855, though it was not established more generally, even in Australia, until the early 20th century. The weekend, making Saturday as well as Sunday a day of leisure, came even later, around the middle of the 20th century in most developed countries.”

“The idea that a combination of technological progress and political reform could produce a genuine utopia became an appealing alternative to the ‘pie in the sky’ of an afterlife.”

Numerous books were written about this future golden age:

Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888)

Oscar Wilde’s The Sould of Man Under Socialism (1891)

Marx and Engels’ The German Idealogy (1846)

But they didn’t have an economic theory to support their ideas.

Keynes did:

“He argued that technological progress at a rate of two per cent per year would be sufficient to multiply our productive capacity nearly eightfold in the space of a century. Allowing for a doubling of output per person, that would be consistent with a reduction of working hours to 15 hours a week or even less.”

Throughout the middle of the 20th century it seemed that Keynes was right. The rise of the social democratic welfare state had begun to make extreme poverty and destitution a distant memory for most. People expected to retire at 65. Etc. Most people felt they could change their job if they found it too unsatisfactory .

But progress was halted.

“How did this reversal come about, and is there any possibility that Keynes’s vision will be realised?”

“The first of these questions is easily answered. The economic turmoil of the ’70s put an end to the utopianism of the ’60s, and resulted in the resurgence of a hard-edged version of capitalism, variously referred to as neoliberalism, Thatcherism and the Washington Consensus. I have used the more neutral term ‘market liberalism’ to describe this set of ideas.”

“The central theoretical tenet of market liberalism is the efficient (financial) markets hypothesis. In the strong form that is most relevant to policy decisions, the hypothesis states that the prices determined in markets for financial assets such as shares, bonds and their various derivatives are the best possible estimates of the value of those assets.

In the core ideology of market liberalism, the efficient markets hypothesis is combined with the claim that the best way to achieve prosperity for all is to let the rich get richer. This claim is rarely spelt out explicitly by its advocates, so it is best known by its derisive label, the ‘trickle down’ hypothesis.

Taken together, the efficient markets hypothesis and the trickle down hypothesis lead us in the opposite direction to the one envisaged by Keynes. If these hypotheses are true, the mega-fortunes piled up in speculative financial markets are not merely justified: they are essential to achieve and maintain decent living standards for the rest of us. The investments that generate technological progress will, on this view, only be made if they are guided by financial markets driven by the desire to make unimaginable fortunes.”

“This experience makes it clear that, if Keynesian social democracy is to regain the dominant position it held from the end of Keynes’s own lifetime until the ’70s, it must offer more than a technocratic lever to stabilise the economy. We need a vision of a genuinely better society. For this reason, the time is right to re-examine Keynes’s vision of a future where economic scarcity, real or perceived, no longer dominates life as it does today.”

Keynes didn’t consider the whole world:

“So, taking the entire world into account only defers the estimated end of scarcity by 30 years, to 2060 — within the expected lifetime of my children.”

He didn’t consider housework and children.


The first step would be to go back to the social democratic agenda associated with postwar Keynesianism. Although that agenda has largely been on hold during the decades of market-liberal dominance, the key institutions of the welfare state have remained both popular and resilient, as shown by the wave of popular resistance to cuts imposed in the name of austerity.

Key elements of the social democratic agenda include a guaranteed minimum income, more generous parental leave, and expanded provision of health, education and other social services. The gradual implementation of this agenda would not bring us to the utopia envisaged by Keynes — among other things, those services would require the labour of teachers, doctors, nurses, and other workers. But it would produce a society in which even those who did not work, whether by choice or incapacity, could enjoy a decent, if modest, lifestyle, and where the benefits of technological progress were devoted to improving the quality of life rather than providing more material goods and services. A society with these priorities would allocate most investment according to judgments of social need rather than market signals of price and profit. That in turn would reduce the need for a large and highly rewarded financial sector, even in relation to private investment.

A Universal Basic Income:

There remains the question of how to move from a revitalised social democracy to the kind of utopia envisaged by Keynes. It would be absurd to spell out a detailed transitional program, but it’s useful to think about one of the central elements of such a society — a guaranteed minimum income.

In one sense, a guaranteed minimum income involves little more than a re-labelling of the existing benefits provided by all modern welfare states (with the US, as always, a notable exception). In most modern welfare states, everyone is eligible for income support which should be sufficient to prevent them from falling into poverty. Those who cannot work because of age or disability are automatically entitled to such support, while unemployed workers receive either insurance benefits related to their previous wages or some basic allowance conditional on job search.

In a post-scarcity society, everyone would be guaranteed an income that yielded a standard of living significantly better than poverty, and this guarantee would be unconditional. The move from a near-poverty benefit subject to eligibility conditions to a liveable, guaranteed minimum income would require both an increase in productivity, such that a smaller number of workers could produce an adequate income for all, and some fairly radical changes in social attitudes.

It seems clear enough that technological progress can generate the necessary productivity gains, so what is needed most is a change in attitudes to work that would make a guaranteed minimum income socially sustainable

The Future:

his brings us to the final, really big question. Supposing a Keynesian utopia is feasible, will we want it? Or will we prefer to keep chasing after money to buy more and better things?

An escape from what Keynes called ‘the tunnel of economic necessity’ is still open to us. Yet it will require radical changes in the economic structures that drive the chase for money and in the attitudes shaped by a culture of consumption. After decades of finance-driven capitalism, it takes an effort to recall that such changes ever seemed possible. . . Popular anger has boiled over in a string of electoral defeats for the advocates of austerity. But, unlike the right-wing tribalism that has formed part of that backlash, progressive politics cannot, in the end, rely on anger. It must offer the hope of a better life. That means reclaiming utopian visions such as that of Keynes.

Derek Parfit – How Both Human History, and the History of Ethics, May Just be Beginning

Some people believe that there cannot be progress in Ethics, since everything has already been said. I believe the opposite. How many people have made non-religious ethics their life’s work? Before the very recent past, very few. In most civilizations, most people have believed in the existence of a God, or of several gods. A large minority were in fact Atheists, whatever they pretended. But before the recent past, very few Atheists  made Ethics their life’s work. Buddha may be among this few, as may be Confucious, and a few Ancient Greeks and Romans. After more than a thousand years there were a few more between the Sixteenth and Twentieth Centuries.  Hume was an atheist who made ethics part of his life’s work. Sidgwick was another. After Sidgwick, there were several Atheists who were professional moral philosophers. But most of  these did not do ethics. They did meta-ethics. They did not ask which outcomes would be good or bad, or which acts would be right or wrong. They asked, and wrote about, only the meaning of language, the question of objectivity. Non-religious ethics has been systematically studied, by many people, only since about 1960. Compared with the other sciences, non-religious ethics is the youngest and the least advanced. . . Belief in God, or in my gods, prevented the free development of moral reasoning. Disbelief in God, openly admitted by a majority, is a very recent event, not yet completed. Because this event is so recent, non-religious ethics is at a very early stage. We cannot yet predict whether, as in mathematics, we will all reach agreement. Since we cannot know how Ethics will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes.

[excerpt from reasons and Persons: Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1984), 453-4]

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