"Absolute poverty is the inability to satisfy basic human needs, such as clean water, nutrition, health care, education, clothing, and shelter, because of insufficient income. Relative poverty is the condition of having fewer resources or less income than others within a society or country. About 1.7 billion people live in absolute poverty."[1]g

File:Kigali orphans.jpg

The Significance of PovertyEdit

Since absolute poverty is the leading cause of human suffering, many utilitarians donate money to help alleviate it. Poverty reduction is effective, so much so that it is used as a benchmark to which other utilitarian acts are compared.

Peter Singer’s Shallow Pond AnalogyEdit

Unfortunately, concern about absolute poverty doesn’t always come naturally. Peter Singer created an analogy to challenge the way people think about poverty:

"If we could easily save the life of a child, we would. For example, if we saw a child in danger of drowning in a shallow pond, and all we had to do to save the child was wade into the pond, and pull him out, we would do so. The fact that we would get wet, or ruin a good pair of shoes, doesn’t really count when it comes to saving a child’s life."

"UNICEF, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, estimates that about 24,000 children die every day from preventable, poverty-related causes. Yet at the same time almost a billion people live very comfortable lives, with money to spare for many things that are not at all necessary. (You are not sure if you are in that category? When did you last spend money on something to drink, when drinkable water was available for nothing? If the answer is “within the past week” then you are spending money on luxuries while children die from malnutrition or diseases that we know how to prevent or cure.)"[2]


Singer’s analogy tells us that we should do what we can to alleviate global poverty. But just how far can a small percentage of one person’s income go? Quite far, if it is donated wisely. The philosopher Toby Ord explains:

"It is not even a matter of some charities being 10 or 100 times as effective: even restricted to the field of health programs in developing countries, research shows that some are up to 10,000 times as effective as others... If the typical US citizen gave 10% of their income to the right NGOs, then each year they could:

  • Distribute 700 mosquito nets, preventing 1,900 cases of malaria and 6 deaths
  • Cure 170 people of tuberculosis, preventing 8 deaths
  • Save 1,100 years worth of healthy life
  • Provide 1,100 additional years of school attendance"[3]

So donating without using the freely available resources of an organization like Giving What We Can is a big mistake.

Other Benefits of GivingEdit

Leading a philanthropic life has other benefits. Donating can contribute to your well-being. Giving publicly can be a small step in the direction of cultural change. It is often seen as a virtue to be modest about one’s philanthropy.[4] But by pledging a donation publicly, you can raise others’ consciousness of the problem of absolute poverty. Even if this only sways a single person to donate one-tenth of their income to an effective charity for one year, the pledge will have done a great deal of good: It will have saved the equivalent of over 1,100 years of healthy life. Furthermore, taking a pledge can motivate you to continue to donate.


The utilitarian approach to poverty is:

  • To pledge to give a portion of one’s income to charity (for the self-motivation and encouraging others to donate)
  • To ensure that this donation is made wisely, using information from an organization such as Giving What We Can or GiveWell
  • To raise others' awareness of the problem of absolute poverty and bring about cultural change


  1. Wikipedia Article: Poverty
  2. Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save
  3. Toby Ord’s Giving What We Can
  4. Matthew 6:1-4

Further ReadingEdit