Global inequality keeps rising, yet we are paralysed from acting
A new report finding that 82 per cent of wealth generated last year across the world went to the richest one per cent raises questions over our priorities
There’s a famous philosophical exercise, created by Peter Singer, in which he invites us to imagine we are walking through a local park, with a shallow pond in it. You are able-bodied and you know the pond only comes up to your knees.
But, while walking, you notice something that worries you. A shape is floating in the water. When you get closer, you realise it’s a small child, struggling to swim, and with no one else there to help.
You are capable of wading in and saving them, though it would mean ruining a new pair of shoes. What do you do?
For the vast majority of people, the answer is obvious – you have to help. It goes without saying that a child’s life is worth more than a pair of shoes.
Indeed, that wasn’t really Singer’s point. The question is what happens when you remove yourself further from the child. For example, what happens if, instead of a child drowning right in front of you, the child is drowning several hundred miles away.
You know it’s happening (say, hypothetically, you had seen footage of it on the news) and you could save them at only a small personal cost to yourself – the same cost as a pair of shoes. It’s at that point the question becomes more complicated, because although most people would jump in a pond, when the situation becomes more abstract, your reaction changes.
The exercise was meant to be philosophical. The child was meant to be hypothetical. But the exercise took on a grim new relevance as the sights of people – including children – drowning in the Mediterranean began to fill our TV screens from 2015 onwards.
Of course, the comparison between a small pond and the Mediterranean Sea aren’t directly analogous. Firstly, it’s far easier to wade into the pond than agree an international action plan to save lives. Secondly, in the case of people drowning trying to cross a sea, no one person or state has a clear, direct responsibility for acting (though many would also argue that the presence of other people in the park would not justify letting the imaginary child drown).
But what if the child is even further away? What if the child isn’t drowning in a pond a few feet away, but is starving on the other side of the world? Why is it OK to prioritise your own luxury over their ability to eat?
The issue came to mind in reading a new report from Oxfam on growing inequality. Its findings show that 82 per cent of wealth generated last year across the world went to the richest one per cent of the global population, while the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half saw no increase at all. Globally, 42 people hold as much wealth as the poorest 3.7 billion.
The world’s political and financial elites met in Davos last week, amidst the news that, globally, billionaires saw their wealth increase by $762bn in the last 12 months – which is enough to have ended global extreme poverty seven times over.
And so, back to the park, where right and wrong are far more clear cut.
Presumably the difference between the three scenarios is not based on nationality, race or religion, because no one would stop to ask those sorts of questions if they saw a tragedy unfolding in their local park.
There may be a racist undercurrent to the way people view extreme global poverty, but it’s also easier not to think about horrors far away than ones on your doorstep, while a horror affecting a million people doesn’t feel twice as bad as one affecting 500,000.
When it comes to tragedy, once the distance gets far enough, or the number gets high enough, people’s reactions plateau.
Ask any politician and they will surely tell you they’d jump in the pond, and I’m sure they would. But would they rescue a real child, outside their own country, at relatively low cost? Well, most demonstrably would not. The same goes for most of us.
And why? So we can keep our shoes from getting wet.
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