Living High and Letting Die [ePub]

by Peter K. Unger

I first read this book three years ago, while in an Intro to Ethics class at Carolina during summer school. Its central question, as appropriately conveyed by the title, concerns an interesting ethical divide. The book takes a closer look at how we often desire to create positive change in response to overwhelming poverty demonstrated in so many pockets of our world; but too often we simply don't act in accordance with these desires - even when advantageous opportunities arise. For example, Unger suggests, you receive a mailing from UNICEF requesting $100 to save thirty children from imminent death. Disregarding the significant interests of these children, you choose to throw away the letter and the convenient return envelope and, sending nothing, theoretically thirty more children die. The book pins this question on the consciousness of the reader and asks, why might we consider this behavior (not responding to the mailing) morally permissible, especially given our fundamental inclinations to desire to help? Unger contends there are certain differential factors (often psychological) that prevent us from following through on our moral dispositions (our theoretical desires to help the children). Being physically distanced from the children, for example, provides a reason to explain not taking action; we might feel less of a sense of urgency because the crisis at hand is not directly presented in front of us. (For example, it becomes harder to consider it morally permissible to not intervene in some way if that same child is dying directly in front of you and you had the opportunity, as the UNICEF envelope affords, to stop it). However, this does not change the fact these UNICEF children will likely die, whether or not they are in front of us, and furthermore distance ought not to interfere with our clear duty as moral agents. Distance bears no significance over morality, as our moral principle likely confirms. Our intuitions, however, guide us away from this understanding (as the children are distant) and thus no action is taken. So it's true our moral principles often conflict with our intuition, and that our untutored intuitions are often morally fallible - we pay attention to information that is morally irrelevant and this affects our behavior.

The book brought to my attention the hard facts about poverty, as it quoted direct statistics. Although this data may change over time - the book was written in '96 - the larger questions this book tackles in regard to poverty do not. It introduced me to and equipped me with logical and analytical tools that are the hallmarks of a philosophical approach to questions dealing with things like morality and intuition. With this kind of content (emotional, in a sense; morality and intuition) supported by reason and logic, I felt compelled to take action, so it affected my behavior: I donated $100 to Oxfam after having read the book. (Albeit two years later, but I did not forget). So it provided me awareness, an understanding of philosophical methodology, and this all led to me taking action.

It is definitely a read more suited to a class; it's not exactly enjoyable Harry Potter bed-time reading. Nevertheless, it made a profound difference in my life, and I am confident it will impart value to whoever reads it.



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