Famine, Affluence, and Morality by Peter Singer — A Summary

Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 1, no. 3 (1972): 229–43.

For a fun take on the essay, see the summary at Philosophy Bro.

Assumption: Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.

[If you disagree with that assumption, stop reading.]

Principle: “[I]f 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.”

Principle in operation: “[I]f I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.”

1st Objection to P: What if the bad is very far from us?

Reply: That a person is physically near to us “may make it more likely that we shall assist him, but this does not show that we ought to help him rather than another who happens to be far away.” Perhaps, it can be contended that we will know better how to or if we should help a person if he near to us. However, in the globalised village of instant communication and swift transportation, discrimination on geographical grounds is untenable.

2nd O to P: If I am the only one who can do anything to alleviate the situation, the attachment of moral obligation appears justified. But what if I am just one among millions who can?

Reply: The view that numbers lessen obligation is simply an “ideal excuse for inactivity”. Would I be less obliged to pull the drowning child out of the pond if there are other people, no further away than I am, who have also noticed the child but are doing nothing?

2nd O amended: If everyone in my position gave 5 dollars each, the plight of the suffering would be alleviated. Therefore, I have no obligation to give more than 5 dollars.

R: A hypothetical premise cannot be taken to give a concrete conclusion. The conclusion would be acceptable if indeed everyone gave 5 dollars. If not, then, giving more will prevent more suffering and, therefore, it ought to be done.

O to previous R: But wouldn’t there be the paradox of unnecessary contributions if everyone assumed that not all would give and therefore gave more than 5 dollars each i.e., did what they ought to do?

R: If such contributions from were expected from everyone, one would not be obliged to give more than 5 dollars. Also, if the contributions are not simultaneous, those giving later would know how much more is needed and would not be obliged to give more than that. The fact that others have given, or may be expected to give, is a relevant circumstance. However, the contributions by all are rarely expected and never simultaneous, therefore the paradox will not arise.

To sum up, neither our distance, nor the number of people who are in our position, lessens our obligation to do our bit in mitigating suffering.

What this does is to upset or revise the moral categories that we are familiar with. It becomes no longer a matter of “charity” — good if we do it but not wrong if we don’t — but a matter of moral obligation, a “duty” — good if we do it and wrong if we don’t — for us to give money to help remove suffering. To put it more precisely, it is wrong, and not simply uncharitable, for a man living at the level of affluence, which most people in the “developed nations” enjoy, to not give money to save someone else from starvation.

O: This revision is too drastic. People simply do not judge in the way that is being suggested. Moral attitudes are shaped by the needs of society. While it is a duty to condemn violation of moral norms like murder, for example, in order to organise a tolerable society, it is only an act of charity — i.e., it is quite inessential in that it doesn’t fulfil the needs of society — to help people from other societies.

R: That is an explanation, but not a justification for the distinction between duty and charity. And given the collapse of distances and the increasing interconnectedness in this globalised world, this explanation is becoming less applicable. Also, moral standards cannot be set at a certain level. While our society may view a wealthy man who gives 5% of his income to charity as most generous, there might be others that view that 5% as utterly inadequate. The thinking that making what we usually consider charity a duty would bring about a breakdown of moral behaviour is unfounded.

O: It appears to follow then that “we ought, morally, to be working full time to relieve great suffering of the sort that occurs as a result of famine or other disasters.” Can this be accepted?

R: This is not so much a criticism against the argument as it is against our prevailing moral standards. It is likely that most people would not work “full time to relieve great suffering”. However, it does not follow that, therefore, we ought not to work “full time to relieve great suffering”.

O: “[O]verseas aid should be a government responsibility, and that therefore one ought not to give to privately run charities. Giving privately … allows the government and the noncontributing members of society to escape their responsibilities.”

R: The assumption here seems to be that if more private individuals give, the government will abandon its responsibilities. The opposite is more likely. If private individuals do not give, the government will assume that its citizens are not interested in giving money for relief and will be encouraged to remain inactive. The onus of showing how not contributing for aid will bring about government action is on those who refuse to give.

O: But giving relief is only a temporary solution. In fact, it will exacerbate the situation. The millions starving today will translate into more millions in future needing aid.

R: The argument is sound and supported by evidence. But that cannot lead to the conclusion that to provide aid is not a duty. There are lots of organisations that work on the issue of population control. Aid can be directed to those organisations.

O: How much do we ought to give anyway?

R: One possibility is until we reach the level of marginal utility. This possibility, which follows from the principle established in the beginning — that nothing of “comparable moral importance” be sacrificed — seems to be the correct one. However, there must be a limit. And that limit, in the case of overseas aid, may be determined by considering if giving a certain percentage of the Gross National Product slows down the economy so much that a lower percentage would have turned out to be in absolute terms more than the initial amount.

“[T]aking our conclusion seriously means acting upon it. The philosopher will not find it any easier than anyone else to alter his attitudes and way of life to the extent that, if I am right, is involved in doing everything that we ought to be doing. At the very least, though, one can make a start. The philosopher who does so will have to sacrifice some of the benefits of the consumer society, but he can find compensation in the satisfaction of a way of life in which theory and practice, if not yet in harmony, are at least coming together.”

A Normative Ethical Framework in Climate Change by Marco Grasso — A Summary

Marco Grasso, “A Normative Ethical Framework in Climate Change,” Climate Change 81, no. 3–4 (2007): 223–246.

Before beginning, make yourself comfortable with the following concepts. Conceptual terminology will be used in the belief that the reader is already familiar with them.

1. Introduction

Climate change has serious adverse consequences for the planet. Being economically backward, technologically deficient and nature dependent, poor countries will especially bear the brunt of the negative effects of climate change for which the rich countries are largely responsible. This makes the crisis of climate change an ethical issue and a matter of justice.

While all countries profess their commitment to a collective action against climate change, the absence of an enforcer above them means that agreements can only be voluntary and will have to be self-enforcing. To achieve reliable self-enforcement, a climate change agreement will have to be “informed by principles of justice, shaped by criteria of equity, and perceived to be fair in both its process and outcomes”.

The achievement of such an agreement is difficult because at the policy level, justice and equity take a backseat to the priorities and interests of countries. Herein lies the need of a “normative ethical framework” to address the “common but differentiated responsibilities” associated with climate change.

“In the light of these considerations, the aim of this article is to ethically justify and describe a normative pluralistic framework for international distributive justice, and to define the consequent equity criteria possibly determining global initiatives against climate change.”

2. Notions and domains of justice in climate change

Justice is a staple concept in political philosophy.

“[The intention of the paper] is to describe the dominant dimensions of international distributive justice, and the consequent criteria of equity with respect to the specificity of global climate change, in order to identify a comprehensive normative framework for international climate-related actions.”

In the developed North, climate change is simply an environmental issue. But in the underdeveloped South, climate change is a matter of human survival. As such, the North’s stress on mitigation is incomplete and should be supplemented by the South’s insistence on and need for adaptation.

Environmental distributive justice pertains to the distribution of “environmental benefits, costs, risks and harms among human beings”. For climate change, the units to be distributed are the costs and benefits of mitigating carbon emissions as well as compensation for residual damages and the costs and benefits of adapting to prevent the harmful effects of climate change.[1]

Climate is a global public good that impacts all countries in ways and to degrees that are not determined by their specific emissions. Thus, there is a need to link mitigation and adaptation strategies into a pluralistic ethical framework that takes into account issues of justice and equity.

The former strategy, for example, ought to consider the moral unavoidability of certain basic energy needs and therefore be flexible in allocating endowments, whereas there should be a certain stringency in identifying the rules for subsequent allocations. The latter requires a solid basis for the allocation of adaptation resources, which again calls for flexibility as far as the financing of adaptation activities is concerned.

The issue of procedural justice also needs to be considered even though it shall remain outside the scope of the framework being constructed in this paper.

“International climate justice can be framed in the following domains …:
– just initial allocation of endowments,
– just exchange of endowments,
– just allocation of the costs of adapting to climate impacts,
– just allocation of the benefits (i.e., resources) for adapting to climate impacts,
– distribution of wealth and power allowing a just international negotiating process.”

3. Justice and equity in mitigation


“The issue of justice in mitigation can be seen as a problem of defining a just initial allocation of endowments and equitable consequent exchange patterns.”

3.1 Initial allocation of endowments: Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness

The allocation of endowments concerns the initial allocation of rights to emit greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere. A just initial allocation of endowments (hereafter JIAE) can be usefully set within an ethical framework based on Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness (hereafter RTJF).

The availability of “energy services” is a primary good. This availability is influenced by “undeserved inequalities” like different climatic conditions, or a greater capacity to absorb GHG emissions. The uneven distribution of such characteristics forestalls the attainment of genuine equality of opportunity as far as energy services are concerned.

If a JIAE is to be established based on RTJF, a criterion of equity based on equal per capita distribution of endowments which also reduces undeserved inequalities is necessary. This is the criterion of “differentiated equality” which “[i]n a GHG emission rights scheme, [requires that] endowments should … be allocated among the parties according to a formula whose reference is equal per capita distribution and which includes the standard of living corrected for the most evident circumstances that influence the demand for energy services,[2] and therefore the consequent GHG emissions, of each country.”

Such an allocation would entail a scarcity of endowments in developed countries and a surplus in developing ones. This skewed allocation will result in financial flows from the former to the latter as the former inevitably use up the quota of the latter. Such transfers are to recognized as compensation to the South for the overuse of the atmosphere’s absorptive capacity by the North.

3.2 Exchange of endowments: Utilitarian theory of justices

The unequal distribution of endowments will lead to their exchange i.e., the trading of GHG emission rights. This is important because as the marginal costs of emissions abatement differ among countries, redistribution will need to equalise the unequal marginal costs.

In economic terms, redistribution should aim at achieving a Pareto-efficient social state in the sense that there are no other social states that would make someone better off without simultaneously making someone else worse-off. However, Pareto-efficiency ignores issues of justice.

As such, the Pareto-efficiency principle should be supported by some criterion of distributive justice. The envy-freeness criterion is a way to choose between different Pareto-efficient states and to identify allocations that are at once efficient and equitable.

The Pareto principle entails greater cutbacks of emissions in countries where marginal costs of abatement are lower i.e., in Southern countries. But to make such an arrangement just, the envy-free criterion obligates the Northern countries with lower initial cutbacks to compensate the Southern countries. Only this solution can in principle be both Pareto-efficient and envy-free.

4. Justice and equity in adaptation


“From an operational point of view, also the adaptation sphere of distributive justice can be split into two domains: the funding of adaptation activities and the allocation of resources.”

4.1 Financing of adaptation activities: Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness

Financing of adaptation activities concerns the division among countries of the costs of adaptation programs and projects, and of residual damages compensation.

Historical principles of justice hold that those who caused the problem should be held responsible. The atmosphere is a common resource that whose “atmospheric absorptive services” should be accessible to “all actual and potential human beings”. For this to happen justly, past emissions should be taken into account in order to ensure equality of opportunity. All of these would imply that the North should finance adaptation programmes.

However, there are conditions that affect the consumption of the absorptive capacity of the atmosphere which are beyond the control of emitters.[3] This fact necessitates a robust theory of justice that simultaneously allows for substantial differences in equality. Such a principle is provided by RTJF.

“Grounding the funding of adaptation activities on … RTJF requires an equity criterion which encompasses all the elements and determines the use of atmospheric absorptive capacity. …[This] criterion of ‘differentiated historical responsibility’ … suggests that … the yardstick must be responsibility based on historical accountability. … [T]he difference principle requires consideration of undeserved inequalities that have actually influenced cumulative GHG emissions and contributed to their cumulative amount.”

In policy, such a principle would entail the creation of a global fund for financing adaptation to climate change which would be financed by countries according to the criterion of differentiated historical responsibility.

4.2 Allocating adaptation resources: Sen’s capability approach

Allocating adaptation resources concerns the allocation of the resources available for adaptation strategies. The most appealing benchmark in this regard is the idea of social vulnerability. However, the notion of vulnerability sheds no light on the ability to adapt. Here arises then the need for principles of justice to frame allocation schemes that include considerations on the ability of countries to use adaptation resources effectively.

Amartya Sen’s capability approach (hereafter SCA) is a promising frame within which to situate the issue of “effective adaptive response”. What matters is not simply the availability of resources and services but more importantly the possibility of gaining effective protection against climate impacts using these resources and services. In other words, what matters is that the well-being of individuals, defined as the enlargement of capabilities, be achieved.

SCA is based on the concept of human security.[4] Human security is defined by a set of basic capabilities — “achievable functionings”, in practice. The idea is to ground the participation of all countries in a possible adaptation fund on a ranking based on human security which encompasses the ability to convert resources into valuable “doings” and “beings”.

Human security defined as “the number of years of future life spent outside a state of ‘generalized poverty’” where “[g]eneralised poverty occurs when an individual falls below the threshold of any key domain of well-being” is extremely useful in talking about adaptation to climate impacts as it acknowledges that human security depends closely on poverty, defined as deprivation of basic capabilities (income, health, education, political freedom and democracy).

“[The] point is that the weaker a country is in these domains of well-being, the less are its institutional and social possibilities and capacities to turn adaptation resources into effective adaptation actions. Hence, weaker countries should be given privileged access to the funds.” This access should be directly proportional to the population harmed and inversely proportional to the human security index.


[1] “I include among adaptation strategies also the compensation for damages deriving from residual impacts that cannot be adapted because of cost or impossibility (e.g., extreme and abrupt climatic events). From the theoretical perspective put forward here, they can be seen as ex-post forms of adaptation.” [Footnote from the paper]

[2] “…the climatic conditions (measurable, for instance, by heating and cooling degree days, that is, by the average temperature departure from a human comfort level of 18 °C), the availability of carbon absorbing areas (proxied, for example, by the country’s forested area), and the availability of renewables allowing greater use.”

[3] “…such as climatic conditions, or the availability of sinks and renewables.”

[4] “I abide with the notion of human security put forward by Alkire, who views it as the protection and promotion of a limited number of aspects of human well-being which constitute its ‘vital core’.” [quoted from the paper]

Moral Relativism Defended by Gilbert Harman — A Summary

Gilbert Harman, “Moral Relativism Defended,” The Philosophical Review 84, no. 1 (1975): 3–22.

See also his Moral Relativism Explained.

Morality arises when a group of people reach an implicit agreement about their relations with one another. This agreement is made in the relevant sense when a group of people intend to adhere to a set of principles based on the understanding that the rest also similarly intend.

Most moral judgments make sense only in relation to such an agreement. ‘Most’ because this thesis is only about “inner judgments” which say that S ought to or ought not to have done D and not about judgments that say S is evil or unjust.

I. Inner Judgments

Inner judgements are relevant only within the relevant moral considerations of the agreement. To illustrate, it would be odd to make the judgement that a conquering alien race which does not harbour the slightest concern for human life should not attack us or to say that their actions are wrong. The same goes for a band of cannibals eating the sole survivor of a shipwreck. Or even a person, brought up in such a way as to have only contempt for people outside the family, who kills a non-family member.

It will be correct to say that the aliens are dreadful, that the cannibals are inhuman, and that the murderer is a criminal. But it would be inappropriate to judge their actions as wrong or to state that they ought not to have done what they did since our moral considerations are clearly not relevant to them.

The use of the moral ‘ought’ with the qualification ‘to do’ should be differentiated from it use in the form ‘ought to be’ to indicate expectation (“My girlfriend ought to be here soon”), rationality (“My girlfriend ought to be in the 2 PM train”) or normative judgment (“My girlfriend ought to be faithful”[1]). Similarly, for the word ‘should’.

Also, the use of ‘wrong’ in an evaluative sense (“My girlfriend’s infidelity was wrong”) should be differentiated from its use in a descriptive sense (“It was wrong for my girlfriend to be unfaithful”).

II. The Logical Form of Inner Judgments

Inner judgments have two important characteristics. First, they imply that the agent has reasons to do something. Second, the speaker in some sense endorses these reasons and supposes that the audience also endorses them.

If someone S says that another person A ought to do action D, S implies that A has reasons to do D and S endorses those reasons.[2] The reasons that A has and are endorsed by S are assumed to be “goals, desires, or intentions”.[3]

As such, there are certain motivating attitudes M which are shared by S, A, and S’s audience. These attitudes are intentions to keep the agreement. The argument is that inner judgments are relative to such an agreement. In other words, when S says that A ought to do D, S assumes A’s sincere intention to observe a certain agreement composed of motivating attitudes M that S, A, and S’s audience share.

Putting these together, the moral “ought” can be formulated as a four-place predicate, “Ought (A, D, C, M)” which relates an agent A, a type of act D, considerations C and motivating attitudes M. The relativity of this formulation lies with C and M.

Any action of course is relative to considerations.[4] This relativity does not make the thesis a version of moral relativism. Rather, it is the relativity to motivating attitudes that makes the thesis as such. This relativity to motivating attitudes is visible in moral “ought” statements where a speaker invokes attitudes that he does not share. For example, “As a Christian, you ought to turn the other cheek; I, however, propose to strike back.” Here, the moral judgment is explicitly relative to motivating attitudes.

Put differently, “Ought (A, D, C, M)” means that given considerations C, if A has motivating attitudes M, D is the best, or ‘moral’, course of action. Any such ‘ought’ statement necessarily has the first characteristic of inner judgments (see first paragraph in this section). If such an ‘ought’ statement makes an explicit or implicit reference to shared motivating attitudes, the statement satisfies the second characteristic too and is hence an inner judgment. But if reference is made to attitudes that are not shared, as in the example presented in the previous paragraph, the statement is not a full-fledged moral judgment.

III. Moral Bargaining

The further argument here is that motivating attitudes M derive from an agreement i.e., intentions[5] to adhere to a particular agreement on the understanding that others also intend do so.

Consider the following puzzle: even if we believe that doctors ought to help as many patients as he can, we would object to the suggestion that he should cut up a patient and use his organs to save five others. Helping others ranks lower than not harming others.

Now consider a second hypothetical case. This time you are to imagine yourself to be a surgeon, a truly great surgeon. Among other things you do, you transplant organs, and you are such a great surgeon that the organs you transplant always take. At the moment you have five patients who need organs. Two need one lung each, two need a kidney each, and the fifth needs a heart. If they do not get those organs today, they will all die; if you find organs for them today, you can transplant the organs and they will all live. But where to find the lungs, the kidneys, and the heart? The time is almost up when a report is brought to you that a young man who has just come into your clinic for his yearly check-up has exactly the right blood-type, and is in excellent health. Lo, you have a possible donor. All you need do is cut him up and distribute his parts among the five who need them. You ask, but he says, “Sorry. I deeply sympathize, but no.” Would it be morally permissible for you to operate anyway? Everybody to whom I have put this second hypothetical case says, No, it would not be morally permissible for you to proceed.

Judith Jarvis Thomson, “The Trolley Problem”.

A way of navigating this puzzle is to consider the hypothesis that morality derives from an agreement among people with varying powers and resources. Everyone would benefit if there is a rule against harming each other. But if there is a rule in favour of helping as much as one can, the rich would lose out. The compromise then would be a strong ‘no harm’ principle and a weak ‘help’ principle.

This compromise agreement is not and need not be explicit. It is reached through mutual adjustment and implicit bargaining i.e., some form certain conditional intentions while others with other interests form other conditional intentions which are then resolved into an agreement though bargaining.

Most of our moral views can be given a utilitarian explanation. And utilitarian explanations can also be accounted for using an implicit agreement.  The reverse is however not possible. Examples would be the one already cited, the distinction between harming and helping, and the feeling that everyone has an inalienable right to self-defence and self-preservation.

IV. Objections and Replies

O. It does not follow from having an agreement that we should therefore keep that agreement.

R. But we intend to keep it. Intention to keep it on the condition that others intend similarly too is what makes the agreement relevant.


O. What you think, or even agree, is right may not be actually what is right.

R. That’s true. But the thesis is not about what is right. It’s about how what we understand to be right can be made sense of in reference to agreement in intentions. It does not eliminate moral disputes or, otherwise, preclude inconsistencies.


O. Not all agreements are morally binding.

R. This would imply the existence of a prior principle to the effect that agreements made under compulsion are inadmissible. This objection assumes that the agreement is made through a ritual in which one indicates that he agrees. The agreement here is clearly an agreement in intentions. And the argument here is that it is only with reference to an existing agreement in intentions and not from “prior” principles that such a principle about compelled agreements makes sense.


O. When and how did we come to the agreement? What of those who don’t want to agree and what if they don’t?

R. As mentioned earlier, the agreement is not based on a ritual but on intentions. In this sense of ‘agreement’, the questions of when and how the agreement came to be (there is no given moment at which one agrees) and what to do with those who disagree (they will clearly be outside the agreement) are rendered idle.


O. People are often unable to give systematic and precise definition of their moral views. On what understanding then can they form the agreement?

R. Many understandings are of precisely this sort. For example, the understanding among members of an orchestra or a team of acrobats. Also, moral understandings are never absolute. The principles agreed to are generally vague. For example, that respect should be shown wherever possible.

Moral reasoning is a form of practical reasoning. It has to be coherent in the sense of generality and lack of arbitrariness. But it also involves the maintenance of conservatism and the satisfaction of basic needs and desires. One tries to make the least change that will best satisfy one’s desires while maximizing the overall coherence of one’s attitudes.

Someone can reach an agreement with himself i.e., the membership of the group is one. It is perfectly possible to make inner judgments about oneself. Consider the pacifist who judges that it would be wrong of him to participate in killing but is unwilling to hold the same judgment for others even though he is willing to say that it is bad that they participate. Individual morality of this sort is extremely common.

“My conclusion is that relativism can be formulated as an intelligible thesis, the thesis that morality derives from an implicit agreement and that moral judgments are in a logical sense made in relation to such an agreement. Such a theory helps to explain otherwise puzzling aspects of our own moral views, in particular why we think that it is more important to avoid harm to others than to help others. The theory is also partially confirmed by what is, as far as I can tell, a previously unnoticed distinction between inner and non-inner moral judgments. Furthermore, traditional objections to implicit agreement theories can be met”


[1] The use of ought in this normative sense is ambiguous. Is it the ought of expectation (that I expect her to be faithful), of rationality (that it is in her interest to be faithful), normative judgment (that it would be a bad thing for her to be unfaithful) or moral judgment (that it is wrong for her to be unfaithful)? In any case, Harman is concerned only with the last.

[2] But if S says that B is evil in what B did, S does not imply that S endorses the reasons that made B do whatever B did; rather, these reasons were not relevant to S.

[3] These “goals, desires, or intentions” are assumed to be Aristotelian or Humean as opposed to being Kantian. In other words, the source of these ‘relevant’ reasons is not ‘rationality’.

[4]Considering that you promised, you ought to go to the board meeting, but considering that you are the sole surviving relative, you ought to go to the funeral; all things considered, it is not clear what you ought to do.” Quoting Donald Davidson, “Weakness of Will, in Joel Feinberg (ed.), Moral Concepts (Oxford, 1969).

[5] “I will use the word “intention” in a somewhat extended sense to cover certain dispositions or habits. Someone may habitually act in accordance with the relevant understanding and therefore may be disposed to act in that way without having any more or less conscious intention. In such a case, it may sound odd to say that he intends to act in accordance with the moral understanding. Nevertheless, for present purposes I will count that as his having the relevant intention in a dispositional sense.”