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.”