Peter Singer in his article “Famine, Affluence and Morality” gives a seemingly devastating critic on our ordinary way of thinking about famine, relief, charity, and morality in general. Despite his arguments, only a few people have accepted, or rather responded on the conclusions he derives. In line with these facts one might say of Singer’s arguments, as Hume claimed of Berkeley’s arguments on immaterialism, the “they admit of no answer and produce no conviction” (Hume, 1999). While my view on considerations presented by Singer shows that people should actually do more than other people do, they do not accomplish his conclusions with their full energy or generality. As such, his arguments produces a partial answer, and when viewed properly may produce some conviction.
Singer’s argument is that people living in developed nations must radically change their way of life and how they conceive morality so that they can contribute more to helping people in need. He begins his article by presenting cases of famine such as the one in Bengal in 1971, where many people suffered and neither individuals nor governments assisted in any extent to relieve the situation (Singer, 2007). Singer sets the stage forward his argument by advancing two principles: his first principle holds that suffering and death re bad, despite its cause whether from hunger, deficient housing, or lack of access to medical care. His second principle is that an individual in a position to prevent a moral state of affairs, without sacrificing something of equal moral importance should do so (Singer, 2007).
Singer’s first principle holds that the distance between people should not prevent them from helping people in need, unless that makes helping more daunting, because the distance between them does not reduce their suffering. Drawing from both principles, it follows that people who are doing nothing to help because other people are doing nothing is, in moral terms, not different lack of people who act on something.
In the second section, Singer considers a couple of objections to his argument. For example, he suggests that if everyone were to donate towards famine relief, every individual will only need to part with a small amount, and thus everyone would contribute without feeling the burden. Singer’s response to this is that everyone donates what they like, which makes this objection irrelevant given the actual situation. Another objection is that since only few people donate to charities, those who do should continue giving until they get to a point where their wellbeing equal that of people they are helping. To him, this would result into people donating more than they desire, which means that the situation would be much better if people failed to do as much as they should. Singer believes that this could only occur if they were not aware of how much others donated, and if they all donated at the same time.
After satisfactorily answering his two objections, Singer regards the second principle as established, and he say that he can use its weaker version to make his case (Singer, 2007, p. 508). He believes that foregoing has many implications on our moral thinking. Many people believe that they hold the moral authority to give what they chose to charity, be it nothing, a large amount, or something between. Singer thinks that this is wrong (Singer, 2007, p.508). He believes that money spent by wealthy nations on luxury should instead be donated to charities because some people need it to survive. Singer believes that donating to charity is not just good, but it is obligatory. Even though the difference between good and obligatory exists, it does not apply to cases where rich people can help the poor.
However, some have argued Singer’s position calls for radical change in moral norms. To start with, Singer adopts the hypothesis advanced by J.O Urmson (1958), which argues that the distinction between what is (just) good and what is obligatory arose because of some actions, the obligatory ones are the perquisites for people to live as a community; the (just) good actions may help, but not necessary. In his argument, Singer explains that there exist a distinction between the two, but that does not justify them in relation to donating to charity. Second, some have proposed that our moral conducts should not demand more than what people are able to do. People may disobey moral codes if they force them to do so. Singer responds to this by arguing that if people failed to accomplish their duties by donating to the needy, they would not move around killing. Additionally, people respond to different circumstances depending on what others around them expect them to do or are doing.
Another objection to conclusions derived by Singer is that it is right we should work constantly to generate as much happiness as we can (Singer, 2007, pp.509-10). According to him, this does not suit because his argument is only applicable to preventing death and relieving suffering, and not generating happiness. All that said, we should work to our best to prevent death and relieve pain.
Having said that and everything taken into account, it is more human for people to take great effort in contributing their resources to famine relief and similar causes. As such, people in the affluent nations should provide to people in need. Singer has a sound main argument, provided we accept his second principle. However, I think that every individual has the moral authority to pursue their own interest, something morally significant, and it is clear from this that one is morally free not to devote his resources to preventing famine. However, I would question Singer’s stronger version of the second principle, because I think it makes no point whether two or more states of affairs are equal or roughly equal. I think Singer’s conclusions are correct, but not as much as he thinks.
Hume, D. (1999). An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp: Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Singer, P. (2007). “Famine, Affluence and Morality”, Ethical Theory: An Anthology, edited by Russ Shafer-Landau: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Urmson, J. O. (1958). “Saints and Heroes,” in Essays in Moral Philosophy, ed. Abraham I. Melden: Seattle and London.