Peter Singer first addresses his class with this moral example of witnessing a child drowning in a pond in passing on your way to a class.
He first establishes the perspective of a university student who is a witness to a child drowning on their way to university. The actual route to saving the child is not difficult but doing so will result in you becoming soaked and muddy and missing your first class, because by the time you’ve gone home and gotten changed the class will already be over.
So although the course of action that results in saving the child i.e. wading into the pond to fish the child out is not life threatening to yourself and will not cost you financially you have lost time and suffered discomfort from saving the child. Singer ask the question; Do you still have an obligation to save that child even if it causes minor discomfort to you?
Singer states that most people will retort with the fact that the importance of a Childs life so far outweighs that of being a little wet and muddy and missing one class that the choice is simple. You save the child because that is the right thing to do.
Singer then points out the relevance of others passing the pond. He enquires to whether or not their inaction should affect your decisions about saving the child. Of course you would say ‘no’ when asked because people like to think they would do the right thing in that situation or just want people to think they would for the sake of the simple need for acceptance.
Regardless of whether or not other people feel obligated to save the child or not, this should not in theory, affect your decision to save a human life. What is right is always right regardless of others actions or inactions.
On the other hand I think what he’s trying to say is it’s remarkably easy in those situations to either say ‘someone else will save him surely’ or just calling the police/ambulance services or fire brigade as opposed to taking on the responsibility yourself. In that situation there are so many mechanisms that can be used to pass the responsibility on to somebody else because you don’t actually know the child and therefore do not have a duty of care imposed on you.
It is not a duty or a law to help other people the only time a law was imposed to that effect was in Nazi Germany but I can safely say that was not a free and just time or place.
What Singer is talking about is more of a moral duty, an unspoken law that human life is the responsibility of everyone that shares the same air but it’s a rather utopian view of society in my opinion and in life it’s hard enough caring about people you know let alone people you don’t.
Singer then asks if it would make a difference if the child were in another country but equally in danger of death, easy to help and at no expense or danger to yourself?
Naturally you might think that distance makes no difference in terms of saving human life but it does as the distance allows for an even greater sense of denial of responsibility, or asking yourself ‘what can I do?’ in terms of saving human life all over the globe.
“we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us.”
Singer then points out that we are in fact all in this position to save people’s lives and all it would cost us is a small luxury we could do without. What he’s saying is if we do without one of these little luxuries we don’t need, another person gets a chance at life.
The counter arguments are that of procurement; can we be sure that out donations go to people who need it? Where does the money actually go, we like to think our money actually directly benefits someone but it could just go towards the charity workers tea and biscuit fund. How do we know these like any other organizations aren’t suffering from corruption?
Isn’t population swelling the actual root of the problem anyway? A problem that we actually caused by bringing third world countries medical care which allowed more children to be born thus resulting in a population boom which resulted in mass starvation. It’s almost like first world countries treat third world countries as pets they can’t possibly care for but bring home anyway.
Singer then points out that even if our contributions are wasted does it really matter if they’re so small we hardly notice them and some if not all of it does go to saving lives? I think this idea is very flawed, it’s an admirable concept but flawed. It make charity out to be pot luck, you’re money may or may not go to saving someone but Singer sort of says ‘who cares?’ I care. This idea is almost self defeating, how can you care enough to give to charity but not care that it all goes to where it meant to go?
I think Singer is displaying a deeply middle class attitude where charity is just seen as a moral bank, that it doesn’t matter where the money goes as long as you’ve put in and you feel like you’ve helped someone, you’ve done your bit, when in reality the majority is probably just air fare for film crews to make more adverts of children starving to drum up more money, that can’t be bothered to do anything more about the problem except throw money at it and hope it goes away when we all know it never will.
“if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything else morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.”
Singer states that because of this our traditional moral categories are upset; the line between morality and duty becomes blurrier or at least Singer tries to make it seem blurrier.
Giving money to a charity is seen in our society as an act of charity, generally given away by the name, so to give is not seen as a duty but something done on a whim, a moral reflection on your luck and prosperity.
Therefore there is no stigma attached to not giving to charity because everyone has to live, charity is a choice and as the saying goes ‘charity begins at home’.
People don’t necessarily feel guilty about not giving to charity and then going off and spending money on useless things they don’t need. We buy things because we like them not because our lives depend on them but some people’s lives do depend on charity.
Singer says that instead of buying new clothes we don’t need we should give that money to people who are starving and continue to wear our old clothes.
“To do so is not charitable, or generous. On the contrary, we ought to give the money away, and it is wrong not to do so.”
Singer makes no assertion that acts of charity do not exist but what he’s actually arguing is that, it is not charity for an affluent person to give money to a starving nation, it is his/her duty or responsibility or something like duty to respect that he/she is lucky that they are affluent and should share that luck with the people who are living day by day on the verge of oblivion.
These ideas sound closely linked to Bentham’s work; that of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, but both I and Nietzsche look down on Bentham’s work as “Alright for English people but not for real men” because it’s a slightly more relaxing in the arm chair with a nice warm cup of tea and just hand over your bank details theory than it is a real theory about tackling life and making a real difference according to Nietzsche.
Nietzsche actually claims suffering is core to our existence, acceptance of this fact is to him liberating. The point is that lending meaning to it is pointless. He denounces the religious ideal of pity because if you accept that pain and suffering are part of life then you see they are inevitable so pitying is pointless.
Pity in his view increases the suffering of the world, it doesn’t relieve suffering it just mirrors it. Pitying someone is an expression of superiority, giving money to beggars or charities not only makes you feel good about yourself in the Christian sense of doing a good deed but also you feel superior to this beggar, so this idea of morality is flawed. It relies too heavily on the givers sense of self worth as opposed to the actual good they may or may not be doing; people don’t necessarily care where there money goes in terms of charities just that it goes somewhere good. (Nietzsche 1887).
Singer in my opinion fails to establish really how we choose a charity, who is more deserving of my money? I can’t help everyone; if I gave one pound to every charity would that even make a difference as opposed to give one hundred to one charity? I don’t really think so, a part of me actually thinks that the fact there are charities defeats the point of charities, because if charities still exist they obviously aren’t making a difference otherwise they wouldn’t be necessary. It also makes me think that charities have no incentive for permanently solving the problems, because the charity workers would then be without a job, so it seems more appealing for them to just treat the symptoms instead of the root cause of the problem.
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Nietzsche, F. (1887). The Genealogy of Morals. translated by Samuel, H. B. New York:
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Singer, P. (1997) The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle
Singer, P. (1972) Famine, Affluence, and Morality
Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 229-243 [revised edition]