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A major goal of the human civilization is to get to a point where no individual suffers from the lack of basic necessities. However, this ideal is yet to be met and millions of people continue to suffer and die from lack of access to basic needs. Efforts by governments and policy makers to come up with effective solutions to the problem have not yet led to a permanent solution.
The article “Famine, affluence, and Morality” by author Peter Singer attempts to provide a solution that can alleviate and even eliminate suffering. Singer proposes that people from wealthier countries can end the suffering of those in need of basic needs by giving away a large part of their wealth to the suffering.1
The author argues that citizens of developed nations have a moral obligation to use their wealth to assist those suffering from want of basic necessities. This paper sets out to Singer’s conclusions that people from wealthier countries have a moral obligation to do something about the suffering of others in the world. It argues that while Singer’s argument for the suffering and death from lack of basic necessities is bad, his conclusion that it is the duty of the wealthy to do something to alleviate the suffering if not justifiable.
Peter Singer’s Argument
The main aim of Singer’s argument is to demonstrate that people in developed nations such as Australia, Britain, and the US have a moral obligation to assist those who are suffering from a lack of basic needs due to natural or artificial calamities. He begins by highlighting the deaths of thousands of people in East Bengal in 1971 from starvation and lack of shelter and medical care.2
He asserts that their deaths and suffering is avoidable as the richer nations have the capacity to give enough assistance to dramatically reduce the sufferings of the Bengali. However, Singer notes that the decisions and actions needed to prevent the suffering have not been made as few people have responded by providing aid.
A major argument by Singer is that it is our moral obligation to prevent a bad thing from happening if it is in our power to do this without great sacrifice on our part. He elaborates that there has been inaction at the individual level and the government level.3 Individuals have failed to give large sums of money to relief funds or pressure their governments to provide more aid.
Singer notes that the governments have the capability to provide more aid than they are currently offering. He observes that while the British government has given 14,750,000 to aid the Bengali refugees, it has contributed 275,000,000 to the Anglo-French Concorde project.4
Another argument made by Singer is that the physical distance between the wealthy nations and the people in need is inconsequential when deciding to offer aid. He asserts that the principle of preventing the bad and promoting the good does not consider distance. Our familiarity with the person benefiting from our action is also inconsequential. As individuals who ascribe to the notion that equality is an important attribute in society, we should not ignore the needs of those who are not geographically close to us.
Singer also tackles the issue of whether an individual should feel obliged to help when millions others are in a position to offer assistance. He observes that in many cases, individuals refuse to act since there are millions of other people in a position to help. He declares that even in such a case, the individual is obliged to act since numbers do not lessen the moral obligation.
Singer declares that by following the principle that “if it is in your power to prevent something very bad from happening we out morally to do it”, then the distinction between duty and charity would be offset.5 He notes that currently there is a strong distinction between duty and charity. Being charitable is a commendable attribute but it is not an obligation. For this reason, individuals who do not engage in acts of charity are not condemned by society. The society would experience profound changes if people lived by the principles proposed.
Discussion of Why Singer is Correct
The argument that suffering and dying from lack of basic necessities is bad since every human can agree that these conditions are undesirable. Anyone who has experienced even a low level of hunger, cold, or sickness can agree with the proposition that these conditions are undesirable.6
Taking action to mitigate or eliminate this suffering is a great good. The utilitarian theory supports an action that results in the reduction of pain and increase in happiness for people. Onora concedes that the ethical action is the one that leads to the maximization of happiness and alleviating suffering brings about this outcome.7 The proposition that helping those in need is the moral thing to do is therefore supported by the utilitarian ethical theory.
Singer’s assertion that helping the needy will not cost the wealthy nations significantly has some solid underpinnings. We live in a world rife with economic inequalities. The developed nations have strong economies and their citizens enjoy higher incomes and better standards of living. Individuals in developed nations are able to have discretionary income that is up to one-third of their net income. This excess money is mostly spent on purchasing luxury goods and leisure.
Therefore, the argument that the wealthy are capable of assisting the suffering without having to sacrifice anything of comparable moral importance is true considering the wealth disparities between the developed nations and the developing nations. Singer emphasizes that it would take comparatively little effort on the part of the individual from the developed nation to alleviate the suffering experienced by people in poor nations due to a lack of basic needs.8
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On the issue of who deserves the assistance of the wealth countries, Singer declares that proximity should not be a consideration. This argument that individuals should not avoid helping others since they are far away is in line with international ideals. People in the modern world ascribe to the notion that everyone is equal and as such we should be sympathetic to the needs of everyone.
The needs of the suffering in Bengal should be given the same consideration by a person in London as those of the poor in his neighborhood. Onora declares that as humans, we have obligations that include helping or being beneficent to others.9 This beneficence to others is not limited to our compatriots but it should be applied to the entire human community. Singer’s proposition that distance should be irrelevant when choosing to provide aid to the poor is therefore sound.
Objection to Singer’s Argument
While Singer’s argument makes a strong case for charity, some of its premises and its conclusion that we give away all our excess money can be opposed. The argument that we have a moral obligation to assist the suffering though our excess funds is objectionable. This proposition by singer does not consider the rights that people have over their possessions.
Arthur asserts that the argument made by Singer that we should always prevent harm to others if this does not necessitate the sacrifice of something of comparable moral importance fails to consider that individuals have a moral right over their possessions.10 For example, while everyone could be of help to others by giving away a part of our bodies, being forced to undertake such action would be considered immoral. Each person is entitled to keep his possessions and this takes precedence over the duty to help.
The declaration by Singer that people have a duty to give away their excess money to charity is not in line with utilitarianism. This ethical theory states that the ethical action “maximizes the happiness for the largest number of people”.11 According to Singer, people are duty bound to give to the suffering.
Singer challenges the traditional notion of charitable giving by declaring that giving should be a moral duty as opposed to a personal choice. Singer declares that it is wrong not to give to charity and the failure to give is tantamount to killing the individuals who might have benefited from our aid.12 By making charity an obligation, the joy that an individual traditionally derives from making charitable contributions will be removed.
While Singer’s argument that we ought to help are valid, they refuse to consider the inherent rights of the individual to choose if or not to give. Singer’s arguments presume that the suffering people have rights that need to be satisfied by the wealthy nations. This argument is wrong since without a contract or promise made between the two parties, the suffering people are owed no rights by the wealthy.13
Refusing to help the suffering would not be morally wrong since it does not violate the rights of the suffering since, to begin with, they did not have the rights. Arthur declares that the decision to help a stranger in need as in the Bengal situation is not the result of the right that the suffering have.14 The decision to assist the poor is the personal choice of the individual with resources. If he chooses not to help, he cannot be accused of immoral conduct.
The moral code of entitlement is also used to argue against Singer’s premises and conclusions. People work hard to obtain physical possessions and they therefore deserve the right to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Arthur declares that failure to reward those who work hard would be morally wrong since it is unfair.15 Singer calls for reducing suffering to those in need up to the point where providing aid to the poor might have a negative effect on us.
This proposal overlooks the fact that an individual is entitled to enjoying his earnings. Singer’s arguments essentially make it immoral for anyone to have luxury commodities such as stylish clothes and sophisticated music systems when there are people starving somewhere in the world.16 This assertion that individuals should not use their surplus earning to enjoy themselves as long as the world has a suffering person who could be assisted by this surplus is unfair and shows no regard for justice.
Finally, Singer’s argument that proximity is irrelevant is not well founded. Humans have divided themselves into different subunits based on geography, language, religion, and other considerations. Arguably the most important division is that of nationality. The nation-state requires certain resources from its members and in return it provides numerous benefits including security.
Miller declares that by acknowledging a national identity, a person is accepting that he/she owes some special obligations to his fellow countrymen that he does not owe to the rest of the world.17 Individuals sharing a nationhood have a special relationship with each other and their well-being might be connected.
When faced with the decision of which group of suffering people to assist, an individual is most likely to give priority to those nearest to him. In addition to this, proximity is relevant since it contributes to the efficiency with which aid is delivered. Miller contends that the duty to relieve the needy can be achieved most efficiently if everyone committed to helping the needy in his/her immediate environment.18
Human suffering is an undesirable condition that should be eliminated through all possible means. This paper set out to critique Peter Singe’s argument that the wealthy are morally obliged to assist the suffering as articulated in the article “Famine, affluence, and Morality”. It began by explaining Singer’s argument, which essentially states that individuals from wealthy nations have a moral obligation to use their surplus funds to help the suffering.
The paper highlighted the strengths in the argument made by Singer. His premise that alleviating suffering is the moral thing to do is supported by utilitarianism. Singer is also right in observing that the rich can afford to help the suffering without having to make huge sacrifices. However, Singer’s arguments can be opposed since they do not consider the moral right an individual has over his/her possessions.
In addition to this, the premise that a person should not enjoy his excess money is unfair since the individual is entitled to enjoy the rewards of his labor. While it can be agreed by all people that human suffering is undesirable and efforts should be made to eliminate it, the suggestions made by Singer are not the answer. Solutions that consider the rights and entitlement of the benefactor would be more appropriate and moral.
Arthur, J, ‘World Hunger and moral obligation : The case against Singer’, in SM Cahn (ed.), Exploring Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology, Oxford University Press, Cambridge, 2009, pp. 845-852.
Kekes, J, ‘On the Supposed Obligation to Relieve Famine’, Philosophy, vol. 5, no.4, 2002, pp.503-517.
Miller, D, The Ethics of Nationality, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995, pp. 49-80.
Nagel, T, ‘Poverty and Food: Why Charity is Not Enough’, in T Pogge & K Horton (eds.), Global ethics: seminal essays, Paragon House, St. Paul, Minnesota, 2008, pp. 49-59.
Onora, O, ‘Rights, obligations and world hunger’, in T Pogge & K Horton (eds.), Global ethics: seminal essays, Paragon House, St. Paul, Minnesota, 2008, pp. 139-155.
Singer, P, ‘Famine, affluence, and Morality’, in T Pogge & K Horton (eds.), Global ethics: seminal essays, Paragon House, St. Paul, Minnesota, 2008, pp. 1-14
- P Singer, ‘Famine, affluence, and Morality’, in T Pogge & K Horton (eds.), Global ethics: seminal essays, Paragon House, St. Paul, Minnesota, 2008, p. 1.
- Ibid., p.2.
- Ibid., p.3
- Ibid., p. 2.
- Ibid., p. 4.
- T Nagel, ‘Poverty and Food: Why Charity is Not Enough’, in T Pogge & K Horton (eds.), Global ethics: seminal essays, Paragon House, St. Paul, Minnesota, 2008, p. 52.
- O Onora, ‘Rights, obligations and world hunger’, in T Pogge & K Horton (eds.), Global ethics: seminal essays, Paragon House, St. Paul, Minnesota, 2008, p.142
- Singer, p.3.
- Onora, p. 141.
- J Arthur, ‘World Hunger and moral obligation: The case against Singer’, in SM Cahn (ed.), Exploring Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology, Oxford University Press, Cambridge, 2009, p.848.
- Nagel, p. 52.
- J Kekes, ‘On the Supposed Obligation to Relieve Famine’, Philosophy, vol. 5, no.4, 2002, p.505.
- Nagel, p. 53.
- Arthur, p. 852.
- Ibid., p. 851.
- Kekes, p. 504.
- D Miller, The Ethics of Nationality, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995, p. 51.
- Ibid., p.51.