In his article Famine, Affluence, and Morality, Peter Singer reveals the prevailing situation in Bengal, India, and the international relief awarded to the refugees. He suggests that affluent countries reacted to the situation in an unjustifiable manner. Therefore, his goal is to change the way moral issues are handled.
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He says, “[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” (Singer, 1972, pp. 233-234). In this argument, he proposes that people need to prevent suffering from happening if they are willing and able to do so.
As a counter argument, there are many people in the world obliged to help. Therefore, helping is not the moral obligation of any individual. His response is that, if all people show just a bit of responsibility, then any problem that arises would be dealt with jointly, which would be more effective (Sandberg & Juth, 2011, p.212).
In another counter argument, giving to a person far away without considering those that are close is said to be bad. It would only prevent future incidences as opposed to the one currently in the neighbourhood.
He argues that a distance in time and space is irrelevant in helping people. It is also argued that Singer’s conclusion is not in line with the current morals. Therefore, it is not right. In a counterargument, Singer states that people should not assume that the morals existing are right and or correct. He states that his statement of the principle elicits a sound conclusion. Therefore, it should be accepted as in line with the current morals.
Singer’s marginal utility point is the point at which any person and his/her dependants would end up suffering at an equal magnitude of the amount of suffering relieved to those he/she assisted.
He gives an example of a person giving towards relief effort in Bengal. He claims that giving a certain amount to Bengal would result to suffering of individuals and their dependants, which will correspond to the suffering he relieved in Bengal. He declares this as unnecessary in assisting other people especially charity since it would be more than what is needed.
Singer comments on the issue of charity and duty by claiming that the traditional way of making a distinction between duty and charity is not possible. In the traditional values, one is not supposed to hurt others because it is immoral to do so. It is also not considered bad not to give charity with the reverse being true. Singer reverses this principle by claiming that this traditional view should be reversed.
As a personal argument and from an individual’s morals, human beings have the obligation of preventing suffering from their counterparts irrespective of distance, space, time, and relationship. In fact, Singer says, “Neither our distance…nor the number of other people…lessens our obligation to mitigate or prevent that evil” (1972, p.234). I agree with Singer’s argument that universal suffering would be reduced if the traditional view of duty and charity were changed to that of obligation.
Affluent nations therefore have the duty of assisting poorer states by providing for the needy. Responsibility however should be equal for all people in the world. Besides, getting all people to help their neighbours should be made a priority. It is true that there are people in the world whose assets are worth more than what is required to feed a single refugee camp in a year.
If they acted only in the current moral view of charity, this would then go a long way in reducing universal poverty and suffering (Lenferna, 2010, p.92). If it were within their capabilities, people would need not to sacrifice anything of equal moral importance. He also suggests that people should also prevent bad things from happening to others if it were possible to do so without having to sacrifice anything that is morally significant to them.
Lenferna, G. (2010). Singer Revisited Cosmopolitanism, Global Poverty and our Ethical Requirements. South African Journal of Philosophy, 29(2), 85-94.
Sandberg, J., & Juth, N. (2011). Ethics and Intuitions: A Reply to Singer. Springer, 15(1), 209-226.
Singer, P. (1972). Famine, Affluence, and Morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1(3), 229-43.