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Peter Singer and Onara O’Neill: Comparative Position Essay

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Updated: Jun 4th, 2021

Introduction

In the 21st century, the world is experiencing a plethora of humanitarian crises. From the suffering of people in Haiti in the wake of several hurricanes that struck them in 2008 to individuals facing hunger and drought in various states of Africa, as well as the war-torn countries in the Middle East, there are millions of individuals in need of immediate and long-term assistance. At the same time, the world is known for its inequality of wealth, where the richest 10% of people amount for 85% of the world’s total possessions.

In that regard, the moral obligation to help those in need falls upon the rich and the influential. Peter Singer and Onara O’Neill seek to propagate charity by tackling one of the most dangerous issues facing underdeveloped countries, that being hunger and famine. Both of them base their arguments on Kant’s categorical imperative, though while Singer determines the necessity for charity as a perfect duty, O’Neill sees it as imperfect and dependent on a person’s perspective and willingness to help. The purpose of this paper is to compare and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of these arguments.

Singer’s Argument: Not Donating to Aid Agencies is Morally Wrong

The argument outlined in Singer’s book, titled The Life You Can Save, is based on three major premises, which are as follows (Singer 17):

  • The suffering caused by famine, homelessness, and illnesses is wrong.
  • Sacrificing a commodity that is not nearly as important as a human’s life to save it, when an individual is in the position to do so, is also wrong.
  • Deaths from famine, disease, and lack of shelter can be prevented by donating to various aid agencies that supply needy individuals with the required premises.
  • Conclusion: A refusal to donate to aid agencies is morally wrong.

In his book, Singer promotes the more direct forms of aid over others, indicating

that health, food, and shelter are the primary needs of all living beings. Only after those are secured, could charity be directed to other premises. In doing so, he follows Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where all three of these commodities are the basic requirements for human survival.

O’Neill’s Argument: We Must Do What We Can Prevent Famine

O’Neill’s argument, outlined in his article titled Kantian Approaches to Famine Problems, identifies famine as one of the main issues for humanity because it robs a person of the agency. His main thesis can be presented as follows (O’Neill 111):

  • Humanity should be treated not always as a means, but always as an end. This premise grounds the inherent value of human life.
  • It is the perfect duty to avoid using persons as a means to an end by putting them in a position where they could not refuse to consent to the opposing party’s demands.
  • Imperfect duty: Since every individual requires someone else’s help to achieve their own goals in life, a refusal to assist someone in need can be interpreted as a refusal to treat people as the end.
  • Since hunger and poverty undercut the person’s ability to refuse a stronger party’s coercive demands, it turns individuals into a means to an end. Therefore, it is an imperfect duty for everyone to assist humanitarian aid to famine-struck and impoverished countries.

O’Neill’s framework, as seen in his writings, allows for greater determination for the amount and quality of aid to be sent by each individual, recognizing the value of direct and indirect aid to prevent poverty and hunger.

Comparative Analysis of Arguments

At first glance, the arguments proposed by both authors are nearly identical. They seem to imply that the responsibility to aid the hungry and poor across the world is an imperfect duty, instead of Kant’s categorical imperative. However, further readings into Singer’s book indicate that he views the necessity to donate to charities not as an imperfect, but as a perfect duty, as his thesis proposes donating everything that is not required to sustain oneself, to others (Singer 29). After all, even the most basic of commodities are not as valuable in comparison to human life. In that regard, anything aside from one’s food, shelter, and medical necessities could be considered a luxury.

O’Neill’s argument is less categorical, as he acknowledges the need for information to estimate the correct amount of need every hungry, poor, and homeless individual may require (114). An individual donor or even a charity organization does not possess all information to make the perfect assessment of these needs. Thus, neither the donor nor the aid organization can make a perfect decision, thus making the transaction an imperfect duty. This approach can explain not only the reasons why some people donate much, while others – little, but also why many charity organizations are notoriously inefficient at handling large-scale humanitarian crises.

Singer’s argument has several weaknesses to itself, as in his book he claims that charity funds donated to indirect welfare pursuits, such as humanitarian concerts, museums, animal shelters, and other similar causes that do not address hunger, poverty, and homelessness, are wasteful (54). These words create dangerous rhetoric by making some donations better than others and disregarding long-term investments into education and culture in favor of direct aid.

Cultural heritage and preservation of thereof are one of the paramount requirements for national prosperity, as it instills positive values and attitudes towards liberties, education, work, and family. All countries suffering from humanitarian crises are also suffering from societal disintegration and inept governance. Education is also considered a long-term investment that Singer seems to disparage in favor of basic needs. At the same time, without efforts towards education, entrepreneurship, and economics, a poor country is forever sentenced to rely on donations.

O’Neill’s argument, on the other hand, is too academic and does not have the persuasive drive that Singer’s books have. It does not make a direct attempt to take a higher moral ground and convince the reader that more should be done. It is the reason why Singer’s books motivated so many famous billionaires to engage in philanthropic campaigns. At the same time, he preaches the right message, stating that there is no objective way to decide how much an individual should be morally obliged to donate.

Conclusions

Singer and O’Neill are both driven by humanitarian concerns and seek to encourage donations to help end poverty, disease, and hunger. Although their theory is grounded in Kant’s ethics, they take different approaches to convincing the reader to join their cause. The singer is more expressive, but his logical construction is not without flaws. O’Neill’s delivery of the message is too mild. Nevertheless, their efforts are helping to support poor and hungry nations worldwide.

Works Cited

O’Neill, Onora. “Kantian Approaches to Some Famine Problems.” Ethical Theory: An Anthology, edited by Russ Shafer-Landau, Wiley, 2013, pp. 100-117.

Singer, Peter. The Life You Can Save. Random House, 2009.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Peter Singer and Onara O’Neill: Comparative Position'. 4 June.

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