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Famine, Affluence and Morality – Peter Singer

Explain and critically assess Singer’s argument for our obligation to relieve suffering in the third world. Why does the argument erode the traditional distinction between duty and charity? How would deontological and utilitarian theories of ethics view Singer’s argument?

Singer’s main contention in Famine, Affluence and Morality, the article under consideration, is that our way of conducting ourselves morally ought to be revised. He thinks that if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything else of moral importance, or without making another bad thing happen, then we have a moral obligation to do it. What Singer means is that each one of us has the power to prevent what is bad and affect the rest of the world, however disparate and remote.

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Let us say that we are in a situation where we can, and should, prevent something morally bad from happening but we let it pass us by and do not try to prevent it. For Singer, this is not just laziness or cowardice, but moral wrongdoing. We ought morally to prevent it. I agree with Singer’s point here; it is true and uncontroversial (although his argument doesn’t remain that way when he develops it further). He goes on to say that although everyone in their right mind would agree with this ideal, few people put it into practice by for example helping the people of Bengal. If people acted out their principles, Singer says, then today’s worldwide society would be fundamentally changed.

The singer then adds to this argument by saying that the existence or not of proximity, and the number of people prepared to help, should not make any difference to our moral obligations, namely, the fact that the Bengali refugees are tens of thousands of miles away should not lessen our obligations to them. Secondly, the fact that millions of others around a person are doing nothing to help is no excuse for one person not doing anything. One may feel less guilty about doing nothing to help if one can point to others in the same situation, yet this cannot make a real difference to one’s moral obligations. Therefore, inaction in the face of a problem like this for whatever reason is morally indefensible.

My argument against these points is that one would very naturally feel a stronger connection with someone closer to one than with a person further away. This would lead one to feel a stronger responsibility to help that person if they were in need of assistance and would mean that help would be more likely to take place in the first place, rather than not at all. Also, one would be in a better position to decide how precisely to help someone near to one than if that person were far away. Singer defends his position by arguing (using the Kantian theory of universalizing an idea) that we have no excuse to discriminate against a person merely because he is far away from us. The development of the world into a ‘global village’ where transport and communication are almost immediate has made moral responsibilities less limited.

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Singer’s argument raises an interesting point about the difference in definition between duty and charity; nowadays charity is not generally considered a duty, whereas Singer is saying that it should be. Not enough people think or say that we are under a moral obligation to donate money to charity. A person may be praised for their generosity if they donate money to charity, but they are not condemned if they do not. People may give money to charity because it is a good thing to do, or because it gives them a sense of wellbeing, but they probably do not give it away because they think that they would be guilty of wrongdoing.

Singer’s argument erodes this traditional distinction by stating that we ought to give our money away and it is wrong not to do so. We spend our money on clothes we do not necessarily need, so would not be sacrificing anything of moral importance if we were to give that money to charity and keep enough clothes to stay warm. The singer is saying that most people would prefer to save a Bengali child from famine by donating money to charity while at the same time sacrificing some of their own luxuries. On the other hand, choosing to spend that money on unnecessary clothes and goods, whilst being aware of the Bengali child’s situation, seems immoral. In the way we live our everyday lives, we are choosing the latter, and are thus seriously guilty of moral wrongdoing, according to Singer.

However, if thought through, Singer’s ideal still encounters problems; one only has to think about the consequences of his ideal to see how meaningless it would become. If Singer’s argument was consistently applied, and we gave away everything apart from that which we needed for ‘basic necessities’ no one would have any money to give to charity, because no one would have a job. No one would have a job because anyone who might have supplied one is now living at subsistence level, having donated his money to the Bengali people.

Also, earned income has value in a moral sense. When everything else seems unsure, an earned luxury is the certain, concrete assurance of your power to obtain good things. It may also be a reward you pay yourself for goals that you have reached. It offers evidence to your senses that your life is good. As a result, although giving most of your money away to the relief fund might be the right thing to do in Singer’s eyes, probably not many people would jump for joy at the idea. Furthermore, since Singer holds to his argument so strongly, I wonder if he actually gives away all of his money apart from that which he needs for basic necessities. If not, maybe he is waiting for the rest of the world to sacrifice harder before he starts to worry about his own hypocrisy.

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Singer’s main point in this article is that “the whole way we look at moral issues – our moral conceptual scheme – needs to be altered, and with it, the way of life that has come to be taken for granted in our society.” This is a major argument he is putting forward and would be true if his basis for this point was valid, which I do not think it is. I agree with Singer on most of the points he makes in this article; it can’t be argued against that if one is able to prevent something bad from happening, one has a moral obligation to do it. Nevertheless, whether or not your action or duty is determined to be moral or immoral depends on how you go about solving the problem at hand.

Singer cries out at the end of the article, pleading that it is not enough for us to agree with him and discuss this problem; we have to act upon it, and change the way we look at moral issues. However, I do not think that his practical solution of donating our money to charity and sacrificing some of our luxuries is the most advantageous solution to the Bengali people.

Singer concentrates his whole argument on one part of the problem in Bengal: people are suffering and need to be assisted. When trying to find a solution to the problem, though, Singer proposes a solution to the fact that the Bengali people are suffering, rather than trying to solve the cause of their suffering. I say that you can either give enough of your income away so that a Bengali child has enough money to buy one bowl of food, or you can ask yourself why the political and social system in Bengal is not working as well as ours does.

I think that his hypothetical thought experiments, for example, the child drowning in the pond, are misleading and irrelevant to the real problem that he is discussing. His thought experiments only let you think of the solution in a linear way; the only possible right thing that you can do is to save the drowning child. Also, it is irrelevant to the real problem because one needs to ask oneself why the Bengali people are in the situation that obtains. Singer has twisted his thought experiments so that they only deal with the here and now; it seems absurd to ask why the child is in the pond in the first place, which is what we should do.

Singer declares that constant poverty, a cyclone and civil war were the reasons why the people of Bengal were suffering so much. Nowadays the country is ruled with an iron fist, and the rights of individual Bangladeshis, including the right to own property, are denied. Wealth cannot be accumulated in Bangladesh because those who would create it know that it will be taken from them by force. Large-scale, long-term trade is nearly impossible, so no one benefits from the sale of goods, luxury or otherwise. As a consequence, millions die and millions more barely subsist. If this is happening today, it is interesting to think how much worse the situation was in 1971, when Bengal was in the middle of a civil war with Pakistan.

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The situation in Bengal will not get worse if you buy some nice clothes or go to the cinema. Our wealth is beside the point. What we can do to help is ask ourselves if the social system of Bengal would benefit if it were more like ours. This leads to an interesting question as to whether it is better or not to create more capitalist societies. Singer, is a bioethicist and a strong anti-war and animal rights protester, would probably think that capitalist society would not benefit anybody. Maybe that is why he has fashioned a way to make the fact of the Bengali people’s suffering an excuse to ignore the cause of their suffering.

This is where consideration of a utilitarian viewpoint might be useful. If you were to give money away, whilst sacrificing some of your wealth-acquired luxuries, to the Bengal Relief Fund, maybe you would make one Bengali less hungry for a week, but you would not make him any less poor. Perhaps you would be happy at the thought of helping someone in a dire situation, and a few Bengalis might be happier but for no longer than a week or so.

Also, you would of course be less happy as you would be sacrificing some of your luxuries. To promote the greatest happiness among the greatest number of people, as the utilitarian theory goes, one would have to find a way to satisfy the Bengalis’ long term needs. What Bengal needs more than anything else is a regime change that will take care of the country’s long term needs. This is best left to governments and politicians rather than individuals. The question of how this idea impinges on the Coalition invasion of Iraq is an interesting one.

In conclusion, I think Singer means for the best, although I cannot see how his solution is the best possible one. Help the Bengalis, but not by self-sacrifice. Is Singer’s real purpose to use self-sacrifice in order to help the Bengalis, or is it to use the Bengali people as a means to effect self-sacrifice? Self-sacrifice seems to me to be the ends, not the means. We could help Singer to achieve his goal by burning money in a bonfire equally as well as by donating money to Oxfam.

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Famine, Affluence and Morality - Peter Singer. (2021, May 12). Retrieved January 23, 2022, from