In Peter Singer’s article “Famine, Affluence, and Morality, he gives what seems to be a devastating outline of our normal way of thinking concerning the relief of the famine, charity and morality in general. Only a small number of people accepted, or even acted upon the conclusions that he shared. The enlightenment of these facts someone may make the statement or argument such as Hume did in the likeness of Berkely’s argument for immaterialism, stating that “they admit of no answer and produce any convictions” (Hume, 1999).
I believe that Singer’s consideration show that people should be more considerate, but because they do not accept his conclusion in the fullness from his general facts that he provided. Even though his arguments seem to only provide a partial answer, but if properly examined it may bring conviction. Singer argues that people who lives in affluent countries must change their way of life along with their conception of morality, in hopes that they will commit to helping those that at are in need.
He first asked for us to consider cases of famine such as the one in Bengal in the year of 1971, people suffered extensively and he felt if that the proper requirements wasn’t fulfilled by individuals as well as the government officials. Singer presented two principles: the first principle was that suffering and death are bad, whether it comes from hunger, deficient housing, or the lack of proper medical care. The second principle was that if anyone is in a position to prevent a morally bad situation without sacrificing something of roughly equal moral importance one should do so.
The first principle states whether a person should help those who are suffering or dying by the closeness of another person unless it is too difficult or it’s a lot of distance between them does not make the suffering any less. When both principles are connected it appears that one’s obligation to help those who are in need will not vanish or change for the better if those who are able to help refuse to do so, and morally they are no different than the people who are not present but involve themselves.
Singer comments on this argument by adding that he could get by with a weaker version of the second principle, which would have “something of moral significance” in place of “something of roughly equal moral importance” (Urmson, 1958). Singer next considers a couple of objections one is that if everyone were to donate what they should to famine relief, each person would only need to contribute a small amount, and thus there would be no reason for one to contribute more than a small amount.
Singer responds that it’s just not true that everyone donates what they should to famine relief, so this objection is irrelevant given the actual situation. Another is that, since not many people donate much to famine relief, those who do should keep giving until they reach the point where their wellbeing is roughly equal to that of the people they are trying to help. This would result in them donating more than they need to, which means that things would be better if people didn’t do quite as much as they should. Singer says that this would happen only if they didn’t know how much others were donating, and if they all acted at the same time.
If they do know, and don’t all give at the same time, they may, and will, donate less than they otherwise would. Taking himself to have satisfactorily answered the past two objections, Singer regards the second principle as established, and says that if necessary he can still make his case using its weaker version. Singer thinks the foregoing has wide-ranging consequences for our moral thinking. Most people feel that they are perfectly within their rights to give whatever they choose to charity, whether it is nothing, a large amount, or something in between. According to Singer this is wrong.
The money that people of wealthy nations spend on luxuries should instead be donated to charity because the poor and the needy need it to survive. Donating one’s money to help them isn’t just good, it’s obligatory. Developed because certain actions, the obligatory ones, are a necessary precondition for people to live together in a society; the good actions may help, but are not necessary. In particular, helping those outside one’s society is not. Singer says this may explain why many think there’s a distinction between what’s good and what’s obligatory, but that doesn’t justify them in not donating to charity.
Morality requires that we look beyond our own society because the needs those starving in other societies are just as pressing as our own, if not more so. Second, some have suggested that our moral codes shouldn’t require too much beyond what people are able to do. If they do, people will stop obeying them. Singer responds, first, that a strong version of this thesis is false. Even if people failed to do their duty by donating to famine relief they wouldn’t go around killing people.
Second, what people are able to do vary with different circumstances and is influenced by what others do as well as by what others expect them to do. Third, it is worth taking the chance of a moral breakdown in order to relieve famine. Finally, the foregoing applies only to what we require of each other, not to what one should do oneself. Singer concludes by saying that, contrary to some, philosophers are competent to discuss famine relief, and moreover ought to discuss it. Just as importantly, philosophers should have the courage of their convictions and do what they know they ought to.
It may not be an easy thing for one to do, but Singer believes that by doing so one can begin to reconcile theory and practice. I think we aren’t in general required to do as much as Singer thinks we should, for if we were that would detract from our moral autonomy. I think that people are morally free to live their own lives and pursue their own interests, at least up to a point, and this entails that one is morally permitted to devote one’s time, energy, and money to activities that don’t directly have an impact on famine relief or similar worthy causes.
How is this connected to Singer’s arguments? It is relevant in this way: “If people are obligated to do as much as they possibly can, to “work full time” to relieve famine, they would have to give up many of their projects in order to do so” (Singer, 2007). This does not imply that people are morally permitted to pursue whatever interests they may have, especially when it has been shown that those interests have practically zero probability of bearing any socially beneficial fruits.
It also doesn’t imply that people are morally permitted not to contribute to famine relief or similar causes, nor even that they are only obligated to contribute a small amount. There is a big difference between being free to pursue one’s interests and being free to waste one’s time, energy and money on luxuries. Things like to borrow an example from Singer buying stylish new clothes should not count as legitimate ways of pursuing one’s interests. Aside from those who make those clothes, no one benefits from the money spent on them.
Even if we suppose that they did, such benefits pale in comparison to how much the poor and starving would benefit from one donating one’s money to famine relief. However, I do think the above implies that we are morally permitted, to an extent, to choose what to do with our lives insofar as that is required for us to be free to pursue those of our interests that we know could have some chance of yielding socially beneficial fruits. Singer could raise two objections to my arguments. First, he could say that the benefits of contributing to famine relief are almost certain, while the benefits of pursuing higher mathematics are not.
Second, Singer could say that since it is unlikely that many people would be swayed by his arguments, not many people would end up abandoning their interests, so the negative impact of their doing so would be negligible. Note that I’m not saying that one is obligated to pursue one’s interests, only that doing so is morally permissible. In spite of the above, once everything I’ve said has been taken into account, it is still true that people should devote a great deal of their resources to famine relief and similar causes—in all likelihood far more than most people in affluent nations, including me, either do contribute or want to contribute.
I would thus say that Singer’s main argument is sound, provided we accept the weaker version of Singer’s second principle that one should prevent morally bad states of affairs if one can do so without sacrificing something morally significant. It’s just that I happen to think that having the moral autonomy to pursue one’s interests is something morally significant, and from the foregoing it should be clear that this means one is morally free not to devote oneself to working full time to prevent famine.
However, I would question the stronger version of the second principle that one should prevent morally bad states of affairs if one can do so without sacrificing something of roughly equal moral importance to the bad states of affairs one is trying to prevent. I question it not because I think it is false, but because I think in many cases it is vague whether two or more states of affairs are of roughly equal moral importance.
In the case I considered earlier, there was a tradeoff between choosing to do something, namely donating to famine relief, which has a high probability of producing very beneficial results, and choosing to do something else, namely pursuing one’s interest in such things as higher mathematics, which has a much lower but still non-negligible probability of producing very beneficial results. The problem is that it is by no means obvious how we can compare the “beneficially” of these results when we simply don’t know what results pursuing ones’ interests might have, or how beneficial they might turn out to be.
For these reasons I think that while Singer’s conclusions are correct, they aren’t quite as correct as he thinks they are. References Hume, David. An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1999 Singer, Peter. “Famine, Affluence and Morality”, Ethical Theory: An Anthology, edited by Russ Shafer-Landau. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007 Urmson, J. O. “Saints and Heroes,” in Essays in Moral Philosophy, ed. Abraham I. Melden. Seattle and London, 1958.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 7 November 2016
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