Peter Singer - “Famine, Affluence and Morality”

August 21 2017

After reading the essay, I came to the conclusion that simplistic equations would serve better to understand Singer’s point than long text. I will start with a small paragraph on the topic he hinges his argument on and then go as simple as possible from there.

Peter Singer wants us to think about an event happening in his current day: November 1971. A few months earlier, India was swept by a very large number of refugees from Bangladesh due to the Bangladesh Liberation War. India was woefully unprepared for millions of refugees and is asking western nations for at least £300,000,000. At the time of his essay, a total amount of £65,000,000 had been given, with the primary donations coming from Britain and Australia. Singer starts out by doing the maths on what else Britain and Australia have spend money on recently (Concord and the Sydney Opera House) and how much less they have given in comparison. He then points out that without more aid, India will have to choose between helping the Bengali refugees themselves now and risking future famine for its own people.

Now, he starts out with his argument.

  • Assumption - suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and lack of medical care is bad
  • Assumption - if we can change something bad, without comparable suffering, we ought to do it

He thus presents the principle that we are only required to prevent what is bad, not promote what is good.

Singer elaborates that this might seem uncontroversial but that we are not at all acting on it because:

  • The principle does not take into account proximity or distance

⇒ it is not relevant that those in need may be in Bangladesh or in one’s neighbour’s yard

Modern communication and transport have eliminated the justification that we can only help those in close proximity. Geographical distance might make one feel less guilty (out of sight, out of mind) and make it easier for us to point fingers at other also not doing what they ought to do, but it makes no difference to the inherent moral obligations that exist.

  • The principle sees no difference between the help required from an individual and the help required from a crowd ⇒ helping a drowning child in your neighbourhood is equal - not more or less important, to helping flood victims in a far-off place

Singer than presents us with a paradox or rather an argument often made that presents itself with false form.

“If everyone in my circumstances gives £5, the refugees will be provided with all they need.

There is no reason for me to give more than £5 if other in my circumstances don’t.”

The paradox appears thus: if everyone is obligated to give, they give less than if they are aware that some do not give. It would conclude that everyone giving less or some giving all they can , is better than everyone giving some.

Singer however, has a solution.

The premise, he says may look true but is highly hypothetical. The conclusion is not stated as hypothetical though. It assume that enough people able to give £5 A) is enough and B) it does assume everyone give simultaneously. Especially B) is incorrect because those who give when the need arises are in a different circumstance than those who give once other have given. The latter know how much more is needed to achieve the goal; information the former did not have.

This concludes that everyone doing what s/he ought to do is not worse than everyone doing less than what s/he ought to do, although every doing what he reasonably believes s/he ought to do, could be.

It follows, Singer explains that out traditional demarcation between duty and charity is non existent. He sees a duty to be charitable only.

Singer does not accept that charity is applauded but doing nothing is not seen as problematic, he sees no room for supererogation (the idea that some things are good to do but not that it is not wrong not to do them) in charitable acts. To him, his conclusion is clear: it is wrong not to give if one can do so without harming oneself in likewise fashion as those one ought to give to. It is not generous to give, it is wrong not to.