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peter singer - ethics of giving

Peter Singer and the Philosophical Guide to Giving

The year was 1971. East Bengal was ravaged by famine, cyclone, and civil war (which would eventually give birth to Bangladesh). People died due to insufficient food, shelter, and medical care. Many had fled the war-torn Eastern flank of Bengal towards India—with an estimated 9 million people turning refugees.

Philosopher Peter Singer writes:

“The decisions and actions of human beings can prevent this suffering. Unfortunately, human beings have not made the necessary decisions. At the individual level, people have, with very few exceptions, not responded to the situation in any significant way” (p. 229).

He notes that how people in affluent countries have reacted to the Bengal famine is not justifiable; indeed, he adds, “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” (p. 230).

Peter Singer writes his 1972 essay “Famine, Affluence and Morality” in Philosophy and Public Affairs, arguing a case for our moral duty to help those suffering.

His argument can be summed up in four succinct sentences.

  1. Suffering and death from lacking food, shelter, and medical care are bad (p. 231).
  2. If 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 (p. 235).
  3. The luxuries we spend our money on are not of moral significance.
  4. Therefore, we must donate money to relief agencies to help prevent hunger, disease—and other sources of suffering, disability and death.

These arguments flow logically. They are simplistic and plausible.

Suffering and dying from lacking food, shelter, and medical care are bad.

The first assumption is commonsensical. Not many find this problematic, although many would take different routes to the same argument. But that does not discount the inherent value in the first argument. We see suffering all around us. And some of us do know what it is like to suffer. And most of us, as humans, can distinguish between suffering and happiness.

If 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.

The second argument is the cause of debate. It is revolutionary in allowing us to think about good and bad. At the outset, Peter Singer clarifies that by “without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance”, he means “without causing anything else comparably bad to happen or failing to promote some moral good” (p. 231). Singer applies the moral problem of giving to Bengal famine in another illustration:

If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

(Singer 1972)

There are two challenges to the following illustration/or the whole giving to famine problem: proximity; the presence of others who could help.

Peter Singer debunks the “proximity” argument.

The fact that someone in our proximity needs help may allow us to help them rather than someone miles away. This is absolutely true. When we see someone who is in need of food, we tend to provide them food by virtue of them being near us—outside the mall, at a gas station, or even on a busy street.

Singer says: “If we accept any principle of impartiality, universalizability, equality, or whatever, we cannot discriminate against someone merely because they are far away from us (or we are far away from them)” (p. 232).

1920px Group of men and children suffering from famine in India
Clifton and Co. (Bombay), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Peter Singer argues that if someone within close proximity is suffering, you are justified to help them. Help those in need in your city if you can’t help someone in a faraway Asia or Africa. But, with the advent of technology and news media (for our generation, even more, with the advent of the internet and Twitter-like information omnibuses), we cannot claim to be unaware of the suffering around the world.

Our society has grown closer than ever. And that we must do everything in our power to give to those who are suffering. Moreso, famine relief organisations can effectively direct our funds to a refugee in Bengal, as we could do it to someone within our proximity.

Peter Singer debunks “the presence of others” argument.

Millions of others like me can give and are in the same position as I am, so why should I give? If they are giving, what is the need for me to give? If they are not giving, why should I give? This is difficult to argue with at first glance.

But, again, Singer notes: “The fact that there are a million others in the same situation as I am, does not make the situation significantly different from a situation in which I am the only person who can prevent something very bad from occurring” (p. 232-233).

The argument that there are others who can help is partly psychological, as it allows us to feel good about not having done anything to do something good, as there are a million others who can. But, consider this: in the drowning child case, there are others who have noticed the child drowning and doing nothing. But does it absolve you from your own duty to jump into the pond and save the child?

Now, let’s look at another line of argument: If everyone like me were to give a certain amount for relief funds, then I have no obligation to give more. For instance, if everyone like me were to give $10 for relief, I would have no obligation to give more than $10. Sure, this a plausible argument to make.

But, Singer notes, this argument is premised on a hypothetical situation in which everyone is giving, but not many would be giving. Therefore, by providing as much as possible, I will prevent more suffering. But this should not be mistaken as giving so much that you end up causing serious suffering to yourself and those dependent on you (p. 233-234).

The result of everyone doing what [they] really ought to do cannot be worse than the result of everyone doing less than [they] ought to do, although the result of everyone doing what [they] believes [they] ought to do could be.

(Singer 1972)

Obligatory Acts vs Supererogatory Acts

Giving to charity has been seen as an act of generosity. While giving is seen as good, “not giving” has not been considered bad. Moreso, a charitable person is praised, while those who are not charitable are not condemned. This occurs due to what society accords charity value to. The claim that some wealthy dude gives to charity is considered a supererogatory act.

It means they didn’t have to do it, but since they did it—it’s great. It is a praiseworthy act. If you hadn’t done that act yourself, you aren’t really bad. Peter Singer says, NO.

The luxuries we spend our money on are not of moral significance.

Peter Singer argues as individuals (who are relatively affluent), it is our moral duty to give. He says giving is an obligatory act. You may be doing something wrong if you don’t give famine relief. He substantiates this by noting that people don’t feel bad for buying unnecessary stuff—such as new clothes when the closet is filled with old ones.

But, when we buy clothes not to keep ourselves warm, but to look good, we are not providing for something of important need. We could keep wearing old clothes and give money to famine relief. By doing so, we are “preventing another person from starving”. It is not a supererogatory act when we give for famine relief. Instead, we must do so.

Therefore, we must donate money to relief agencies to help prevent hunger, disease—and other sources of suffering, disability and death.

Some may argue that if individuals pay for private charities, we may absolve the government’s duty of doing more. Peter Singer acknowledges governments are not doing enough. Moreso, they are not doing it at all. Therefore, we must push our representatives to do more. But, at the same time, we must also contribute to it.

Those who put all the onus on governments to do more may be absolving their own duty to pay for relief to alleviate suffering. He also agrees that “giving privately is not enough” and that we must actively campaign for new standards of public and private contributions to famine relief.

How should we assess Peter Singer’s views on Charity?

Thomas Nagel, writing in 1977, presents a stronger argument to reject Singer’s thesis. He argues social system we live in produces inequality. Charity merely enables that system to sustain itself. The point, however, is to change it. He rejects “charity as a solution with its implied refusal to challenge the legitimacy of the system of property under which the donors of charity hold title to their possessions”.

Therefore, Nagel introduces “radical inequality” to show that, through colonisation, affluent societies have sustained affluence. Even if the rich have done nothing wrong, the global system which allows radical inequality is morally unjust.

Setting this aside, irrespective of the kinds of societies we live in, we are all suffering. Some due to managing too much money, some not being able to socialise, others not being able to sleep well, some having no mental peace, and others—doing too much work and no Netflix and Chill. But these sufferings are relative.

Chances are, if you are in a wealthy country, you may move your lawn, own a TV, and do laundry in Washing Machines, etc. In societies that are not affluent, these are a luxury. We must always acknowledge our privileges and exercise ourselves. Respect others. Help them — as long as you don’t have to sell your kidney. Spread happiness around.

One thing we can take home is: can we do something about it? If so, what can we do? And Peter Singer may have an answer to it. But you find your own.

Read the essay here:

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