My Thoughts On Peter Singer in “Famine Affluence and Morality”

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The following critically evaluates Peter Singer’s essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” by considering three of Singer’s fundamental but inter-related assumptions. Two of these – geographic location; and the role of the individual versus that of the group in moral terms – are critically evaluated, noting that these are not as clear-cut in moral terms as Singer implies. The third relates to enforcing supererogatory obligation and the failure of Singer’s core analogy to keep pace with the evolution of social mores.  Framing this assessment is the ‘demandingness objection’ (DOb) which sets itself against utilitarianism – a form of which Singer advocates. This evaluation suggests that Singer’s focus on utilitarianism to deliver the most good is important in terms of making the moral case for charity and international development assistance, but a range of flaws emerge weakening Singer’s argument.

Singer’s essay is framed by a set of inter-related working assumptions. At their heart is a primary assumption, that “suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad” (Singer 1972). This can be self-evidently justified and is therefore not the focus of this evaluation. Singer’s second assumption, however, is more questionable, “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.” This is a core element of his argument supporting his advocacy for development assistance and donations that may help mitigate or prevent famine, deaths and so in impoverished countries (Singer, 1972). To support this assertion, Singer offers the analogy of a child drowning in a shallow pond. Singer believes that anyone passing by would save the child, even if the trade-off is dirty/wet clothes. In short, Singer shows that saving the child does not entail a sacrifice of anything of comparable moral importance. Under these conditions, Singer argues how helping the impoverished is both morally necessary and justifiable (Singer, 1972). This simplified example frames several of Singer’s core assumptions, including geographic location and the notion of entitlements which are considered below.

Singer believes geographic location is irrelevant to the moral issue of using one’s affluence to mitigate or prevent famines in distant countries. The assumption is that our moral obligation exists regardless of location. Singer concedes that, in practice, the likelihood of assisting someone closer to us in geographic terms is greater than our propensity to help someone further away (Singer, 1972). That concession by Singer goes to the heart of a recurring argument against international development assistance; one should help the poor in one’s own country before seeking to assist others further away. Singer questions this implicitly by noting that technological advances have made geography irrelevant, such that the world is a “global[ised] village”. Thus, geographical discrimination regarding aid is not only immoral but unjustifiable in practice, he argues (Singer, 1972). Singer suggests therefore that one should, regardless of location – for moral reasons – help strangers, rather than necessarily one’s disadvantaged compatriots. The converse also applies, something he concedes but downplays thereby weakening the power of his argument, i.e. those that are ‘close’ should also be helped, for similarly moral reasons. Even in affluent societies, there are pockets of need and this is of equal moral significance as addressing similar needs, albeit farther from home.

Arthur’s (1981) elaboration of two forms of entitlements provides a DOb to Singer’s assumption (Arthur, 1981). According to Arthur, our moral code demands we act to help a friend or a stranger. That said, according to Arthur, humans have both rights and, what is known as ‘desert’. Rights can be either natural or positive – or done by agreement with another party. Desert, however, refers to entitlements that are ‘deserved’. An individual’s entitlements are provided based on their past behaviour or actions which can be identified. Yet considering the moral obligation to assist a ‘stranger’ like one in another country, a desert is unable to be established rendering such action morally unjustifiable. Why help when we do not know enough about them (Arthur, 1981). This conceptualization dismantles the egalitarian assumption underpinning Singer’s analysis. His assertion of the modern world’s interdependent nature to argue all starving peoples deserve equal help on moral grounds does not address Arthur’s argument. Furthermore, the notion one has a moral obligation to those hundreds of kilometres away “is psychologically” demanding –  a point underlined by Corbett who argues Singer’s moral obligation to assist is diminished by such ‘taxing’ requirements (Corbett, 1995).

The second implication of Singer’s assumption the lack of distinction between an individual acting alone, and a group working together. Singer believes that inaction – whether by a single individual or by a group – is morally unjustified. Returning to his drowning child analogy, Singer suggests how one may feel less guilty if one was in a group situation when the child was drowning, and no one acted to save the child. Nevertheless, such inaction morally unjustifiable simply because the group did not save the child (Singer, 1972). Singer asserts how a moral obligation to help exists and does not change in a group or when one is alone (Singer, 1972). Although persuasive, this point appears vague. No definitive elaboration on what Singer refers to as ‘bad’ is established, nor what form of help the group, as opposed to the individual, might provide. Is it for instance, morally unjustifiable for a member of the group to leave the child and run to seek assistance, rather than wading into the pond? Counterintuitively, therefore, group inaction regarding an immediate problem (a drowning child) to the greater good over time. Securing broader international assistance that delivers seeds and fertilisers better prevent future famines rather than sending food aid to solve the immediate problem. Singer’s inability to consider the moral value of different forms of action regarding individual/s is underscored by Pettit

Unlike Singer, Pettit claims a distinction between actions that ensure maximum utility and actions which avoids condemnation can be made (Phillip Pettit, 1997). So long as Person A and B did their best to help the child, even if the child drowns, they may avoid criticism. Conversely, if only Person A did his best while person B stood by or failed to seek assistance, the latter merits condemnation because Person A ensured their maximum utility was fulfilled (Phillip Pettit, 1997). Thus, Person A and B have only limited, indeed, reduced obligations to Person C, because the obligation is shared between them (Phillip Pettit, 1997).  Singer is unable to recognize this distinction between relative capabilities when asserting the moral obligation for charitable action. Pettit would argue that although, one may not know CPR, so long as help is given at maximum utility, that person will avoid condemnation. Singer fails to account for the difference between the agronomist aiding famine-stock acres and the lawyer – both with very different skills and thus it is possible to argue with differing moral obligations. Pettit would claim the agronomist is morally obliged to do more than a group of lawyers because s/he has particularly relevant skills, yet Singer is unclear on whether this is the case.

A significant theme of Singer’s essay is his criticism of the current conceptualisation of charity. In this regard, the following helpfully frames the matter: x can be either “obligatory, permissible, forbidden and supererogatory” (Brown, et al., 2018). Under supererogatory, x is not obligatory yet condemnable if done. The provision of charity is thus supererogatory. Singer claims such actions merge with obligatory action (Singer, 1972). He believes charitable donations from those in positions of relative wealth should not be praised or be praised less than those of more limited. (Singer, 1972). In this sense, Bill Gates should not be applauded for his charitable work because of his billionaire status, such financial assistance is rather less admirable in a moral sense than the contribution made by a solo parent who donates modestly to her local charity. This is an intriguing perspective. On the one hand, the multi-million-dollar contributions made by the Gates’ Foundation to addressing famine, malaria and so on risk being underplayed in moral terms when set against the $15.00 monthly contribution by the solo parent to assist in providing a well for a small village in Eritrea. In this regard, Garret Hardin demonstrates how enforcing supererogatory action is impractical regarding resource distribution. Hardin criticizes the “Spaceship Earth” model commonly used to demonstrate the moral obligation all individuals of relative affluence have in helping the impoverished, a concept compatible with Singer (Hardin, 1974). The model presumes the ‘Spaceship’ has a captain, capable of directing when needed (Hardin, 1974). That is clearly not the reality. Instead, Hardin refers to a lifeboat metaphor, where it has room for only ten passengers but is surrounded by hundreds of individuals at risk of drowning. Hardin considers applying a morally just action akin to that espoused by Singer, i.e. that the morally correct response is to save all individuals and, in this case, all those drowning should be allowed into the lifeboat – which promptly sinks, and everyone perishes. A morally just action is therefore identified as impractical. Instead, the moral response is for those onboard to simply let those in the water drown, rather than risk drowning everyone (Hardin, 1974). This challenges Singer’s thesis of charitable assistance, because the risk of helping others may undermine one’s own life prospects, highlighting the practical limitations of Singer’s position.

Finally, John Keke’s challenges Singer’s view that failure to do “volunteer work” or anything charitable means we are morally responsible for those that die because of our inaction (Kekes, 2002). Charity, however, by its very nature is optional – one volunteer to do charitable work or provide charitable assistance. Singer implies, however, that charity is as an essential – and thus compulsory-  mechanism to help those in “developing nations”, – our inaction implies a responsibility for the death of those less fortunate (Singer, 1972). Further, with reference to the drowning child in the pond, Kekes asserts that in fact, Singer is guilty of paternalism implying that those suffering from famine are the ‘children’ drowning in the pond. This, he suggests, “is a … the paternalistic insult” (Kekes, 2002). Singer’s analogy implies a child-like status for aid recipients and an all-knowing wide parental status for those engaged in delivering charitable assistance (Kekes, 2002; Ami, 2015). It is worth acknowledging here that Singer’s 1972 analogy was presumably not intended to be a ‘paternalistic insult’, but social mores since that time have evolved and it is important that the philosophical underpinning of the case for charitable aid can better reflect that evolution.

This essay has considered the three major implications of Singer’s assumptions that underpin his essay “Famine, Affluence and Morality”.  The first implication – that geographic location is irrelevant to moral obligation – has been shown to be questionable, including with reference to Arthur and Corbett who have highlighted that there is a distinction to be drawn in moral terms, noting for instance that desert cannot be established in the case of strangers and that assistance to such individuals can be psychologically challenging – neither of which Singer’s argument accounts for. The second implication underpinning Singer’s argument is how morally irrelevant it is whether the individual or the group acts. In fact, there are crucial differences between individual and group actions, including in terms of medium to long term effectiveness both for saving a drowning child and for delivering practical development assistance. Finally, with reference to Hardin and Keke’s, flaws enforcing supererogatory action through DOb were established, thus highlighting the questionable nature of Singer’s analogy of the drowning child when applied to international charity and development assistance. However, Singer’s essay was a ground-breaking one as it made the moral case for helping ‘distant strangers’ and provides much of the philosophical underpinning for contemporary international development assistance delivery. Nevertheless, several of the core assumptions within Singer’s essay is questionable and ambiguous and while they may not obviate the need for international development assistance or charitable action, they underline the need to ensure that the frame of reference that underpins this moral assertion withstands critical evaluation and evolve over time.

The above could not have been accomplished without the help of the following sources: 

Ami, D. B., 2015. Financial Times. [Online]
Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/a56c91e8-8eb7-11e5-8be4-3506bf20cc2b
[Accessed 3 January 2019].

Arthur, J., 1981. Famine Relief and the Ideal Morale Code. In: V. Barry, ed. Applying Ethics. Belmont: Waldsworth, pp. 142-146.

Brown, G. W., Iain, M. & Alistair, M., 2018. Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics & International Relations. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Corbett, B., 1995. Moral Obligations to Distant Others. [Online]
Available at: http://faculty.webster.edu/corbetre/philosophy/moral/others/distant.html
[Accessed 27 December 2018].

Hardin, G., 1974. Living on a Lifeboat. BioScience, 24(10), pp. 1-18.

Kekes, J., 2002. On the Supposed Obligation to Relieve Famine. The Royal Institute of Philosophy, 77(302), pp. 503-517.

Mulgan, T., 2001. The Demands of Consequentialism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Phillip Pettit, 1997. The Consequentialist Perspective in Three Methods of Ethics. In: Three Methods of Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 163-169.

Singer, P., 1972. Famine, Affluence, and Morality. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1(3), pp. 229-243.

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