Singer’s “Famine, Affluence and Morality”: Exposition and Appraisal
(To learn more about famine relief and what you can do to help,
In his article “Famine, Affluence and Morality” Peter Singer gives a seemingly devastating critique of our ordinary ways of thinking about famine relief, charity, and morality in general. In spite of that very few people have accepted, or at any rate acted on, the conclusions he reaches. In light of these facts one might say of Singer’s arguments, as Hume said of Berkeley’s arguments for immaterialism, that “… they admit of no answer and produce no conviction.” While I do think that Singer’s considerations show that people should do considerably more than most people actually do, they do not establish his conclusions in their full strength or generality. So his arguments admit of a partial answer, and once properly qualified may produce some conviction.
2. “Famine, Affluence and Morality”: An Exposition
Singer argues that people who live in affluent countries must radically change their way of life and their conception of morality so that they will become committed to helping those in need. He begins by asking us to consider cases of famine, such as the one in Bengal in 1971, where people were suffering severely and neither governments nor individuals did anything near what would be required to relieve it (505). He sets the stage for his argument by putting forward two principles:
First, suffering and death are bad, whether from hunger, deficient housing or inadequate medical care.
Second, if one is in a position to prevent a morally bad state of affairs, without sacrificing something of roughly equal moral importance, one should do so (506).
From the first principle it follows that whether one should help those who are suffering or dying doesn’t depend on how close one is to them, unless that makes helping them more difficult, because their distance from one does nothing to lessen their suffering. From both principles together, it follows that one’s obligation to help those who are suffering or dying doesn’t go away if other people who are also in a position to help them aren’t doing anything, because the presence of other people who do nothing is, in moral terms, no different from the absence of people who do something.
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” (506). He also gives a hypothetical example of the second principle in action: If one is in a position to save a child drowning in a pond, one should rescue the child even though that means dirtying one’s clothes, because that is not a morally significant cost and the child’s death would be an extremely morally bad state of affairs (506).
Singer next considers a couple of objections (507-8). One is that if, e.g., 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 well being 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 (508).
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 (508). 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. The distinction between what’s (just) good and what’s obligatory might still exist, but it doesn’t apply to cases where affluent people can help the poor and needy.
Some would object that Singer’s position calls for too radical a change in moral norms (508-9). First, Singer considers a hypothesis put forward by J. O. Urmson , which is that the distinction between what’s (just) good and what’s obligatory developed because certain actions, the obligatory ones, are a necessary precondition for people to live together in a society; the (just) good actions may help, but are not necessary. In particular, helping those outside one’s society is not necessary. Singer says this may explain why many think there’s a distinction between what’s (just) 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 (thought to be) 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 (thought to be) able to do varies 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.
Another objection to Singer’s conclusions is that if Singer is right we should work constantly to generate as much happiness as we can (509-10). Singer says this doesn’t follow because his argument applies only to relieving suffering and preventing death, not generating happiness. Nevertheless, we should work full time to relieve suffering and prevent death. This is not what most people would accept, but Singer thinks that it is our ordinary moral code that is at fault, not his argument.
Singer next considers three practical points that are supposed to show that donating money is not the best way to achieve famine relief (510-11). Some say that it is the government’s duty to supply foreign aid and that if people donate individually the government won’t be motivated to fulfill its obligation. Singer thinks this assumption is factually incorrect. Furthermore, even if it were true that would just mean that people should devote their energy to trying to get the government to do its job. Others think that without population control there would be more starvation in the future rather than less and that we should therefore not donate to famine relief. Singer replies that this assumption is also factually incorrect, and that in any case, if one believes it is true, one should try as much as one can to relieve famine by supporting population control. Finally, if people did as Singer wants them to, on either the strong or weak versions of his second principle, our consumer-oriented society would be damaged. Singer agrees that this would happen, but thinks it would actually be a good thing. It would be bad to give away so much of the Gross National Product that we would have to give less in foreign aid in absolute terms, but since the goal is to help as much as we can we should not give away that much. And as before, this applies to how much societies should give, not to how much individuals should give.
Singer concludes by saying that, contrary to some, philosophers are competent to discuss famine relief, and moreover ought to discuss it (512). 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.
3. “Famine, Affluence and Morality”: An Appraisal
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.
It frequently happens that certain pursuits have beneficial consequences that may not be intended or could not be foreseen. Mathematics and physics are two related examples of disciplines from which we have obtained many practical goods, services and technologies that in many cases were not among the goals of the intellectual activities that produced them. If we were not free to pursue our intellectual interests when it is not clear what positive impact they might have, or whether they would have any positive impact at all, we would, paradoxically, probably be worse off than we actually are.
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. For those that do, we could end up missing out on their possibly unique contributions to human knowledge and any consequent betterment of human welfare.
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 (508)—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, e.g., 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.
In reply to the first objection, I would admit that it is pretty clearly certain that donating to famine relief will have good consequences, and that it is pretty clearly not certain that pursuing higher mathematics will have good consequences. Nevertheless, pursuing things such as higher mathematics has unquestionably, on the whole, produced some very good consequences, and so it is pretty clearly certain that there is a non-negligible chance that you will produce some such consequence. This naturally leads to a reply to the second objection. If you suddenly stop doing higher mathematics and devote yourself to working “full time” to relieving famine, you could indeed save many lives that you otherwise would not have saved, but it may also be that because of that you have failed to make a contribution that few others, if any, could have made to human knowledge and hence nullified any potential practical benefits that might have eventually followed from that. The problem is that we just don’t know.
Note that I’m not saying that one is obligated to pursue one’s interests, only that doing so is morally permissible. What I would say is that (a) it is up to each of us to choose whether to pursue our interests and (to an extent) how much time, energy and money to devote to them, and that (b) people are, when in a frame of mind where they are both rational and honest with themselves, probably in a better position than others to judge what the consequences of such choices are likely to be.
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, i.e., 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, i.e., 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 “beneficiality” of these results when we simply don’t know what results pursuing one’s interests might have, nor 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.
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.
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 Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (203), footnote 32.