A review of Peter Singer’s ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’
CAIRO – 14 December 2018: In ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, Peter Singer argues that there is a moral imperative for affluent individuals and countries to donate resources to impoverished nations; this encompasses taking care of the root causes that stem from poverty. Singer’s view is premised on the negative value of suffering and the positive value of pleasure as the absence of suffering, where the form of pleasure associated with food, shelter, and medical care is more valuable than that associated with affluence, through, for example, purchasing trivia.
In light of this, where a human being bears the capacity to prevent suffering, without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, there is an obligation on them to do so. Still, he points out that a weaker version of this principle, which stipulates that an individual ought to prevent suffering so long as they do not sacrifice ‘something morally important’, is acceptable.
In addition, Singer argues that distance does not excuse the affluent from redistributing their wealth. Whether an individual is one amongst many, whether others have failed to offer help, or whether they are alone, there is an equal obligation on the individual to provide assistance. Moreover, Singer claims that the existence of international organisations and the ‘global village’ means that distance is no longer relevant.
Overall, his primary aim is to change our current life-style, which we have taken for granted, through revising and altering our understanding of moral obligations.
Singer makes a direct appeal to the universal moral principles of utilitarianism – equality, impartiality, and universality – by outlining degrees of pleasure and pain, and utilising a form of felicific calculus. He calculates what is morally right by weighing the relative pains and pleasures of everyone equally and defines morality as an action that amplifies social utility. In this sense, moral goodness is understood as the maximal decrease of suffering. He concludes that, the pains that will be prevented through affluent individuals giving money to those in need will be in no way comparable to the pleasure that will decrease when the affluent consume less.
In addition, Singer appeals to the principle of equality through rejecting the idea that an individual’s responsibility is lessened by virtue of being shared amongst thousands of others. Likewise, Singer’s use of ‘or we are away from him’, to describe the distance between the affluent and the needy, decentralizes affluent societies and empowers impoverished nations by equating the two. In fact, his argument, which requires the affluent to give until the point of marginal utility, reflects the view that all humans are equal. Similarly, his argument advocates universalism by taking no account of distance.
Singer’s analogy of a drowning child reflects impartiality by conveying the idea that if an individual naturally feels responsible to save a nearby child, they should also want to save the faraway one that is suffering as much. Furthermore, Singer’s rejection of the traditional distinction between duty and charity, followed by his proposition that we should condemn individuals who do not give to those in need, subscribes to Mill’s ‘harm to others’ utilitarian principle, which permits the punishment of those who fail to decrease misery. Thus, it is possible to make the case that Singer’s argument rests on a form of contemporary utilitarianism.
Assessing Singer’s argument
Considering the strengths and weaknesses of Singer’s arguments, with the primary aspect being on the axiomatic-normative criterion that he establishes at the outset in that ‘suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad’, shows us that Singer has established a volatile foundation for his argument. Although this allows Singer to build a linear argument, it also establishes a volatile foundation for it, in that if this axiom is not accepted the reader ‘need read no further’. This weakens the article because it conveys the idea that Singer does not believe that he can change individuals’ views. In addition, Singer’s reasoning is premised on the idea that we are obliged to help as long as we do not sacrifice anything of comparable moral significance, however, the argument does not provide a definite way of calculating moral significance. This ambiguity allows individuals to excuse themselves by saying that their trivial spending is of greater moral significance.
In a similar vein, though Singer might deem it to be controversial, however, his imposition of the ‘ought’ of moral obligation onto the ‘is’ of inequality is problematic; arguments about self-interest and psychological egoism provide counter-measures to his requiring that the human being conform to some sort of altruistic spirit. It is rather unrealistic to expect individuals to accept giving most of their money to charity. In fact, this may lead to idleness, which will negatively affect the economy, leading to less money being put towards emergencies and developmental programs. Likewise, Singer’s argument, which imposes duties and obligations, could cause a breakdown in compliance with the basic moral code as individuals may feel that they have been stripped of their moral autonomy.
On the other hand, by establishing a normative criterion for right action and collapsing that of distance, Singer’s argument is strengthened. This is because it pegs its principle on the ethical perspective that as long as an action is morally right, then we have the obligation to undertake it irrespective of the circumstances. Similarly, although the article argues that affluent individuals ought to give money to impoverished nations, it does not argue that nations in need must accept aid. Therefore, it guards against any unjust interventions masked by the notion of humanitarian aid.
Furthermore, Singer’s argument advocates the necessity of further aid after famine relief to prevent overpopulation and enable individuals to enjoy a flourishing life. This suggests that his argument is balanced as it takes into consideration the possible negative consequences of immediate relief, such as the creation of dependent needy nations, and the concept of the tragedy of the commons. Finally, although Singer’s argument does not establish the full strengths of his conclusions, it builds them on the assumptions established at the beginning of the article. This strengthens his argument because it means that those who accept his assumptions are logically dedicated to accept the conclusions that entail, however radical they may seem.