In “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” Peter Singer argues the importance of giving to those in need, especially as those of us in affluent nations have an overabundance of resources. In this paper, I will exposit Singer’s argument and explain the methods and points that he makes. Specially, I will show that through his assumptions and implications, as well as how he refutes counter arguments Singer starts out his argument by explaining the situation at hand, “people are dying in East Bengal from lack of food, shelter, and medical care” (pg. 10).
He points out that this is not an unavoidable disaster. Humans actions have the capability to prevent the suffering that is occurring. Singer says that there is not a specific reason why he chose this incident in East Bengal to talk about it just happened to be the major event going on at the time. He goes on to explain that his argument applies to many similar events both past and present. It is important that he makes this distinction as to not miss lead his audience into thinking that once this natural disaster is over and “fixed” it doesn’t ever need to be addressed again.
After stating his argument Singer gives his first assumption which is that, “suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad” (pg. 10). Singer starts with this assumption because it is something most people agree on. It is best to start with this well agreed upon assumption, because then at the starting of the argument Singer and his audience can have common ground. In addition to reaching the largest possible audience, Singer also adds in “from lack of food, shelter, and medical care. This is important because it can be argued that there is good that omes from some suffering and death.
They also aren’t always preventable. However, suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are all preventable, this leads to Singers next assumption. Singers second assumption is this, “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” (pg. 11). What Singer means by, “without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance”, is that we aren’t causing anything comparably bad from happening or doing something wrong when we help.
By adding this extra explanation Singer makes sure to not leave anything ambiguous. He wants to make sure himself and the audience are on the same page. To tie his previous assumptions to the first implication Singer gives this scenario, “if Tam walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, Tought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of a child would presumably be a very bad thing” (pg. 11). There are two implications that follow Singers assumptions.
The first implication is, “it makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away (pg. 12). This implications states that distance does not matter, especially in this time in history. However, Singer realizes that there is a counter argument to this implication, which is one can better asses the needs of those who are close to him. Singer counters this by saying, the world is now a “global village” everyone is extremely connected.
He says that there is “instant communication and swift transportation” (pg. 12). He also points out there are people permanently stationed in places where there are increased risks for famine and natural disasters, and it is extremely easy to send these people funds. Singer wrote this piece in 1972 when communication and technology was even less advanced than it is today. So today one has an even easier time helping those far away from them. It is possible to press a button on one’s phone and give money to an organization to help someone in need all the way across the world.
After giving the first implication of distance Singer states his second implication which is. “the principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just the one among millions in the same position” (pg. 12). He states that yes there are millions of other people in his same position when it comes to the crisis in Bengal, but it is not different than if he was the only one that could help, he still should help.
Again, he brings up a counter argument that there are psychological differences in the cases of being the only one to help, and being one of millions who can help. One feels less guilt in not helping when they are surrounded by many other who also could be helping. To counteract this Singer brings up the drowning child again and says, “Should I consider that I am less obliged to pull the drowning child out of the pond if on looking around I see other people, no further away than lam, who have noticed the child and are doing nothing? pg. 12). Singer uses this to show how ridiculous of an idea safety in numbers is.
After stating the assumptions and implications Singer realizes there will be objections to his argument so he addresses them right away. The first objection is his position, “is just too drastic a revision for our moral scheme” (pg. 13). The issue Singer is talking about here is that our society just doesn’t see people who are buying luxuries such as clothes that are not intended for need but to be “well-dressed. Society doesn’t see not giving to an event like Bengal as violating a social norm. The second objection follows the first objection as it adds to Singers argument of the change needed in the society. “The second objection to my attack on the present distinction between duty and charity is one which has from time to time been made against utilitarianism” (pg. 15).
Basically this objection is saying that if we, as a society work so incredibly hard to fight against the misery in the world we will get burned out and ultimately not be able to serve to the best of ur ability. The idea behind Singers assumption is to make giving our moral duty and not just something we do out of charity. To combat this objection Singer brings back his main point, ‘We ought to be preventing as much suffering as we can without sacrificing something else of comparable moral importance” (pg. 15). However, this is a very difficult thing for people to grasp. We are self-interested people and don’t want to give up anything of comparable moral importance in order to benefit another. TRANSITION!!
Singer knows this is a radical idea for most of his audience, so to prove that he is not as crazy as he seems, he brings in support. He uses a quote from Thomas Aquinas, who says, “whatever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance. ” Singer also uses text from Ambrosius and the Decretum Grantiani, which says, “The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry; the clothing you shut away, to the naked; and the money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the penniless” (pg. 15).
Both of these quotes come from influential doctrine and people of deep faith, who are well respected and known, this gives Singer credibility. In addition to the credibility it gives, these quotes are from early history, this alludes to the fact that Singer’s argument is not a new one. The quotes above are basically what Singer is asking his audience to do. Following his statements of support, Singer addresses some other points against his argument. The first point is that if people are giving so much privately it takes the responsibility off of the government and the noncontributing members of society.
If a government sees that people are giving to relief funds it will feel less responsible to give aid to the struggling country or people. Singer then gives this other possibility to counter this point, “The opposite view – that if no one gives voluntarily, the government will assume that its citizens are uninterested in famine relief and would not with to be forced into giving aidseems more plausible” (pg. 15).
Singer then adds to this by saying there is no way to actually tell if giving voluntarily actually takes way from government aid. In addition, by not giving one is still failing to prevent suffering from happening. So it is better just to give. Besides giving people can be campaigning and raising awareness for the suffering that is happening. In addition, Singer says the governments of affluent nations should be giving way more than they are. If of course all of the above is true, then people should be campaigning and giving voluntarily to show their governments that this is a serious issue that needs addressing.
There is a second point in opposition with Singer’s argument. This is how he states it, “a more serious reason for not giving to famine funds is that until there is effective population control relieving famine merely postpones starvation” (pg. 16). This point is saying that if money is given to relieve the famine in Bengal, it will only be temporary fix. The population will continue to grow at exponential rates and there will be more food shortages and people will starve. There won’t be a true fix to famine, unless population control is maintained.
Singer opposes this point in the same way he does the first, by showing there is no way to know that our giving is going to lead to more starvation, so why not help out now. It is better to end the suffering now, than to not do anything assume it is going to lead to more suffering. Singer is then left with the third and final point against his argument. It is that there is a worry of over giving. So that we might reduce ourselves some much as to cause as much suffering to ourselves or our dependents as une Bengali refugees we are supposed to be helping. By reducing ourselves to this level we would no longer be able to give.
However, Singer upholds his argument and still says that one should up hold the stronger version of his argument, which is to prevent something of comparable moral significance, from happening. ” The reason this is the stronger version is there are not many things that are of comparable moral significance as preventing dying and suffering from lack of food, shelter, and medical care. Singer then addresses the biggest issue that his argument has going against it, which is that even in the moderate version, the economy would slow because of all of the giving and lack of spending.
He states that this is not what is intended. However, in western societies one percent of the GNP is considered an acceptable amount to give to foreign aid, Singer says this is not enough. After addressing all of the points against his argument Singer ends this piece by saying, “this is an issue for anyone who has more money than he needs to support himself and his dependents or who is in a position to take some sort of political action” (pg. 17) This is even an issue for philosophers. Someone who normally isn’t involved in public issues that rely mainly on facts.