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Peter Singer – Famine, Affluence and Morality

Assume that a person can be labelled destitute if that person is at risk of dying from hunger or
malnutrition, from exposure to the elements, or from poor access to medical care. A person
who chronically is at such risk is destitute, but so is a person who suddenly is thrown into such
risk by, for instance, natural disaster or war.

Central argument:

1. There are destitute people.

2. It is bad for anyone to suffer or die from destitution.

3. (The principle of preventing bad occurrences) If a government or person can prevent


something bad from happening, without either (a) causing something just as bad to happen (i.e.
creating an offsetting bad), or (b) giving up something good enough to completely offset the
bad (i.e. forgoing a compensating good), then that person or government ought to do so.

4. Therefore, governments and people ought to help as many of the destitute as possible over
the long run, as efficiently as possible, to the fullest extent possible without creating an
offsetting bad or forgoing a compensating good.

5. If the governments and typical citizens of developed nations were to forgo most of the things
on which they spend their resources, and instead direct those resources to helping as many of
the destitute as possible over the long run, as efficiently as possible, that diversion would not
create an offsetting bad or forgo a compensating good.

6. Therefore, the governments and typical citizens of developed nations ought to forgo most of
the things on which they spend their resources, and instead direct those resources to helping as
many of the destitute as possible over the long run, as efficiently as possible.

7. The most efficient way for the governments and typical citizens of developed nations to help
as many of the destitute as possible over the long run is to substantially increase the amount
they give to foreign aid and to foreign disaster relief.

8. Therefore, the governments and typical citizens of developed nations ought to substantially
increase the amount they give to foreign aid and to foreign disaster relief.

Clarifications:

1. Singer’s idea of what one ought to do, flows from what is morally required

Singer is not saying merely that it would be commendable to give more to help the destitute.
He is saying that to fail to give more would be morally wrong. As he puts it, it is indefensible
to regard the kind of aid he advocates as charity (something he calls a supererogatory duty),
with its connotation of generosity beyond what is required; on the contrary, he takes the kind
of aid he advocates to be a duty.

2. The meaning of “substantially increasing the amount one gives”


Precisely how much one ought to give depends in part on how much others are giving. The
maximum that the principle of preventing bad occurrences can require one to give is an amount
that reduces one to the level of marginal utility—to the level at which one would oneself
become destitute if one gave any more. Since, in Singer's moral framework, being destitute
oneself is just as bad as someone else's being destitute, giving more than this would violate the
principle of preventing bad occurrences.

Is one always required to give enough to reduce one to the level of marginal utility? In theory,
no. If enough people and governments were to coordinate and each give an appropriate share,
then the burden placed on each individual would be modest. In the here and now, however, the
resources actually earmarked for the destitute fall so far short of what is required that the burden
on each individual to pick up the slack becomes enormous, requiring them to reduce themselves
to the level of marginal utility.

3. Going from 3 to 4, where do "as many as possible," "over the long run," and
"efficiently as possible" come into the picture?

Suppose one helps fewer than the maximum number of destitute people one can without
creating an offsetting bad or forgoing a compensating good. This means that one can, without
creating an offsetting bad or forgoing a compensating good, help additional destitute people.
Since the suffering and death of these people is bad, then one has trivially violated the principle
of preventing bad occurrences. Similar reasoning applies if one saves fewer of the destitute
than possible over the long run, or saves them less efficiently than one can (since the resources
wasted could otherwise have been used to prevent other bad things from happening or to create
other goods).

4. The principle of preventing bad occurrences applies universally.

Although Singer's essay is directed to the governments and typical citizens of developed
countries, the principle of preventing bad occurrences has a far more general scope. It is likely,
for instance, that the principle obligates poor nations and individuals to assist even poorer
nations and individuals. It is even possible that there are circumstances under which the
principle would obligate the destitute to divert to others whatever scarce resources they might
have. Singer does not pursue these points, so I will not either, but it is worth mentioning to
make sure you understand the principle.

Objections and Singer’s reply:

1. Shouldn't we help those who are nearby before we help those who are far away?

Singer points out that the principle of preventing bad occurrences does not make any distinction
between bad occurrences that take place near you and bad occurrences that take place far away.
He seems to find this consequence obvious even when considered in itself, separately from the
principle. He grants that we feel less inclined to help people with whom we lack personal
contact, but takes it as obvious that this psychological fact has no bearing on what we ought to
do.

2. But aren't we in a better position to help those who are nearby, both because it is
easier to determine what they need and easier to get them the resources they need?
Singer believes that modern communication has made this objection irrelevant: modern
communication allows us to judge the needs of those far away as easily as we can the needs of
those who are nearby. Though he does not say so in this essay, Singer must also think that
money and time directed to helping developing nations has a greater impact per dollar or unit
time on the destitute than does money and time directed to helping even the most disadvantaged
citizens of a developed nation.

3. Does it matter if no one else apart from you cares?

Singer points out that on the principle of preventing bad occurrences, any obligation you have
to help those in need cannot be lessened by the refusal of other people to help. As with the
irrelevance of distance, Singer seems to find this consequence obvious even when considered
in itself, separately from the principle. Likewise, he grants that seeing others contribute less
than they ought to probably will make you feel less inclined to contribute, but thinks it is
obvious that this has no bearing on what you ought to do.

4. Does the requirement create a paradox?

This worry is related to the point made in Clarification #2. If you look at how many destitute
people there are right now, and you assume that you are the only one who is interested in
helping them, then the principle of preventing bad occurrences would seem to tell you that you
must give until you have reduced yourself to the level of marginal utility. The problem is that
everyone who is not yet at the level of marginal utility will come to this same conclusion. But
if everyone who came to this conclusion were to give until they reduced themselves to the level
of marginal utility, then the total amount given to the destitute would vastly exceed what was
needed, while everyone who formerly had some personal excess would now be on the brink of
becoming destitute. This situation arguably is worse than the original situation.

Singer concedes that this could happen if everyone had to decide how much to give without
knowing what anyone else was giving. However, in the first place, he denies that such a
situation would be paradoxical, because the principle of preventing bad occurrences does itself
take into account how much others will give; you might, from lack of information about what
everyone else is doing, incorrectly conclude that the principle requires you to give more than
it actually requires, but he doesn’t believe that there is a self-contradiction in such a state of
affairs (doesn’t explain this further.)

5. Don't we have special obligations to members of our own society? Isn't that the
entire point of moral requirements?

In what probably is the most technical objection Singer considers, J. O. Urmson argues that the
entire purpose of moral requirements is to help people to function as a society. If this is the
case, then helping people outside of one's society may be supererogatory (above and beyond
the call of duty, i.e. charitable), but cannot be obligatory. Singer asserts that Urmson is
mistaken, and that morality does indeed require us to look beyond our society; Singer, however,
does not provide any immediate counterargument, so one must infer it.

I suspect Singer's counterargument would take the form of a standard argument for
utilitarianism: even Urmson surely admits that the suffering and death of people outside of his
society is just as bad as the suffering and death of people in his society. Thus, how good or
how bad the world is depends on the total amount of suffering and death in the entire world.
With this acknowledgement, the question becomes whether people ought to make the world as
good as they can? To deny the principle of preventing bad occurrences, Urmson would have to
give a negative answer to the former question. Singer would take such an answer to be absurd
on the face of it.

6. Are such extreme requirements too much for people to handle?

Most people seem to be dispirited by requirements that impose great hardship upon them.
Since, in the here and now, the principle of preventing bad occurrences probably requires
people to reduce themselves to the level of marginal utility, there is the worry that the
requirement, if advertised, will cause people who might otherwise give something to the
destitute to lose their motivation to give anything at all. Singer grants that it is important in
practice to find out what kinds of moral requirements people would be able to live with so that
we can avoid these kinds of effects, but he does not think this has any bearing on what actually
is morally required of us; if we psychologically are unable to act according to the full demands
of the principle of preventing bad occurrences, then this is an indictment of us, not an
indictment of the principle.

With this said, Singer also believes that our feelings about what kinds of demands we can live
with are in part determined by the general attitude of our society, and that this general attitude
can shift as more individuals decide to give closer to what is morally required.

Considering how many people are destitute, the principle of preventing bad occurrences may
seem to require that one devotes every moment of one's time to helping them. Since some of
the destitute will die while one sleeps, one might think the principle demands that one should
never even sleep, but instead work oneself without pause into a very early grave. Is this actually
required?

Here is where the "over the long run" and "efficiently as possible" clauses come into play.
Since working oneself into an early grave almost certainly would mean that one would end up
saving fewer of the destitute over the long run, it is very unlikely that the principle would
demand such a schedule. The actual schedule the principle demands (in the absence of effective
and widespread coordination) is likely to be very harsh, but Singer sees no reason why this
should this count as an objection: there is no reason why the demands of morality should not
be very harsh.

Again, Singer advocates coordination to reduce the burden on each person, but as long as such
coordination continues to be inadequate the burden on each individual should be expected to
be severe.

7. Shouldn't governments, rather than individuals, be responsible for foreign aid?

If the contention here is that increasing private aid lessens government aid, Singer says this has
not been demonstrated, and that probably the reverse is true. If the contention is that one can
best help the destitute by using one's time and money to lobby one's government to increase
foreign aid, Singer grants that this may be true; however, if one determines that it is true, then
one must actually spend that time and money lobbying one's government rather than using the
analysis as an excuse to do nothing.

8. Won't helping the destitute just increase their population and make things worse?
Singer admits that this may be true for some kinds of aid, but not that it is true for all kinds. If
population control ultimately is the most efficient way to minimize the suffering and death of
the destitute over the long run, then one should give one's time and money to organizations that
promote population control until one is reduced to the level of marginal utility—there still
would be no justification in keeping anything beyond the level of marginal utility for oneself.
Furthermore, as people become more economically secure, they typically have fewer children,
so forms of aid that promote self-sufficiency (aiding agricultural development, for instance)
generally will alleviate destitution in the short term and reduce population growth at the same
time.

9. Won't giving the amount required damage the giving nations and individuals too
much financially?

Singer notes that it may actually be a good thing in itself for economic growth to slow down
and for consumer society to disappear.

The objection sometimes is also sometimes made on the grounds that economic damage to
oneself or one's country may reduce a person or country's ability to give more over the long
run. Singer admits that this needs to be taken into account when one tries to figure out exactly
how much to give, but the matter is purely academic at this point for the governments and
citizens of developed nations, because they clearly waste most of their money.