Famine, Affluence and Morality by Peter Singer

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Last updated: April 22, 2019

Peter Singer, in his famous essay “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” argues that suffering and pain are bad and we should do all we can to stop them. This point, discussed through the whole essay, directs to his much-debated arrangement that we are justified in killing a harshly disabled infant because the consequences of letting the baby live are more expensive than letting the baby die. Singer widens this view to include animals. According to his opinion, our moral responsibility should force us to stay away from eating hamburgers because every time we do it we add more to a cycle of suffering. Consequently, this cycle is not only of animals, but also of humans, for the food used to nourish the animals we eat is more than sufficient to finish hunger in many less developed countries.

Singer is considered to be a utilitarian. He argues that the consequences of our actins should resolve our ethical decisions.While reading his essay, we spontaneously come to the question: How can a better alternative world be achieved – politically, economically, militarily, socially? Some massive failures of development strategies in recent decades offer hard lessons about our limited grip on these vexing questions, and the difficulty of formulating feasible answers. Because these questions are vast and interlinked, and because the answers are matters of vision as well as prudence, the need for a systematic orientation of our practical thinking and action has never been greater. We will evaluate one important attempt to provide such an orientation – that of the moral philosopher Peter Singer and state that utilitarian view point is important in sustaining moral society.

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Singer’s commitment to social activism is admirable and rare amongst philosophers. Singer’s approach neglects the ways in which the scale of societies and their complex interdependence in today’s world significantly reshape what is practically feasible and morally required of us. In the paper, we will discuss that a different theoretical orientation for development and politics is needed – a political philosophy not a dangerously individualist practical ethics. I will show that this theoretical orientation enables us to identify a range of actions and actors necessary to reduce mass poverty, argued by Singer.

Singer is famous for his extremely demanding view about what we, the relatively rich, ought to do and sacrifice to help the poor. His article “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” written in 1972, stated this view with the help of a resonant analogy: Singer asked readers to imagine that, on the way to giving a lecture, he walks past a shallow pond, and witnesses a child in danger of drowning. He can easily wade in and rescue the child, but he may dirty or even ruin his clothes, and fail to make the lecture.

Singer rightly points out that it would be morally monstrous to allow these minor considerations to count against taking action to save the child’s life. Then he generalizes from this ethical case to the situation of relatively wealthy people, especially in developed countries, vis-à-vis people starving or dying of preventable diseases in developing countries. We do nothing or almost nothing, while thousands die.

Yet it is seriously wrong to fail to give aid when the costs to oneself are not of “moral significance” or even of “comparable moral importance” (Singer 212).When we think about it, Singer points out, very few things are as morally important as saving life. On his account, this is demonstrated both by eliciting our intuitions (with thought experiments) and by utilitarian reasoning (moral action involves minimizing suffering and maximizing well-being).

Either mode of reasoning makes most of our material acquisitions or new experiences (say, enjoying an opera or a concert) seem like luxuries of little or no moral significance. In a more recent article Singer concludes: “The formula is simple: whatever money you’re spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away” (Singer 215).Singer acknowledges that widespread and deep altruism from such relatively rich people is profoundly unlikely. But he still insists that “we should at least know that we are failing to live a morally decent life- above all because this knowledge is likely to motivate us to donate more than we do at present” (Singer 216). Singer is even willing to be sparing in his blame: given the present “standard ..

. of normal behavior” of American citizens, he “wouldn’t go out of his way to chastise” those who donate only 10 percent of their income (O’Neill 17).Who should the rich select as recipients of this (obligatory) charity? Only two considerations count for Singer: the relative extent of poor people’s need, and “the degree of certainty that our assistance will get to the right person, and will really help that person” (Singer 216).

Singer is clearly a cosmopolitan, emphatically rejecting shared membership in a nation or a state as grounds for choosing to give to one person rather than another. He insists that “in important respects, the tie of nationality is more like the tie of race than it is like the tie of family or friend” (Singer 217) His reasoning, in short, is that “human life would not be as good” without intimate ties, and any attempt to eradicate them would require abhorrent levels of coercion. National or patriotic ties, on the other hand, neither are necessary to the well-being of all of us nor are they intransigent. Thus these ties cannot be justified from an impartial perspective. Citizens and governments that accord priority to compatriots, while people in foreign lands are in far more urgent and desperate need, are committing a sin that comes close to discriminating on the basis of race (Keane 85).Singer intends the problem of distance to challenge all moral thinkers irrespective of their theoretical commitments.

This is why he uses the phrase “comparable moral worth” (Singer 211) to describe the different kinds of helping actions, rather than speaking more straightforwardly to the converted in terms of maximising the interest-satisfaction of sentient beings. He wants to challenge virtue ethicists, deontologists and contractarians as well as consequentialists. His target is all who have both the impartial intuition that people matter as much wherever they are, and the partialist intuition in favor of preferential treatment for kin, loved ones, colleagues, friends, neighbors, co-nationals etc.

(Keane 86-87).Reading and following Singer’s ideas, we should be extremely wary of his perfunctory and categorical claims – that we should give up indulgences such as expensive clothes, restaurants, beach resorts, and house redecoration (O’Neill 19). Indeed, in the South African case, manufacturing exports, tourism, and other service industries are among the few successful mechanisms that have kept people from falling further into grinding poverty. If many citizens of developed countries gave up their luxuries, three central planks of the country’s development strategy would collapse. Among other disastrous consequences would be the crippling of governmental and NGO ability to curb the rate of HIV/AIDS infection and help those suffering from the disease (Kurten 218-25).Singer’s work, and much of the criticism of it, has focused mainly on practical ethics. Nonetheless, Singer’s critics demonstrates the importance of Singer’s work to more mainstream moral philosophy, not least because that work is grounded in his views on important meta ethical and normative questions.

Singer rejects intuition as a basis for moral theory and claim to rely instead on self-evident principles, for example the principle that sentience has moral value, the principle of equal consideration for equal interests, and the principle that the morally right response to value is to promote it (Rawls 36).Many people find Singer’s conclusions in practical ethics deeply, even offensively, counterintuitive. In particular, his conclusion that newborn human infants may in some cases be killed has met not so much with disagreement as with revulsion. However, the important fact from Singer’s viewpoint is that this conclusion is derived from a well supported theory. In Singer’s view, if the theory is a good one, and it has been applied fairly, then we should accept the conclusion.

Therefore, the revulsion that people may feel at contemplating this conclusion is beside the point. Many people, including a great many moral philosophers, would say that Singer has this backwards: the revulsion ought to be taken seriously as a sign that Singer’s argument has gone wrong somewhere (Kurten 226-28).Thus, if we understand “intuition” to mean something like “pretheoretical moral judgment,” we have the question: What role should our intuitions play in moral theory?Singer believes that moral reasons are desire-dependent. In Singer’s view, some moral principles are self-evident; moral theory should draw out the implications of these moral principles, on the understanding that our intuitions about cases cannot correct the dictates of those principles.

Only this way can we overcome the various biases and erroneous assumptions that contribute to our intuitions about particular cases (Kurten 229).To understand Singer’s importance, both to philosophy and to the world beyond philosophy, it must be understood that Singer is something of an oddity: an academic philosopher who has become famous for his philosophical work. Regardless of his argumentative points, he is widely known among the general public for his uncompromising defense of controversial moral views. His arguments that some human beings do not have a right to life have sparked public protests in several countries. This remarkable reach that Singer has achieved inspires Dale Jamieson to write, “Singer is good at what he does. His books change people’s lives”. That Singer’s books have changed lives is also a measure of his most important contribution to contemporary moral philosophy: he has consistently emphasized, and demonstrated, its relevance to real moral problems. In Singer’s hands, moral philosophy is not just theory; it is an exhortation about what to do (Keane 92-94).

Of course, Singer is not unique in his commitment to the practical relevance of moral philosophy. Thus, we might want to classify Singer with the many philosophers currently working in applied fields like medical ethics, environmental ethics, or business ethics. However, Singer is distinctly important in two ways. First, no contemporary philosopher has been as influential in applied ethics as Singer has. Doubtless, this is due not only to his striking conclusions but also to his accessible and decisive style of arguing for them. Second, while some philosophers work in more than one applied field, the breadth of Singer’s contributions to moral philosophy is remarkable, and continues to include work in moral theory as well as work in applied ethics (Kurten 233). Singer has proved the importance of thinking about others first in sustaining moral society.

Perhaps this breadth can be accounted for by Singer’s firm commitment to utilitarianism, which provides him with a philosophical platform from which to address a wide variety of moral problems.

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