In Peter Singer’s 1972 article Famine, Affluence, and Morality, he describes the dire situation that nine million refugees faced in East Bengal in 1971 and urges the wealthier, or affluent, nations to take immediate and long term moral actions to stop the spread of extreme global poverty. With this, he offers a philosophical approach to a new world where, instead of giving to charity, everyone living in these affluent nations ought to make it their duty to give anything of excess to those suffering across the globe and live at the marginal utility, which he would prefer. He also offers a less drastic option of moderate assistance wherein those who are able to assist ought to, as long as it does not create a similar moral dilemma. Critics argue that rewriting the moral scheme from charity to a concrete duty would be far too drastic and would unfairly condemn those who choose to “live the good life”; that too much effort would cause us to become less effective; and finally, that if everyone were in similar positions, then an equal amount would be given by all, but the result would actually be less than if some gave everything they had while others gave nothing. In comparing Singer’s strong version of giving until the marginal utility, his moderate version of assisting without causing a morally significant dilemma to oneself or family, and the counter-arguments of his critics, it is my opinion that Singer’s arguments are rather solid, but still extremely hard to grasp on a realistic level. If it is stated that it is our moral obligation to give away all of our excess to those in need, who will use that excess immediately, we would essentially be risking everyone’s long-term survival by taking all excess goods and money out of production. Additionally, it is not a matter of redistribution on an individual level; those who are experiencing famine and poverty do so because of problems with distribution on a global level. Finally, even if we take Singer’s arguments and conclusion as a true way to stop famine now, evidence shows that our population will continue to rise while our natural resources diminish; without new technology in place once all fossil fuels are spent, the problem will arise again and to a magnitude that will cost billions of lives.
The main theme throughout the article is Singer’s statement “If we can prevent bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, do it” (Singer, 1972). However, his strongest point of action is that all of those in a position to give, should do so until the marginal utility, or up to the point of creating a similar moral dilemma. The reasoning behind this is that those who live in affluent nations lack an acceptable moral scheme when it comes to combating and preventing famine and poverty across the globe. He urges that society lives by egalitarianistic ways: the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities (Schmidtz, 2000). This would mean that instead of giving to charity –enjoying the option of assisting those in need without the consequence of not helping- everyone “ought” to, or should, help in any possible way they can to stop suffering and bring everyone to an equal way of life, regardless of their physical locality and proximity. Anyone who has more money than is required to take care of oneself and family, or in a political position within the government, has the means to make the necessary changes (Troop, 2011). Singer even suggests reducing the consumer society by 25% and sacrificing those benefits to which we have become accustomed; but, in doing so and giving as much as we can personally, the conclusion of ridding the world of famine and poverty will be satisfactory if theory and practice come together. While Singer makes some valid points, this “ideal world” does not come without scrutiny. The first counter-argument raised in his article is that of charity vs. duty. Charity is looked at as generosity without a consequence of not being generous, it is superogatory (Singer, 1972). If the moral scheme were to be revised that men ought to do something, then they would be condemned if they did nothing. Singer abolishes this counter-argument by simply stating that the validity of the conclusion that one ought to provide assistance does not change based on one’s judgment of the inaction. The second counter-argument is that if everyone is in the same position as each other, then one would only have to give the same amount of effort, no more, no less than the next person.
However, this can only happen if everyone gave simultaneously and unexpectedly. Singer answers this argument saying that if that were to occur, then there would be too much given unnecessarily. Since relief is normally expected after a natural disaster, one only has to look at the person giving before him and know how much to give since there is no obligation to give more to reach the set goal. The last counter-argument is that with the view of utilitarianism, everyone would be working full time to increase the balance of happiness over misery and that too much effort would cause us to be less effective. Singer concedes this point and simply puts forth that if there is no famine or poverty then he has no claim. However, since they do exist, we do need to put forth as much effort as possible in order to greatly reduce suffering. Personally, while I do agree with Singer that some changes do need to be made, I largely find his hypothesis to be grossly unrealistic. With his claim that we could reduce the consumer society by 25%, I find there would be more problems than solutions. Mainly, a large number of jobs would be lost as a result, therefore only adding to the famine and poverty levels. Schmidtz, (2000), provides a good example to prove this logic; if “society takes away from Rich and gives to Poor, it is taking away from the person who can make the seed grow, giving it to someone to consume it, thereby taking the seed out of production and diverts to current consumption” (pp.265). This negates Singer’s claim that giving until the marginal utility is in everyone’s best interest because it shows that if I have two of something, I can consume one –or spend half of the money- and plant, or invest, the other, thereby multiplying my original amount making it more plausible to assist someone. If I have two bananas and I eat one and give the other one away to be eaten, then there would be nothing left for either of us to work off of in the future. Another point against his claim is that “global food production is sufficient to meet the nutritional needs of every human on earth; the roughly one billion people who experience malnourishment today do so because of problems with food distribution” (Yule, Fournier, & Hindmarsh, 2013). Yule, et al., further states that the human population will stabilize below the current amount in the near future. To that end, it is not a matter of individuals helping each other and raising the moral standard, as Singer states; famine and poverty relief is more reliant on necessary technological advances in
energy, food production, and a shift in per capita use.
Schmidtz, D. (2000). Diminishing marginal utility and egalitarian redistribution. Journal of Value Inquiry, 34(2-3), 263-272. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/203931144?accountid=32521
Singer, P. (1972). Famine, affluence, and morality. Philosophy & Public Affairs,1(3), 229-243. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2265052
Troop, D. (2011). The Tithe That Binds: a Reasoned Campaign Against Global Poverty. Chronicle Of Higher Education, 57(24). A8-A9
Yule, J. V., Fournier, R. J., & Hindmarsh, P. L. (2013). Biodiversity, Extinction, and Humanity’s Future: The Ecological and Evolutionary Consequences of Human Population and Resource Use. Humanities, 2(2), 147-159.