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Duty or Charity
In Peter Singer’s essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” he argues that we cannot draw the distinction between charity and duty in the way we normally draw it. As a result of this he concludes that it is our moral obligation to give all time and money we have in excess to those who are suffering from a lack thereof. After examining how Singer comes to these conclusions, I will analyze his premises and conclusions in an attempt to prove that no one should be morally obligated to give all they need short of survival. In order to understand Singer’s arguments fully, we must first establish what he means by charity and duty. Singer defines charity as the act of giving when we are not morally obligated to do so, while duty is a moral obligation(Singer 235). It should therefore be noted that anything that can be considered a moral duty cannot be considered charity. Singer’s first premise is that “Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.”(Singer 231) He identifies this premise to be obvious and therefore uncontestable, warranting no analysis. Singer’s second premise is “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening we ought morally to do it if we can without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance”(Singer 231). He later offers an alternative premise which will be given in my assessment of his arguments. Roughly
stated, this means that if we can prevent something bad from happening, we must take every action to prevent it that does not cause something equally bad or worse to happen. As a result of these two premises, Singer concludes that we are morally obligated to prevent the death and suffering of people who lack food, shelter, and medical attention because these are bad things (Singer 235). Singer continues that if these are moral obligations, what we normally view as charity is a misconception (Singer 235). Because charity implies giving when one is not obligated to give, and we are morally obligated to give to those who are suffering, we cannot call giving to those in need charity. Singer’s intention is not to say that charity is nonexistent, simply that our definition of charity is wrong (Singer 235). Singer offers another conclusion from his premises. Because we are morally obligated to prevent bad things from happening if we can, and suffering from lack of necessity is bad, then we are morally obligated to give as much time and money as we possibly can without putting ourselves in the state that these people are in (Singer 235). He offers that if everyone were to give a small amount the need could be taken care of and there would be no need to give more; however everyone does not give and there is still a need, so we are morally obligated to give what we can until either the need is satisfied or we can give no more without putting ourselves in an equally bad position (Singer 236). Though I agree that we are morally obligated to prevent something bad from happening if we can, I do not agree that taking this moral obligation to the extreme is the right thing to do. In order to prove this I will first examine the plausibility of Singer’s second premise.
Singer gives two options for his second premise: a stronger one and a weaker one. The stronger one offers that if we can, we are morally obligated to prevent something bad from happening without compromising something of comparable moral importance (Singer 233). There are two problems that I see with this premise. The first is that unless we use the “eye for an eye” argument, how are we to define what something of comparable moral importance is? If this means that we are to do anything short of killing someone to save a person’s life, then how do we equate what is comparably morally important in a situation that requires you take a different route than even exchange? I shall offer an example: If you had the choice between chopping off the hands of ten musicians to save one person’s life, which would you choose, and how would you decide if it is less bad for 10 musicians to lose their hands or one man to lose his life? The second problem with this statement is that it condones any act that does not cause something as bad or worse to happen. In these terms, since the death of eight people is not as bad as the deaths of nine people, we should feel no qualms about killing eight to save nine. Singer offers a response to this in his weaker version of this statement. This premise states that if we can prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of moral significance, we are morally obligated to do so (Singer 233). Though this version saves us from the choice of whether to do bodily harm to others or anything of that nature, there is still the issue of an undefined term. What is morally significant to some is not to others, and what is not to others is morally significant to some. Singer contests that there are certain things that can and cannot be considered morally significant; the killing or hurting of a human being is morally significant under these views, as is doing harm to yourself or anyone else. Singer also
argues that getting one’s feet wet is not a morally significant reason to save a drowning child if there is no danger to oneself (Singer 233). There are still grey areas in this matter; many feel that lying is of extreme moral significance; does this mean we are not morally obligated to lie to save a life? In the reverse case, there are some whose idea of what is morally significant would sharply deter from that of others; some would save the life of an endangered animal over an unknown human being with no qualms, though most would condemn this behavior on the grounds that that no animal can be considered morally significant when the life of a human is in question. The issue of where to draw the line exists in one of Singer’s conclusions as well. Singer’s conclusion that we are morally obligated to give any excess time and possessions to those who lack the necessities to survive suffers the same ailments as his premises. Naturally Singer speaks of simple pleasures: a cup of coffee, a new television, and things of this sort. But if taken to its extreme this argument is both dangerous and in violation of human nature. In Plato’s Republic the Glaucon calls the “city in speech” “fit for sows,” because its people have nothing more than basic necessities. It is argued and agreed that people are unhappy unless they have more than basic necessities, and it is a violation of human nature to force them to live without these necessities if they are capable of obtaining them. The danger of Singer’s conclusion comes from the idea that there is no limit to when we can stop giving, short of doing just as much damage to ourselves. Under Singer’s conclusion any free time or money should be spent working to help povertystricken areas. First, there is the idea that any extra time should be spent helping. This
means that there is no need for school, because people can live off of low-income jobs and still have the few necessities they need. It won’t be comfortable, but it’s doable, and the extra time not spent in school can be spent volunteering. There is also no need for leisure time, because leisure time is an unnecessary luxury, and Any sex other than for the purpose of procreation can and should be discontinued under these premises. The list of donations is almost infinite under conclusion we are morally obligated to donate any spare time to help these causes by either working to make more money to donate or volunteering. The other danger comes economically. One objection that I raise to Singer is that if we give as much as is necessary, though we are not giving more than our means, there is always the possibility of losing a job and having no savings to live off of. Singer’s argument states that any excess should be spent to help those who are in need; savings are excess in this sense. Having money for the sake of having it is unnecessary to our survival. We might need it in the future, but there are people who need it now. This holds the true for insurance as well; it can be concluded that Singer’s argument provides that any money spent on insurance should be instead sent to those without food or shelter, because though we risk losing all of our possessions to fire or flood, we cannot be sure that this will happen, while we can be sure that these people are starving. One might object and say that savings and insurance are exceptions, however Singer’s argument that anything we do not need to survive should be given away clearly gives no exceptions. I agree with Singer’s argument that we cannot draw the distinction between duty and charity, for I believe it is everyone’s moral obligation to give. Because of the obvious flaws in Singer’s argument however, I do not believe that his other conclusion holds true.
There must be lines and distinctions for how much is morally correct to give; there are too many risks with excess giving, and excess giving does not necessarily promote general welfare, because though people are alive, it is an empty existence on but not quite over the brink of poverty.