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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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My response to Peter Singer

Peter Singer is often regarded as one of the most productive and influential utilitarian philosophers of modern times. He is well-known for his discussions of the acute social, economic, and political issues, including poverty and famines. In his “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” article (1972), Singer discusses the problem of poverty and hunger, as well as the way this problem is treated in the developed world. This paper explores Peter Singer's argument, in Famine, Affluence, and Morality, that we have morally required obligations to those in need. The explanation of his argument and conclusion, if accepted, would dictate to alter our lifestyle as well as our conceptions of duty and charity, and would be particularly demanding of the affluent. The philosopher offers possible objections to his proposition and relevant arguments to justify his viewpoint by providing key examples to show the reader how realistic his arguments are. In this paper, I will briefly explain Peter Singer's argument and the assumptions that follow, adding personal opinions for and against Peter's statements. I hope that within this paper, I am able to be clearly show you my thoughts in regards to Singer.

Singer starts with the base of assumption that suffering and death from lack of the essentials of food, water, shelter, and proper medical assistance are bad. I agree with this, and I find no problem with accepting this assumption as it is consistent with most widely accepted moral theories. Singer's position on how we should do the right thing effectively involves a proactive, utilitarian argument in which says that if we have the power to help anyone, anywhere, by sacrificing less than they would gain, then you are morally obligated to render such aid.

As he states in the book, “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” (Singer, p. 661). Singer in his article gives an example of a drowning child. To summarize, the scenario involves a person walking by a child who is drowning. Singer wonders whether to go in after the child and get our clothes muddy, or to allow the child to drown. The majority of people including myself, would agree that one would have an obligation to save the drowning child. This can be related to Singer's main argument, as one would have the power to prevent the child from drowning and getting ourselves dirty is not sacrificing anything equally significant.

But one strong reason to not accept Singer's view is that we are more likely to help those that are close, for example in this case the drowning child, than help those that are far away, like starving refugees in Bengal. In his eyes, we are less likely to give to those that are far away regardless of how badly they need it. Singer's response to that criticism is that distance is irrelevant in what we should morally do. Singer's example is simple and purposeful, and it leads us into the rest of his article.

Peter discusses a sense of equality, and how if we accept equality as part of our morality, then we cannot say that someone far away is not in need based on proximity and distance alone. And personally, I agree with this statement, because we cannot discriminate against someone merely because he is far away from us. After all, someone suffering in Bengal versus someone suffering in our city should be viewed the same, right?

However, there is another counter-argument against the drowning child and the Bengal refugees. In the example of the drowning child, there is only one person to help but in the example of the refugees, there are millions upon millions to provide help. Singer responds to this by writing that regardless of whether you are the only one, or there are millions, it doesn't lessen your obligation to help. It is our duty to assist those in need.

It is my view that this essentially removes the current definition of charity, making giving money to famine relief, not a supererogatory act, but a moral duty of all people who have the ability to do so. In his article, Singer states “The traditional distinction between duty and charity cannot be drawn, or at least, not in the place we normally draw it.” Singer admits that this would drastically change the way people live their lives. Instead of living with any disposable income, people would be giving money to those who are living under bad or unsurvivable conditions.  But I believe that it is a radical oversimplification to argue that I can just give money and that will save lives. As to my own opinion, if someone could reliably show me somewhere I could donate money that I would otherwise spend on other things, and I honestly believed that it would save someone's life, then I'd feel it was immoral not to donate it, according to Singer's argument.  However, if I think my money is going to be thrown with a lot of other peoples' donations, be eaten away by charity marketing budgets and salaries, and may or may not do some good somewhere down the road, I'm not convinced that's a moral obligation.

I'm all in favor of charities, and I'm honestly impressed by people who give their lives to helping others, but in my opinion it's a mistake to assume that saving lives is easy and simple and all we lack is the will.  If I was able to reach out to Singer and respond to his article, I would tell him that people are not morally required to do as much as he is asking of us. If there was an instance of choosing to do donate to the relief of starvation, which would probably yield excellent results, and choosing to do something that you wanted, which might yield good results, Singer would object and state that choosing to donate to the relief of starvation is our moral duty.

Of course, there is no definitive way of knowing whether donating to the relief of doing something that we really wanted would be more or less beneficial than the other. The point is that we don't know what everyone's exact interests are, and therefore, we can't say whether it would be beneficial to donate over doing something we wanted to do.

Even though, I hope that more people can become aware of being charitable, but not as an obligation. I hope people can give more of themselves and their blessed lifestyles to others less fortunate. I honestly think that we can all still live just as happy with less stuff.

In conclusion, Singer gives great compelling arguments in his article. Humans should do more than we do to help those in need, regardless of their proximity or distance. However, I disagree of taking charity as a duty and I think that Singer is overly exaggerated in his views and humans should not do as much as he expects us to do. I hope that my views came as clearly as they seemed to be in my head. I feel like I connected well to what Singer was arguing. I am confident that I am now aware more of what I should be giving in order to help.


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