Thursday, 20 October 2011


Jesus of Nazareth was asked by a rich man what he should do to gain the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus told him to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and he would have treasure in heaven (Matthew 19:21).  Some critics of Peter Singer's Principle of Benevolence have charged that he advocates the same degree of self-sacrifice, only in our day not for laying up treasure in heaven but for gaining the satisfaction of knowing that we have fulfilled our duty or avoiding feelings of guilt if we failed to do so.  Such a standard, of course, would require many morally serious persons to reduce their standard of living, if not to quite to a subsistence level, then at least to a level far below the affluence that most of us enjoy in our over-developed societies.
Given the present conditions in many parts of the world, however, it does follow from my argument that we ought, morally, to be working full time to relieve great suffering of the sort that occurs as a result of famine or other disasters. Of course, mitigating circumstances can be adduced - for instance, that if we wear ourselves out through overwork, we shall be less effective than we would otherwise have been. Nevertheless, when all considerations of this sort have been taken into account, the conclusion remains: we ought to be preventing as much suffering as we can without sacrificing something else of comparable moral importance. This conclusion is one which we may be reluctant to face. I cannot see, though, why it should be regarded as a criticism of the position for which I have argued, rather than a criticism of our ordinary standards of behavior. Since most people are self-interested to some degree, very few of us are likely to do everything that we ought to do. It would, however, hardly be honest to take this as evidence that it is not the case that we ought to do it.  ("Famine, Affluence, and Morality," 1972)
One might object that there are many worthy causes that demand our attention: human rights, improving education, empowering women, etc.  If one is contributing to one or more of these causes, is she not fulfilling the Principle of Benevolence, even if none of her money goes to famine relief?  I think Singer's answer would be "Yes, but the need for food, shelter, and medical aid is more fundamental - necessary for the sustaining of life itself - than the aims of other benevolent activities.  Therefore at least some portion of our giving should go towards relieving hunger."  This seems correct to me.  Basic needs should be given priority over higher level needs.  Besides, campaigns for justice or education need not be abandoned altogether, because, we are told, there is enough wealth in the world to alleviate hunger without depriving humanity of everything else that's good or desirable in life. 

We are so used to thinking of giving as charity rather than duty, that many people will insist there must be something wrong with the argument, but Singer points out that the duty of benevolence has not always seemed so outlandish.  Thomas Aquinas claimed that food withheld belongs to the hungry, the clothes in your closet to the poor, and your savings to the penniless.  One of Islam's Five Pillars of religious obligation is to contribute 2.5 % of one's income to people in need.  Still, there are problems with Singer's specific claim that we have an obligation to contribute money to NGO's that feed starving people in foreign countries.

One is that we have no assurance that money contributed will achieve the results intended.  There may be an inverse relationship between the distance separating the contributor from the beneficiary and the actual benefit received.  NGO's have travel expenses, salaries to pay, and other overhead.  Often bribes must be paid to corrupt officials to get aid to the regions that need it.  Sometimes the food itself is stolen by a corrupt government or guerilla army.  Besides, there are plenty of hungry people in our own society.  It is estimated that in the U.S. 25% of children nationwide go hungry every day.  It would likely be more effective to donate money or even food directly to local organizations such as food banks. 

Another quite serious issue is whether the deeper problem might be population growth.  As long as poorer countries continue to produce large families, so the argument goes, providing food aid just postpones the inevitable in the long run.  Perhaps it is more humane to let one person die now than have 100 die in the future.  This seems harsh, but Singer grants the argument serious weight.  He says that if people come to the carefully considered opinion that population is the underlying problem, then they should contribute to organizations that are working towards rational population policies in developing countries.  Either way the Principle of Benevolence is fulfilled.

Short of rejecting the Principle of Benevolence outright, which would amount to abandoning the Moral Point of View, I do not see a way of avoiding at least a minimal version of Singer's conclusion, viz. that everyone who has the means ought to contribute something to relieve the hunger and destitution of strangers.  Are we unwilling to give up our weekly restaurant meal, pass on buying the latest version of the iPod, or earmark a percentage of our stock dividends for famine relief?  Then let us be honest with ourselves: we are not the moral paragons we have always thought ourselves to be.

     - C. Marxer

Friday, 14 October 2011



The blog gives participants and followers of the White Rock Philosophers' Cafe an opportunity to continue the discussions we hold at our monthly meetings. Our rationale is that often we take away from the meetings a sense of non-completion. There always seems to be more about the topic we would like to explore and do so with others. The main feature is a summary essay with additional commentary that I post a few days after each meeting. As a follower, please feel to post comments on any of the posts, and I will do my best to acknowledge and respond to all of them. Others, of course, may join in the debate to the benefit, hopefully, of all in our quest for clarity and truth. From time to time I will post essays on other topics. All are fair game for critical discussion.

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Do We Have a Moral Obligation to Help Strangers in Need?

Few among us can look at images of starving African children without feeling a pang of compassion.  Many people feel compelled to do something about human misery abroad, whether by working directly on the ground with an aid organization or by contributing money.  Conventional opinion in the affluent countries of the world calls such efforts charity.  Not Peter Singer, Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University.  In a widely read 1972 article and in his recent book The Life You Can Save, Singer argues forcefully that we have a duty to do something to alleviate the suffering of people in countries like India and Somalia who are starving and who lack access to clean water and basic medical services.  If sound, his argument erases the distinction between charity and obligation and would lead to drastic changes in our way of life if we put his conclusion into practice.

High marks to Singer for courage.  Objections have been many and loud: charity begins at home, why should I give up my hard-earned wealth for strangers, giving will create a culture of dependency, aid organizations are self-serving, aid money is often stolen, if people are destitute it's their own fault, third-world people have too many children, poverty can't be eliminated, we are prisoners of our selfish genes, etc.  Some of these ring rather hollow, others deserve serious consideration.  However, the best way to get a handle on a complicated and compelling issue like this one is to render our protagonist's argument as strong as possible and then hold it up to the light of careful philosophical analysis.  That will be my approach in this essay.

First, Singer opens the exit door for anyone who does not take the Moral Point of View.  The moral point of view is an orientation to life based on the conviction that when making decisions that affect other people, their interests (desires, needs) must be taken into consideration.  People who take the moral point of view I call morally serious persons.  Psychopaths, moral relativists, and unredeemably self-centered individuals have no place at the table.  Given that context, Singer's argument can be set forth as follows:

1.  The moral point of view requires us to look beyond the interests of ourselves, our families, and even our society.

2.  Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.

3.  If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought to do it; it is a moral obligation.

4.  Most of us can do this because we frequently spend money on things we don't need.

Therefore, we should donate money to alleviate dire suffering in Africa and other poor regions of the world.

The importance of Premise 1 cannot be overstressed.  If you consider yourself a morally serious person, and most of us do, then you must be prepared to accept that basic human needs are the same everywhere and should be given equal consideration.  The fact that a needy person lives in a distant land has no moral importance whatsoever.  There may be grounds for looking after friends, neighbors, and fellow Canadians first, but they are not self-evident.  Where the need is greatest, other things being equal, is where our moral attention should be directed.

Premise 2 will be confirmed by anyone who is not entirely bereft of common sense, so on to Premise 3, which is the critical step in Singer's argument.

There is widespread agreement among people of most cultures that everyone should avoid doing harm whenever possible.  Call that the Harm Principle.  It flows almost automatically from the Moral Point of View.  Singer's Premise 2 goes beyond that maxim, claiming that we have an additional basic duty  to prevent harm or relieve suffering whenever possible.  This is usually called the Benevolence Principle.  It does not enjoy the same consensus.  Most people will agree that we should pull a drowning person out of the water if doing so does not threaten our life, and we would condemn someone who refused to do so because the water would ruin his business suit.  In Singer's terms ruining a suit is not "sacrificing something of comparable moral importance" to the life of a stranger.

However, beyond obvious cases of that sort, the argument is harder to make for Singer's strong version of the Benevolence Principle.  It is also harder to take.  It implies that many of the purchases we make, such as dining out at restaurants, buying new clothes every few months, upgrading from a 27-inch tv to a 46-inch flatscreen, etc., are morally wrong.  Singer is relentless about this, and I see no easy way to refute the argument.  When others are starving, how do I justify trading in my one-year-old car for a new one?   If we are unwilling to sacrifice self-indulgent purchases like these and share our discretionary income with others in dire need, then should we not at least be honest with ourselves and admit that our purchasing decisions are often immoral?

Perhaps most reflective people contribute money now and then to assist people harmed by epidemics or other natural disasters.  Not enough and not often enough.  Over 900 million people in the world do not have enough to eat.  So what would be enough?  Singer recommends 5% of annual income, provided that level does not require us to sacrifice anybody else's need for food, clothing, shelter, and medical care (including our own, of course).  Too harsh a standard?  Well then, as in the famous joke, we are now haggling about the price. 

So far I have tried to show that some version of the Benevolence Principle must be embraced by all morally serious persons.   However, I also stated above that Singer's version of the Benevolence Principle is harder to defend than the Harm Principle.  In Part II of this essay, I will elaborate on that view, particularly as Singer applies his principle to situations of starvation and other dire needs in the poor countries of the world.

- C. Marxer

Wednesday, 12 October 2011


Books Received by the Library for the
White Rock Philosophers Cafe, 2009-2011 

Ernest Becker, Denial of Death.
Roger Scruton, Beauty.
Michael Philips, The Undercover Philosopher.
Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, Plato and a Platypus Walk Into Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes.
______Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates (more phil. and jokes)
Robert Wright, The Evolution of God.
Cynthia Stokes Brown, Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present.
Simon Critchley, The Book of Dead Philosophers.
Marietta McCarty, How Philosophy Can Change Your Life: 10 Ideas That Matter Most.
Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind
Marci McDonald, The Armageddon Factor.
Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit.
Henry Jacoby, House and Philosophy: Everybody Lies.
Bart Ehrman, God’s Problem. (How the Bible fails to answer the problem of suffering.)
Lee Alan Dugatkin, The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of
Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization.
Naomi Klein, No Logo.
Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.
John Morreall, Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor


Ideas of the Great Philosophers,  by Prof. Daniel N. Robinson, 60 lectures, 30 minutes each.