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