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


  1. Ethics of bribery. If one is paid to a petty official to allow food aid to be delivered this could be OK if it simply is reccognised as part of his expected compensation. If it is paid to a warlord who is oppressing the very people who need the aid (eg Somalia) I think not. So the answer to the question "is bribery ethical?", the answer seems to be 'it depends". Uncomfortable for those who, like me ,would like their ethics to be absolute. Is this moral relativism?

  2. "Is this moral relativism?" No, moral relativism is a theory that denies the existence of moral truth. Your comment is based on the idea that sometimes we are forced to perform an act - bribery - that would usually be wrong but in your "compensation" case is morally ok because it accomplishes a greater good. That's a moral truth-claim and, I believe, a moral truth.

  3. I agree that we the more affluent people on this earth have a moral responsibility to not forget the very poor We should contribute on a regular basis to those organizations that will aid in relieving some of this suffering, always. I prefer to give locally as there is a great need here in Vermont, although Food for the Poor has been a favorite for many years.

  4. Singer seems to be proposing a timeless syllogism of morality, paralleling Aristotle's timeless syllogism of logic. Thus: if belief A is moral & if belief B is moral then action C is mandated.
    I challenge this view that discussions about the real world, including human decision making, can be so 'context-free'. Accordingly, most moralizing is irrelevant because it assumes universal (timeless) moral truths. Most people recognize this deficiency on an intuitive basis so do not feel moved to follow the resulting calls to action.

  5. Glenn Miles

    First I'd like to give kudus to the author here, Charles Marxer. My thanks to Charles for taking on such a value diverse issue at a time of pivotal uncertainty for all of us in trying to sort out our need versus want impulses and actions.

    My tendency is to want to integrate our moral seriousness with the central operating principal of our social context. The government.

    I think the moral will of the collective can be a compelling force, and perhaps a simple statement sent out from that collective will, such as the willingness and support for higher taxes, and the election of morally serious candidates to elected public office, might stir the right moral juices in the direction of the collective epiphany we seem to need right now.

    I think the world is at a tipping point. And I believe more than ever some real empathy and compassion are fast becoming the only real action that might redeem our species from such dire consequences as our over fed (post WW2) generations have never dreamed were possible

  6. Dgbell recommends local donations to the very poor. Local giving makes sense – more efficient, greater probability of achieving best results. For the large-scale problem of world poverty, I’m afraid only governments are really in a position to make a significant difference. Unfortunately, the leaders of the richest countries seem to be more interested in war and saving predatory banks than working to alleviate the suffering of the world’s very poor. 1% of GDP seems to be the consensus figure for foreign aid, and not even that goes entirely to famine relief. Pathetic.

    Glenn Miles rightly emphasizes empathy as the foundation for progress toward economic justice in the world. Morally serious candidates for public office are hard to identify. Perhaps the Occupy Wall Street movement understands this, hence has so far refused to be co-opted by the Democratic Party. Lots of talk about compassion, fairness, and universal solidarity coming from the Liberty Square camp and elsewhere. Hear, hear!

  7. Herb's position looks a lot like moral relativism, but he left himself some wiggle room by saying only that "most moralizing is irrelevant." Perhaps he could suggest one or two examples of moralizing that is relevant and explain what it is relevant to.

  8. Yes, I am rejecting timeless absolutes. Moral relativism suggests that it's just a personal opinion - I go beyond that (it's usually just a cop-out for taking no action). I believe there are objective (across all individuals) moral standards but these standards vary over time. As societies learn more, particularly from history, we can improve our standards - otherwise there is little hope for improvement & we might as well just use The Torah.

  9. In order to discern moral improvement over time, do we not need some stable, timeless ethical principles to ground our judgments? How could we know if improvement is taking place if all standards "vary over time?" Take for example a principle of equality, such as "When making social decisions, the interests of all must be considered, not just members of one's own family or tribe." From the moral point of view, this looks like a timeless maxim that would serve societies well at any time in history. It would also provide a basis for deciding whether people are gradually including more and more others in their moral universe and thereby making progress.

  10. No, because to accept any such principle then we must have at some point in time 'divined' the absolute. What I am proposing is that as a culture (or species) we get better over time. This is a self-aware response by the people at any point in time. WE are making the claim that our views are now better. It was very hard for our ancestors to arrive at these broader perspectives when they had such a limited view - both across cultures (space) and of their own history (time). If we are wrong then we will drive our group 'off the cliff' as the Conservatives are now doing to the USA.

  11. I'm not sure what Eleanor's "No" refers to. I'm not smart enough to be wrong about everything. I also don't know what 'divined' means, and I don't use, nor do I need to use, the word "absolute."
    Eleanor wrote "What I am proposing is that as a culture (or species) we get better over time." Better compared to what and by what standard are we to make judgments about better or worse?