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


  1. There should be a 4th part to Singer's argument, in my opinion.

    The 4th part would state that we are obligated, not only make a contribution, but also to find a way to ensure that enough of that contribution goes to the benefit of those intended, if necessary personally delivering loaves of bread to whomever needs it, wherever they are, or even creating an entire multiple-contributor delivery structure if an acceptable one does not exist. The good news is that in practice this is not an onerous provision, since anyone capable of amassing excess wealth is surely capable of finding the most efficacious way to make such a contribution. If not, then I'd say the accumulation of that excess wealth can legitimately be judged immoral, or least the individual involved being judged as have The Moral Point of View.

    This issue illuminates an all-too-human trait, that it often takes some courageous, inspired, perhaps nutso person to take action and point the way, and let guilt and the herd instinct be the main drivers for the rest to follow. Ask the woman who was raped and killed on a busy US street with dozens of people just walking by, and local residents not bothering to call 911. What a pathetic species we can be! With these kinds of examplars, one wonders if Singer et al are blowin' in the wind.

  2. Your concerns about the delivery of aid are valid, but they would be part of the practical details of applying the principle. No need to make them part of the theoretical argument. If there were some doubt that a contribution through a particular agency would not achieve the desired effects, then the Benevolence Principle implies we should direct our money differently.

    The comments in your second paragraph were voiced by several participants at the meeting. The facts about what people do provide grounds for lots of pessimism. The ethical response to that realization is, I think, "The facts don't matter. If I am the only person in the world who recognizes his duty and contributes to the best of his ability, so be it. I have fulfilled my conception of the kind of person I ought to be."