Helping is a Moral Obligation

Peter Singer is correct that we are morally obligated to give large sums of time, money, and resources to help other people in dire need of aid. If, as a moral agent, we have the ability to prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then we are morally obligated to do so. As a result, people who are not experiencing immediate suffering ought to try and prevent the suffering of others who are experiencing it from preventable struggles such as lack of adequate food, shelter and medical care. In my essay, I will first explain Singer’s argument and how privileged people are morally obligated to help end the suffering of people who are experiencing preventable adversity from lack of food, shelter and medical care. Next, I will put forth objections to the argument, including that it is too demanding, will result in burn out, that a person cannot fulfill the task of ending the suffering of millions of people, that there is always more to do, and that “comparable” moral importance is ambiguous and incalculable. I will argue that these objections are insufficient by highlighting the importance of having flexibility in one’s life, that the scope of a problem is irrelevant to moral obligation, and that subjective comparable moral importance is an advantage. Lastly, I will argue that the history of colonization and our economic structures play a role in causing preventable famine, lack of shelter and medical care, and how this places further obligation on affluent countries and people in positions of privilege to help.

There is no shortage of problems and suffering in the world, and there are countless people in dire need of aid. People across the world live without adequate food, suffer from curable diseases, and do not have a safe home that protects them from the natural environment. In contrast, many people (particularly in affluent countries) have money and resources that are beyond necessary for survival. They shop for clothes and goods that they do not need, own multiple properties, and engage in activities to flaunt wealth. Singer argues that if we have the power and ability to prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then we are morally obligated to help. This means that people who have resources beyond necessary for their own survival ought to provide help to end the preventable suffering and death of others around the world. This includes everyone from politicians in the Global South, to upper middle class people in Canada. In addition, the kinds of help that can be offered is limitless. Help, without sacrificing anything of comparable moral value, can include time, money, emotional support, or any other resource. An example of helping someone without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, is saving a drowning child in a pond. If a child is drowning in a shallow pond, it would pose no risk, and very little effort to most adults to save that child. One could easily walk up, pull the child out of the pond, and continue with one’s day. Even if saving the child would make a person late to work, or miss the beginning of a partner going into labour, the effort and moral importance required is still incomparable. Saving a child at minimal cost and without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance is a moral obligation. Situations like this, in different contexts, however, happen everyday on a global scale. People suffer and die from preventable diseases and famine all the time. With little cost and effort to a person with resources beyond necessary for survival, whether through donating, volunteering time, lobbying governments, they could actively help save and reduce the suffering of many people globally.

Objections to this argument include that it is too demanding, and with millions of people suffering around the world, it seems nearly impossible to ever fulfill the task of helping and ending the suffering of everyone around us. While it is true, that a moral obligation to help others who are experiencing preventable suffering is demanding, it is not, however, too demanding. Humans have a lot of time and energy to expend on different tasks and goals throughout their day and life. A person who is not experiencing immediate trauma or suffering could spend significantly more time on helping others, as opposed to spending money on consumer goods, playing video games, or watching television. Additionally, the scope of the problem and the number of cases is not relevant to moral obligation unless (or until) it starts to effect one’s own ability to sacrifice something of comparable moral value. Regardless of whether one or twenty children is drowning a pond, we are still morally obligated to help save those children if we are not sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance. Given the amount of resources, food, and medical aid, it may in fact be possible to fulfill the task of helping all people who are experiencing suffering as a result of preventable adversities such as lack of adequate food, shelter and medical care. Even if it is not possible, however, we are still obligated to help. From a perspective based around empathy and personal experience, if the people who were experiencing suffering were close family members and we had the resources to help, most people would help without question. From a philosophical point of view, we live in a global community where everyone’s life is of equal moral value. In this global community, it is our moral duty to help uplift and end the suffering of others, even if we do not have the energy or capacity to help every single person. We ought to help until we are sacrificing something of comparable moral value. This leads to the most important objection to Singer’s argument, which is that there is no objective way to compare moral value and importance. While it is true that there is no mathematical formula or definition to compare moral value, harm, and importance, this is actually an advantage and necessary, because of how complex and unique human experiences are. Rather than having objective comparisons, it leaves the flexibility upon the individual to make relative judgements. Relative moral importance is necessary because it allows people to self-regulate in order to avoid burn out, take care of their fluctuating mental health, and humans require a certain amount of flexibility and freedom in order to explore ourselves and our goals which is equally important in avoiding our own suffering. The ability to evaluate moral importance subjectively gives us the flexibility to adapt to different environments, and to avoid saving another drowning child in a pond, if saving that last child would have caused us to pass out and potentially harm ourselves in the process. It also allows us to pay for guitar lessons instead of donating all of our excess money to charity, because learning guitar can be helpful for our own mental health and well-being, which in turn allows us to continue to help others long-term. Our moral obligations should not become counter-productive in the long-term because we have the flexibility to scale back and determine what would be most productive and effective. Thus, Singer’s argument that we are morally obligated to help prevent the suffering of people who are experiencing preventable hardships such as a lack of adequate food, shelter and medical care is not too demanding nor too drastic of a revision to ordinary morality. It would require more time, investment, and commitment from people who are able to help, however it should not become too overwhelming.

The history of colonization, our current economic structures, and climate change all play a large role in causing suffering to people around the world. Colonization has left countries with fractured governments, exploited resources, and broken economic systems to reestablish themselves in a global economy. As a result, there is increased poverty, famine and climate degradation. Oftentimes, the suffering experienced in foreign countries is specifically a result of colonization. Under other moral frameworks as well, including Narveson’s social contract view (Narveson, 2003), and Noggle’s moderate approach (Noggle, 2009), If we have wronged others, then we have further moral duty to help. Under Narveson’s social contract view, our obligations are based on our own self-interest and mutual insurance scheme. If, however, we have harmed others, then we are morally obligated to help (Narveson, 2003). Under Noggle’s moderate approach, we have perfect and imperfect obligations generated by Kant’s formula of humanity (Noggle, 2009). Even without accepting imperfect obligations as a moral framework, the perfect obligations declare that we must not treat another person simply as a means. As such, we cannot violate non-interference, which many colonizing countries have done. This places further moral obligation on affluent countries that have taken part in colonization, and people who have benefited from colonization to help resolve many of the struggles and suffering that happens globally. Our actions have unintended consequences, yet we are still morally obligated to help.

People living in comfortable situations with excess resources beyond necessary for own survival ought to put more time and effort into helping end the suffering of others around the globe. If we have the capacity to help prevent suffering without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then we ought to do so. This does not mean that we can never explore or enjoy our own lives and that we must focus solely on ending the suffering of others, because comparable moral importance is subjective which gives us the flexibility to avoid burn out, self-regulate, and ensure our own thriving as well. Whether we have a lot of money and resources to give, or just our excess time, then we still ought to help people around the world.

References

Singer, P. (2006, December 17). What Should a Billionaire Give – and What Should You? The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/17/magazine/17charity.t.html?_r=1&ex=157680000&en=f93281b678aaba14&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink&oref=slogin

Singer, P. (2006, December 24). Questions for Peter Singer. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/24/magazine/24singerqa.html?ex=157680000&en=b78058460052a625&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink

Gross-Loh, C. (2013, December 2). Giving 101: The Princeton Class That Teaches Students To Be Less Selfish. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/giving-101-the-princeton-class-that-teaches-students-to-be-less-selfish/281820/

Singer, P. (2013, May). The why and how of effective altruism [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/peter_singer_the_why_and_how_of_effective_altruism?language=en

Kravinsky, Z. (2013, January). How to give away $45 million [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RvUcbcUMtXw

Narveson, J. (2003). We Don’t Owe Them a Thing! A Tough-minded but Soft-hearted View of Aid to the Faraway Needy. The Monist, 86(3), 419-433. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27903833

Noggle, R. (2009). Give Till It Hurts? Beneficence, Imperfect Duties, and a Moderate Response to the Aid Question. Journal of Social Philosophy, 40(1), 1-16. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9833.2009.01435.x

Technology has hidden consequences

Technology is fascinating because it has become so advanced that it often feels nearly indistinguishable from magic. Modern technologies have helped humans cure diseases, fly across the planet, provide instant access to nearly infinite information online, and allows us to study in university during a global pandemic. While technology is often described synonymously with human development, it has also brought a lot of new problems that should not be overlooked or free from criticism. Modern technologies (from urban landscapes to social media) have been overwhelmingly destructive for the environment, problematic for people’s mental health, has increased inequality, and produced more waste than the earth can handle. Humans should continue to research, build, and explore, but it should be done with increased empathy, caution, and mindfulness. Every new technology has the potential to bring new, unintended negative consequences. If we fail to recognize that new technologies and developments come with unforeseen consequences, and we fail to take these problems into serious consideration, then we risk creating a destructive future that we cannot return from.

Social Media and Instagram
Figure 1: Social Media

Amidst a global pandemic that has affected nearly every person in every region of the earth, we have been forced to stay indoors, education has moved online, and oftentimes, connecting with friends and family has only become possible through social media. Social media has allowed us to stay connected through video calls, text messages, photos, and other mediums. This can be done regardless of whether a person lives thousands of miles away. While this is a great benefit of social media, it has also brought a lot of new, unanticipated consequences. Over the past decade, as social media use has increased, reports of mental health problems have also increased dramatically. Addiction to social media, depression, and feelings of low self-esteem have all become heavily correlated with the increased use of social media (Sharma, John, Sahu, 2020). As humans continue to value the ability to connect with friends and family digitally, we should remain equally aware of the new problems that social media brings.

Civic Center in San Francisco
Figure 2: Civic Center

San Francisco is an intriguing place for anyone who has visited. The Civic Center is located in downtown San Francisco next to several large technology companies (including Twitter headquarters, and Dolby Laboratories). Within a few blocks of the Civic Center, we can find some of the largest and most apparent wealth inequalities in the US. While people inside the Twitter building enjoy free food, dual-monitors, heating, 100k+ salaries, and fancy clothes, right outside of the building there are dozens of homeless people living on the streets and in tents, often begging for change. Over the past several years, Twitter has started to pay private security to demand that homeless people leave the sidewalk. It is mind-blowing that such transparent inequality can exist today with such little action or conversation on how to improve the situation. A single person working for Twitter to move pixels on a screen makes significantly more money and lives with many more luxuries than an entire group of people living right outside of their front door.

Macbook Air Laptop
Figure 3: Laptop

Technology has also been very destructive for the environment. Producing a single laptop requires mining for minerals and resources (such as cobalt) in foreign countries, which is often performed by children and child slaves. Mining for various resources requires the earth to be destroyed, causes serious pollution, and destruction of the natural ecosystem. Pollution from mining in different regions of Africa has caused severe health problems and population decline both in humans, fish, plants, and other animals (Fayiga, Ipinmoroti, Chirenje, 2018). When we look at a brand new Macbook, we often admire its beauty and consider it a piece of functional art. However, missing from the image, is the destruction of the natural environment, displacement of humans, severe pollution, and sometimes even child slaves. There is a story behind every piece of technology, and oftentimes, these sad and lost stories belong to people far away and far removed from the people enjoying the comforts of a new laptop.

Waste and Recycling
Figure 4: Waste and Recycling

In addition to mining for resources required to build new technologies, packaging also has negative impacts on the environment. With every new piece of technology sold, more trees are being cut down, more wood being processed, more plastic being produced, and more waste being piled up and entering the oceans. For nearly every product purchased in Walmart, or order conveniently placed on Amazon, there is more unnecessary waste and destruction of the environment to serve consumption. Single-use plastics are common with most purchases, and the only alternatives in many ‘developed’ countries are often paper alternatives. Rather than appreciating the conveniences of plastic packaging and cardboard boxes full of new products arriving with convenient shipping times, we should focus more on building new sustainable packaging alternatives.

Construction by the Ocean
Figure 5: Construction

Lack of green space and population density is also a problem in many cities and urban environments. Not only has green space and nature been removed from many urban settings to support increased population growth, but the nature that has been left faces its own problems including pollution and loss of biodiversity. Humans are not immune to the problems that arise from population density either. Andrade and colleagues found that people living in the highly populated city of Sau Paulo had a significant risk to develop a mental disorder at some point in the last twelve months. These mental disorders were highly correlated with increased exposure to crime, which is often much higher in cities. In addition, living in an urban environment was correlated with increased social withdrawal and substance abuse (Andrade, Wang, Andreoni, Silveira, Alexandrino-Silva, Siu, Nishimura, Anthony, Gattaz, Kessler, Viana, 2012).

Among Us Video Game Addiction
Figure 6: Video Game

Video game addiction is very prevalent, especially among male youth. As technology has continued to advance, video games have also become even more addicting. Enormous amounts of research has been put into creating games that offer a specific amount of randomness, stimuli, and rewards to keep users active, addicted, and online. Unfortunately, video game addiction has led to mental health decline and increased risk of developing depression and anxiety. Additionally, video game addiction is highly correlated with anti-social behaviors, and social isolation. (Stockdale, Coyne, 2018)

While modern technology offers many conveniences and comforts, it has also brought a lot of new problems that humans have never experienced before. Widespread mental health problems, mass inequality, environmental destruction, and excessive waste affect people from every part of the world. It’s easy to look at different technologies in isolation, and to negate their negative impacts because of their tremendous benefits, however, when these problems become irreversible, then we will have permanently changed our planet and our human culture in ways that we may not desire.

References:

Sharma, Manoj Kumar, John, Nisha and Sahu, Maya. (2020). “Influence of social media on mental health: a systematic review”. Current opinion in psychiatry. 33(5): 467-475.

Fayiga, Abioye, Ipinmoroti, Mabel and Chirenje, Tait. (2018). “Environmental pollution in Africa”. Environment, development and sustainability. 33(1): 41-73.

Andrade, Laura Helena, Wang, Yuan-Pang, Andreoni, Solange, Magalhães Silveira, Camila, Alexandrino-Silva, Clovis, Rosanna Siu, Erica, Nishimura, Raphael, Anthony, James C, Gattaz, Wagner Farid, Kessler, Ronald C, Viana, Maria Carmen. (2012). “Mental disorders in megacities: findings from the São Paulo megacity mental health survey, Brazil.” PLoS one. 7(2): 1-11

Stockdale, Laura and Coyne, Sarah M. (2018). “Video game addiction in emerging adulthood: Cross-sectional evidence of pathology in video game addicts as compared to matched healthy controls”. Journal of affective disorders, 225: 265-272.

Abstract:

For my photo essay, I explore how new technologies and developments have unintended negative consequences. While technology is often thought of synonymously with human development, it is rarely questioned as a large source of problems. I chose social media in my abstract to illustrate this problem because it is easy to relate to, and becoming increasingly criticized in the mainstream. Social media is just one of many technologies that provides enormous benefits, but also brings a lot new problems that are beginning to appear larger and more serious than we ever conceived. Another example that I included in my paper is how laptops are created. In order to build an elegant Macbook that many people appreciate and view as art, it requires the mining and destruction of the natural environment overseas (specifically in Africa in this case). Sadly, the people who live in these destroyed environments are also rarely the people who also get to enjoy these new technologies.

Are you in control of yourself?

Like Dobby the house-elf from Harry Potter who was freed from his master and became able to recognize his own power and independence from his master, I am in control of myself and my actions but have been led to believe that I was being controlled by external influences. 

Dobby was never truly controlled by his master. Despite being ordered not to, Dobby disobeys his master and tried to warn Harry not to go to Hogwarts. In addition to this, immediately after being “freed” from the illusion of control, he uses his power to once again protect Harry and even attack his master. As children, we are heavily influenced by our families, friends, culture, and environments. As we grow up, we gain knowledge and experience that leads to us uncovering the truth that we were never really controlled by these factors. While we often choose to conform to these influences, we recognize that we have an equal amount of power to overstep and violate these expectations. 

An objection to this argument is that both Dobby and I are never really outside of the control of our masters and external experiences/influences. While Dobby may have acted in ways that he felt was of his own free will, those actions were largely determined by the experiences he has had, while being under the control of his master. Even when Dobby is “released” and “freed”, he is only acting in ways that he understands and that makes sense to him. He may be defiant and resist previously acceptable behavior, but these new behaviors are a product of those experiences. So, it seems that Dobby is still under the control of his master like the way that I am still the influenced by the beliefs of my parents and culture. This idea implies that we are always being controlled by our past, which would suggest that determinism is true. To counter this objection, however, even though Dobby is influenced by his past experiences, he is still able to change, grow, and act independently. As Dobby grows more mature, he gains independence from his past experiences and is able to act in ways that better suit his own desires.

While events occur around us that suggest the world is deterministic, according to Dennet, this does not necessarily mean we are being controlled. It is true that our environment plays a role in shaping and influencing us, but it does not actively control us. The environment does not have its own desires or intellectual capacity to make decisions or know what will happen next. We are in control of our own actions.

Please note: This writing was discussed and co-written with Erica and Finley for a philosophy assignment at UVic 🙂

Does Epicurus have the cure?

One of my strongest desires is to travel, live abroad, and experience new cultures. Epicurus would argue that this desire is an unnecessary luxury and will not likely lead to a happy and pleasurable life. Epicurus argues that to live a happy life we must learn to be content with as little as possible and not have strong, unnecessary desires. He argues that pursuing unnecessary desires will lead to anxiety, suffering, and disappointment. While I generally agree with this and aim to live accordingly, some desires and pursuits (such as travel and higher education) are worthwhile because they provide long term, consistent happiness and tranquility, that far outweighs any short-term pains and discomforts. In my experience, travel has led to significant pain and discomfort. I worked overtime for many months, did not eat healthy foods to save money, became anxious about traveling to foreign countries, slept in uncomfortable hostels, and got very sick while abroad. Despite this, travel has led to a tremendous amount of personal growth, wisdom, unwavering gratitude for life and opportunities, provided insight into new cultures, philosophies, long term friendships, and helped me learn to enjoy each moment. Effectively, travel has led to wisdom that I could not have developed anywhere else, more comfort in the life that I have, and taught me how to live with more tranquility. The benefits of travel have far outweighed any drawbacks that have come from it. While more tranquility may have been possible without the strong desire and pursuit of travel, following this advice would have led me to live with more ignorance, less wisdom, less empathy, and less curiosity. Additionally, these values may be equally as important as happiness, and long-term tranquility/happiness may not be possible without them. While I agree that it would be wise to eliminate strong, unnecessary desires for material success and most things in life, values such as travel, pursuing philosophy, and learning have benefits that far outweigh the negative consequences. If Epicurus had followed his own advice, he may have pursued his passionate desire to write and educate the world about philosophy.

Do we have an ethical duty to be agnostic about the existence of Zeus?

Clifford would argue that we have an ethical duty to investigate the existence of Zeus because without evidence, believing in Zeus leaves us open to creating mistruth. People should be agnostic (or even go further to be atheist) about Zeus because of the lack of supporting and contradictory evidence to his existence. It is said that Zeus rules and lives on Mount Olympus in Greece. The fact that Mount Olympus is a real mountain means that we should be able to go to verify that he actually lived there. Since we have yet to verify any proof of his existence on Mount Olympus, it raises a question for concern. Zeus is said to control lightning which we know is not the case and is caused by other environmental factors. If we believe in Zeus, then we must also believe in the other gods that he interacts with in the many Greek mythology stories. We should have even more evidence to support the fact that all those gods exist, but we do not. And modern science has disproved many claims of their existence. By being believing Zeus’ existence, it leaves us open to being biased about other aspects of life which opens the door to judging people around us without solid evidence. If we easily believe in claims such as Zeus is real, we easily give people power to fabricate misinformation. We fuel liars to spread fallacious claims because we believe anything that gives reassurance to our immediate comfort. Because there is insufficient evidence to support his existence and we can verifiably deny claims about his abilities, it is our duty to be agnostic about the existence of Zeus.

James would argue that it is not necessarily an ethical duty to be agnostic about the existence of Zeus because there is no concrete evidence against his existence. If there is no evidence that means that we must use our passional nature to decide whether or not to believe in the existence of Zeus. Similar to how we can’t dismiss the existence of a Christian God, and that a person may receive positive upshot from believing, Zeus is no different. If a person receives benefit, whether happiness, sense of direction in life, comfort or community support from this belief, then it is justified. In the case that we do not have solid evidence, then it is up to each individual to decide for themselves. In addition, although Zeus may not currently live on Mount Olympus, that does not mean that he never did and that we don’t have proof. By assuming that evidence does not exist, we are closing ourselves off to possible future evidence.

What is Personal Identity?

Although we often imagine our own identities as our bodies and thoughts, Miller makes a strong case that, despite this, our bodies are not the same as our personal identities. Miller explains that we are able to judge our personal identities without having to examine or judge our bodies. We are able to close our eyes, remain fully conscious, and remain aware of all of our thoughts and everything that exists around our identities. If we can judge our personal identities without examining our bodies, then our personal identities and bodies must exist separately. If they exist separately, then there is no correlation between the two and thus they are not the same. Miller’s argument is valid, because if all of the premises are true, then the conclusion is also true. The soundness of Miller’s argument could come into question by examining whether our bodies and personal identities do in fact exist separately. One could make the case that because our bodies (our brains) are the actors that create our identities, then the two cannot be separated. While this is an interesting point of discussion, we often use our bodies to create things that exist outside of ourselves. We can build houses, write novels, and plant trees. All of those externalities do not become apart of us. Therefore, it is equally possible that our identity exists as a creation of our bodies, and are not our bodies themselves.