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.
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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
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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