Thoughts on Peter Singer’s “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”

In the article Famine, Affluence, and Morality Singer argues for the position that the entire way we look at moral issues needs to be altered. The most crucial premise in Singers argument is this: “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”[1]

I disagree with this premise. It does not incorporate enough factors in determining moral obligation. Merely, what is in our power, and without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance are far too basic grounds to adequately determine what a moral obligation is. At least two other factors need to be considered those being, the relation between the person to that which needs help, and the distance between the two. Additionally it relies on an impossible calculation of what is of moral importance and presumes it is possible to compare two future paths in determining whether there is a moral obligation to help.

The relation that exists between the person, who is determining if they are morally obligated to help, and the person or object in danger, is a factor of importance. It is reasonable to place a higher moral obligation to someone who is closely tied to that which is in danger than a total stranger. For example, it makes more sense to say that a parent has a greater moral responsibility to save their child if it is drowning and they are capable of rescuing it, than a stranger standing next to them who has the same ability to save the child. Thus it is clear that the manner in which the two involved parties are interconnected must be of some importance.

Another factor which is important is the distance of which the person is from the bad occurrence. The further away the person is from the occurrence the greater the chance that someone closer can do the same task. The moral responsibility should thus fall upon them, or at least lessen the moral obligation of those further away from helping. For instance if someone requires help crossing a street and both a person standing fifty meters away and someone standing next to individual have it within their powers to help the person, it seems reasonable that the person closer has a greater obligation to help than the person further away. This does not show that distance completely negates moral obligations but it does make it reasonable to think that distance does to some extent play a factor in determining moral obligations. Moral obligations to provide aid rest upon the person closest to the incidence, not merely everyone who is capable of helping.

The final reason why I disagree with Singer’s premise is because it relies on an impossible calculation, namely the attempt to weigh what is of moral importance. I do not believe such a comparison is possible to the degree in which would be needed for this premise to be acceptable. Not only is it difficult to weigh what is and is not of moral importance, but it is even more difficult if not impossible to know if whether through certain actions something of possible greater moral importance will not be sacrificed. For instance assume a student wishes to go to a third world country for a year and volunteer to try and save some children’s lives. Although the student has done the calculations in their head and cannot see any downside to going away, they cannot know for a fact that they are not giving up something of possible greater moral importance had they chosen to stay. It could very easily be the case that while away the person misses the chance of meeting someone that they would have spent an amazing life with and could have with that person to help the children a few years later together.

[1] Singer, Peter. “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”. Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No.3 (Spring, 1972), 231

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