Peter Singer is arguably one of the most influential philosophers alive today – he has published over one hundred academic articles, dozens of books, and was recently named a “Companion of the Order of Australia,” one of Australia’s highest honors. While Singer has an extensive moral code extending over a vast array of human affairs, I will only focus on one particular aspect of his moral code – charity. Specifically, I will explain his radical claim that we should give to charity until we are “very near the material circumstances of a Bengali refugee.”
With the rise of Occupy Wall Street this past year, we’ve all heard the slogan “We are the 99%” and the message it’s meant to send — those with excessive power and wealth, the 1%, are not bearing their fair share of social burdens (such as taxes). The CEO who makes $100 million annually, but pays only $5 million in taxes, ought to pay more to support those who are in need. After all, even if his taxes are doubled, would he suffer in any significant way by paying $10 million rather than $5 million? Considering how many hungry families could be fed with that money, it seems absurd, almost offensive, to insist that the millionaire should not be taxed more.
In many ways, Singer’s arguments about charity are analogous to this line of thought, but with a global focus. We in the highly developed countries are, for the most part, the global 1%. It’s great that you donate $5 to charity each month – but why not donate another $5? Like the millionaire above, do you really need that extra $5 which could feed a hungry family?
Singer’s argument rests on two basic premises, both of which are extremely uncontroversial:
1) “Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care [is] bad.”
2) “If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.”
In other words, we should prevent these bad things from happening, but only if we don’t cause something else that’s equally bad. If we see a child drowning in a pond, we should jump in that pond to save him, as it will prevent something bad without sacrificing anything morally significant. On the other hand, if the only way to save that child is by abandoning two other children who need immediate medical care, then you should not save that drowning child because doing so will cause a morally significant sacrifice. The obvious conclusion from Singer’s example is that we should work to prevent suffering when it doesn’t cause moral harm. What isn’t so obvious, and what makes Singer’s argument so interesting, is just how much help we are required to provide.
Peter Singer wrote his now-famous “Famine, Affluence and Morality” paper in the midst of a massive humanitarian crisis in East Bengal in 1971. Millions of refugees were without basic supplies, and the amount of external aid being provided was insufficient to resolve the issue. Singer believed (and continues to believe) that the appropriate response to this type of situation is to give until we are as impoverished as the refugees we are trying to help, and until that point, we have not reach the threshold of “morally significant” sacrifice. To draw the line of when we may stop giving at any point before then still results in us having the potential to prevent something very bad from happening, but not actually preventing it. If we came across five drowning children in a pond, it would be immoral to save one or two but leave the rest to drown because we are getting slightly tired. Our insistence that “good is good enough” is no different from the millionaire above insisting that his current tax rates are “good enough,” when he still has the potential to alleviate significant amounts of suffering. The conclusion to all this, then, is that we ought to give to charity until we are near the level of a Bengali refugee. If we stop giving before then, we are allowing very bad things to occur which we have the power to prevent.
If Singer’s arguments are correct, then the fact that you’re reading this article is likely sufficient evidence that you are acting in immoral ways. Owning a computer, subscribing to an internet provider, even having the leisure time to read means that you are opting to not take the action necessary to prevent extreme suffering.
Singer himself recognized the radical implications of his argument, and at the end of “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” he discussed the need for a massive mindset shift in “developed” nations.Specifically, he argues that the distinction between duty (when we have an obligation to help others) and charity (when we may help others, but are not morally required to do so) is unacceptable. Those of us in the so-called developed world can no longer justify spending our spare money on fashionable clothes, cars, or homes – rather, that money ought to go towards charitable ends, and continue to do so until poverty and hunger are eradicated. To stop giving before we reach that final goal means we will recognize there are very bad things occurring, but simply choose not to prevent them.