In his seminal essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Peter Singer argues that individuals in affluent societies have a moral obligation to prevent extreme suffering and death caused by avoidable famine and poverty. Singer posits that the fundamental principle guiding our moral decisions should be based on preventing something bad from happening without sacrificing something of comparable moral importance.
Setting the stage for his argument, Singer highlights the severe famine affecting East Bengal (today’s Bangladesh) in 1971 and emphasizes the stark contrast between the abundance enjoyed by individuals in affluent nations and the dire circumstances faced by those in poverty. He argues that affluent individuals have a moral duty to transform their lives to the extent necessary in order to alleviate the suffering of those in extreme poverty.
Singer challenges the common perception that acts of charity or benevolence are supererogatory, meaning they are morally good but not obligatory. He asserts that when individuals have the ability to prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing something of comparable moral importance, it becomes their duty to do so. Singer illustrates this point through a thought experiment involving a drowning child. He argues that if we were passing by a shallow pond and witnessed a child drowning, it would be morally incumbent upon us to wade in and save the child, even if it means ruining our expensive clothes. By making this comparison, Singer equates the act of donating money to alleviate poverty to saving a child from drowning, asserting that both are ethically equivalent actions.
Singer challenges the traditional view that proximity and personal relationship should determine the extent of our moral obligations. He argues against limiting moral responsibilities to those within our immediate circle, such as family and friends, and extends our obligations to all individuals, regardless of distance or personal connection. Singer claims that there is no morally relevant difference between a child dying in East Bengal due to poverty and a child dying as a result of our inaction, even though the former seems more distant and the latter seems more immediate. By eradicating this perceived distinction, Singer emphasizes the interconnectedness of all individuals and promotes the idea of a global community with shared moral obligations.
Moreover, Singer rebuts the objection that donating to alleviate poverty will merely perpetuate the cycle of dependency and fail to address the underlying cause of poverty. He concedes that systemic reform is necessary for long-term solutions, but emphasizes that immediate intervention is crucial to prevent avoidable suffering and death. Singer contends that we should not wait for governments or larger institutions to effect change and that, as individuals, we possess the power to make a tangible difference in the lives of those suffering. By donating a portion of our income to effective aid organizations, Singer argues, we can directly impact the well-being of individuals and families in poverty.
In response to concerns regarding the enormity of the problem and the limited resources of individuals, Singer suggests that while we may not be able to solve the entire problem of global poverty, it does not absolve us of our responsibility to contribute what we can. Singer advocates for a proportional approach, suggesting that individuals should donate a significant portion of their income, rather than just a token amount. He posits that many affluent individuals could comfortably contribute more than they currently do without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance. Singer asserts that fulfilling our moral obligation requires us to give to the point of marginal utility, meaning until the point at which we would be sacrificing something of equal or greater moral importance.