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Peter Singer’s Views on Our Obligations to the Destitute and Poor

I have a Masters degree in Healthcare Ethics in England to complement my degree in Philosophy.

Peter Singer

Peter Singer

What Is Our Moral Obligation to the Poor?

In 1971, Peter Singer wrote a classic essay entitled, "Famine, Affluence and Morality." In the piece, he discussed how we should treat those starving in poverty stricken countries.

Singer outlined what John Arthur later called the greater moral evil rule, which says we should do everything we can to stop something bad from happening “without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance.” Taken at its strongest degree this would mean giving away everything you have until you are only just better off than those who you’re giving your money to. As he saw that most people would not be prepared to live by this, he formulated a more moderate view that stated that instead of buying ourselves luxuries, like new clothes when our old ones are fine, we should instead give that money to charity. This article is going to cover some of the main objections to Singer and possible responses that he might have.


Critic John Arthur

John Arthur wrote a criticism of Singer’s work several years later. He believed strongly in the idea of rights and desert. Whereas Singer said that it is our obligation to give all our money to help those less fortunate, Arthur says that we earned that money and therefore we have a right to do with it as we please; we deserve it.

There is a lot of sense in what Arthur says: if it was expected of us to give away everything we earned to the point where we lived a very basic and plain life with just enough to survive then we would surely be less inclined to work hard or even work at all if we were not going to benefit. There would be less motivation for people to succeed as (unfortunate as it is) money is the biggest incentive for people to work overtime or get promoted.

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In response to this argument, Singer would argue that he does not expect everyone to be living on the poverty line having given all their money away. In the ideal world, he argues, everyone would only need to give say £5. If everyone did that it would provide the destitute with enough money. But since most people do not give £5, those who are prepared to should give more to make up for what others have not given.

Another idea that Arthur develops is based on Singer’s idea that we are morally reprehensible if we do not give our money to help the poor. Arthur disagrees with this. He says that whilst it is obviously morally commendable to give away money to the poor it is not wrong not to. An analogy is used to explain this view further. He likens giving money to the poor to giving a kidney to help a friend; it is heroic to donate a kidney to help someone who has kidney failure (for example) but you are not morally bad if you wish to keep your kidneys. It is what many people would call a supererogatory act; good to do but not wrong not to do. Singer says that this is not supererogatory as it is wrong not to give our money to the poor. Although there is nothing in Singer’s work that directly covers Arthur’s analogy, I imagine he would say that this analogy is irrelevant because you cannot compare money to a kidney. With money you can earn some and then give away a certain amount of it and then earn more. With a kidney you only have two, if you agree to give one away you give the whole thing and you can't re-grow a new one.

Garrett Hardin

Garrett Hardin

Critic Garrett Hardin

Garrett Hardin is another who directly criticised Singer. He called this criticism Lifeboat Ethics. He said to imagine the world in lifeboats. The West is like a big lifeboat enough supplies for everyone, a few spare places, food and drink. In comparison the third world is like a smaller overcrowded lifeboat; people are struggling to get in and some are drowning and there isn’t enough supplies for everyone. If the West lifeboat tries to help the other one then they are going to become overcrowded and run out of supplies, as there is perhaps only enough room to save one or two people when there are hundreds drowning. If we did try to save everyone we would all end up drowning.

The common response to this is that it is again a bad analogy. The West lifeboat is in fact more like a party boat with lots of excess that could be given away without disadvantaging anyone on the boat. In real life, the western countries have excess money, money we spend on luxuries that we could do without. It is this money that we can give away, not the money we need for food and shelter etc. The lifeboat analogy also overlooks the fact that a large amount of the money we give goes towards improving health care; building hospitals, training doctors, bringing clean water supplies, and educating young children not just in basic skills but also in the prevention of the spread of AIDS and suchlike.

There are obviously other arguments against Singer and reasons one could give for not giving money away, for example that the money only goes to corrupt governments and that we don’t actually see first hand where the money is going. Also there are so many charities in the world, helping to cure diseases, save children, help animals etc that even if we were convinced to give away all our money we wouldn’t necessarily just want help the poor. Overall though, Singer’s argument seems to hold up well against the big criticisms from John Arthur and Garrett Hardin. The strongest argument against it is the idea of rights and desert, which goes a long way to explain, I think, why most people do not give money to charity; it is money that we have earned (or been given etc) and we are reluctant to part with that.

Further Reading

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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