“Famine, Affluence, and Morality” Webster’s English Dictionary defines “morality” as: the conformity to ideals of right human conduct. With this in mind, I wonder who determines right human conduct? Religion aside, there is no literary context that strictly states the rights and wrongs of human behavior. So who decides? Who determines what we ought morally to do and what we are obligated to do as a society? An Australian philosopher, Peter Singer attempts to draw the line between obligation and charity with the moral incentives to providing food for the starved in East Bengal. Although he presents many sound arguments, the reality of his utopian world is that it cannot exist. In the following expository, I will justify my reasoning behind this fact.
To discourse a charitable act is generally viewed as a philanthropic gesture, one that stems from a kind and worldly human being. However, if one has the resources to donate to a charitable cause, are they obligated to do so? Singer claims “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.” (page 151) If true, everyone who has ever had the funds and opportunity to help a charitable cause but didn’t, has neglected the welfare of the human race. Singer claims that generally speaking, “people
have not given large sums of money to relief funds; they have not written to their parliamentary representatives demanding increased government assistance, they have not demonstrated in the streets, held symbolic fasts, or done anything else directed toward providing the refugees with the means to satisfy their essential needs.” With all respect to Mr. Singer, I beg to differ. I myself have never known a person whom didn’t give to some charitable cause through funding or donating their time. The United States Government has numerous support groups that’s sole purpose is to fend for impoverished countries like Bengal. For example, the U.S. Peace Corps, National Guard, Amnesty International, and American Red Cross, all of which raise funds and lend aid to areas of greatest need when it concerns the general welfare of the human race. Not only do governments lend aid, but BANDAID, Salvation Army, Tibetan Peace Conference, and numerous individual parties contribute moneys and rally support, march the streets, and demand relief to these countries.
Singer states “neither individuals nor governments can claim to be unaware of what is happening there [Bengal].” (page 152) My colleagues and I knew absolutely nothing of the recent developments in Bengal, which is not to say that we don’t read newspapers or watch the evening news, but rather that the United States has priorities within its own country. American citizens tend to focus on the hardships that are within their spectrum, just as the British focus on troubles within The United Kingdom. “The uncontroversial appearance of the principle just stated [without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance], if it were acted upon, even in its qualified form, our lives, our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed.” –Singer (page 153) Indeed, if this principle were to be carried out effectively, it would bring about change, but no matter what kinds of relief were provided, the world will inevitably suffer from disease and hardship. Thus, the world would not fundamentally be different. Many common ideals may perhaps be altered by the new “giving” state of mind, but the world would not be altered significantly. “It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards away from me or a Bengali whose name I shall I never know, ten thousand miles away.” People in general are “visual” persons. Most need to see it to believe it; they’re not going to offer support to a cause over the phone or a news article with weak evidence to support it. Those with the means to support a cause are far more likely to give to charity within their hometown, state, or country. I must help myself before I can help others, a creed commonly adopted by most individuals is the leading cause for the lack of support. The average individual is so entirely caught up in their own busy lives and goings on that they simply forget to widen their perspective. Hence, the distance factor makes all the difference. People, whether morally correct or not, are not about to give away a fortune to be spent on something somewhere they’ve never been, when they could be spending money on a cause they can clearly see taken into action. Hence, the logic that states “there is no possible justification for discriminating on geographical grounds” is untrue.
Singer illustrates how “one feels less guilty about doing nothing if one can point to others, similarly placed, who have also done nothing.” (page 151) In this case, I agree with Singer. Although it may seem the norm to act in this manner, it remains unjustifiable and shouldn’t make any difference to the moral obligations. “If everyone does what he ought to do, the result will not be as good as it would be if everyone did a little less than he ought to do, or if only some do all that they ought to do.” –Singer (page 155) Although Singer says this to be a paradox, I find it difficult to see the truth behind it. If everyone were to give as much as they possibly could, an abundance of money would be achieved and the relief fundings would grow. Thus, the overall relief programs would be successful due to the amount of moneys involved, creating the hoped outcome. Singer also states, “ if it is to be expected that everyone is going to contribute something, then clearly each is not obliged to give as much as he would have been obliged to had others not been giving too.” (page 155) Although the logic seems viable, it is not necessarily true. Of course the general outcome of such a situation may arise, the likelihood is poor, and often people who see others giving to one particular cause are more inclined to give to that cause through word of mouth and so forth.
“The bodies which collect money are known as ‘charities.’ These organizations see themselves in this way-if you send them a check, you will be thanked for your ‘generosity.’” –Singer (page 156) Yes, these organizations are charities, and they are in no way obligated to ensure their cause meets its goal. Morally speaking, each individual differs. Morals are very different in various countries, states, or even cities. It is ignorant of one to attempt to group all the world’s morals together and apply them everywhere as universal morals. “The charitable man may be praised, but the man who is not charitable is not condemned.” –Singer (page156) One’s own money that is earned through an honest job is to be spent however that person feels inclined to do so. The American citizen has taxes deducted every paycheck from the state and federal government. Lots of these collected taxes go towards government agencies who support international relations. These agencies help impoverished countries and the American citizen, because of it, is obligated to lend aid by federal and state law. There is often no choice as to which relief funds the moneys are allocated, the sums are simply extracted from the taxpayers check and thrown in the little red can. Because of this, the people feel an even greater lack of obligation to give to charities. Singer states, “ when we buy new clothes not to keep ourselves warm but to look well-dressed we are not providing for any important need.” (page 156) All sensible minded individuals would agree that new fashionable clothes are hardly a necessity, however, what about the items that lie on the border of need and want. For example, an overweight woman must work out everyday on a treadmill and do aerobics three times a week. The only way she can bring herself to exercise is by going to the local gym with a support group who is able to push her through her regimen. She has neither the willpower nor self-esteem to proceed on her own. Although this example is random and may seem trivial, it brings up a point. The value of something, whether it be a need or want, is entirely dependent on the individual. There is no universal code able to distinguish it for every single person. So, who determines where the line is drawn? Singer himself states, “people do not ordinarily judge in the way I have suggested they should.” (page 156) This is Singer’s view, not everyone’s, and it is drastic moral scheming.
Singer says, “…the way people do in fact judge has nothing to do with the validity of my conclusion.” (page 157) As proven, the way people judge has everything to do with the validity of his statement. His entire plan rests on the fact that we should prevent as much suffering as possible without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance.
Once again, each individual weighs morals differently, and what may be important to one person, might not be to another. This theory is all circumstantial.
The question Sidgwick and Urmson bring forth is this, “where should we draw the line between conduct that is required and conduct that is good although not required, so as to get the best possible result?” (page 157) My point is this exactly, no person can draw that line, and there can never be a universal code applied to everyone and enforced. This theory is not plausible. As stated, if everyone was told not to commit murder and to give half of their paycheck to charity, neither would be followed. However, if one was told not to kill and to try and give money to charity, although they were in no way obligated to do so, the likelihood of murder would not be as popular. With this in mind, any attempt to force moral obligation would end in failure. People care most about priorities. What must be done now and what directly follows that. If one were to decide upon which choice to follow, I should hope they would choose the first, being not to commit an act of murder. In conclusion, the utopian world that Singer produces is not achievable. Unless he wishes for all of human kind to conform and follow a universal set of codes and laws, the moral obligations of each person shall remain inevitably different. Therefore, his world cannot exist, as stated in my thesis. In no way will every human being abide to the same moral logic and hence, adhere to his “giving to charity” master plan. It proves to be an idealistic world, but unattainable at best.