A duty to give
This is the argument that we ought to save the lives of strangers when we can do so at relatively little cost to ourselves.
Australian philosopher Peter Singer says that where world poverty is concerned 'giving to charity' is neither charitable nor generous; it is no more than our duty and not giving would be wrong.
if you are living comfortably while others are hungry or dying from easily preventable diseases, and you are doing nothing about it, there is something wrong with your behavior.Peter Singer, Humility Kills, Jewcy, May 2007
Singer says we have a duty to reduce poverty and death simply because we can.
...the failure of people in the rich nations to make any significant sacrifices in order to assist people who are dying from poverty-related causes is ethically indefensible.It is not simply the absence of charity, let alone of moral saintliness: It is wrong, and one cannot claim to be a morally decent person unless one is doing far more than the typical comfortably-off person does.Peter Singer, Achieving the Best Outcome: Final Rejoinder, Ethics & International Affairs, 2002
This isn't the sort of duty that is enforceable, so it's charity in the sense that giving is up to you – no one will make you give.
Professor Singer puts his money where his mouth is and gives away around a quarter of his income to charity, although he says he should be giving away even more.
Why is it our duty to give?
Singer's argument goes like this
- suffering and death caused by lack of food, shelter, or medical care are bad
- 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
- 'Sacrifice' here means without causing anything else comparably bad to happen, or doing something that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good, comparable in significance to the bad thing that we can prevent
- for example: if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This may ruin my clothes but that would be insignificant while the death of the child would be very bad
- we can reduce avoidable death and suffering by giving to famine relief etc. and the cost of doing so is a morally insignificant reduction in our standard of living
- This argument applies both to immediate emergency famine relief and long term development aid.
- therefore we ought to give to famine relief etc.
Is this too demanding?
Singer's argument is clear, and when you consider the drowning child example, pretty seductive.
But it does impose very high obligations on those of us who live in comparatively rich countries, and it may be just too demanding.
- It limits our freedom to act
- Singer demands that we must always make the morally best choice, nothing less will do.
- This vastly reduces our freedom to make our own life choices as self-governing moral beings
- It may require us to act against our best interests
- It fails to recognise our own intrinsic moral value as persons
- But perhaps we could impose limits to this - accepting that our own moral value means we should not sacrifice the interests of ourselves or those closest to us in order to aid others so long, of course, as we do not behave selfishly
- It requires us not to favour those closest to us
- It requires us not to favour other moral concerns we may have
- i.e. not things that would benefit us, but other altruistic moral objectives we may want to fulfil
- but then why should my moral concerns be more important than any others?
Singer adds 'neither our distance from a preventable evil nor the number of other people who, in respect to that evil, are in the same situation as we are, lessens our obligation to mitigate or prevent that evil.'
- Should I treat people further away differently?
- No: It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbour's child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away.
- The fact that a person is physically near to us, so that we have personal contact with him, may make it more likely that we shall assist him, but this does not show that we ought to help him rather than another who happens to be further away.
- But there are millions of other people who could help - so why should I?
- One may feel less guilty about doing nothing if one can point to others, similarly placed, who have also done nothing. Yet this can make no real difference to our moral obligations.
- For example: Am I am less obliged to pull the drowning child out of the pond if on looking around I see other people, no further away than I am, who have also noticed the child but are doing nothing?
Do people in rich nations have a duty to give to the poor?
The philosopher Thomas Pogge argues that there are two very clear reasons why they do:
- Western colonisation and enslavement of poor countries is at least partly responsible for the conditions of the global poor
- The conduct of richer nations imposes and supports unjust global structures and systems that harm the global poor when alternatives that would do less harm are possible