Peter Singer

Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality, in Larry May and others, Applied Ethics: A Multicultural Approach, Prentice Hall, 2011, 5th ed., pp. 220-227.

 

Singer argues that people have an obligation to prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care, regardless of where such suffering and death occurs in the world.

Singer first presents an argument that would require considerable sacrifice. This initial argument runs as follows: If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it; suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care is bad; there is some suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care we can prevent without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance; therefore, we ought to prevent some suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care. The obligation to relieve suffering and death from these causes need not reduce one to the hardship level, but the obligation arises when abundance is present–as Thomas Aquinas argues.

Although he favors the more stringent requirement that the affluent are required to give for famine relief unless they must sacrifice something of comparable moral significance, Singer is willing to accept a more moderate view–namely, that the affluent are required to give as long as they don’t sacrifice anything of moral significance. Even the fulfillment of this more moderate requirement would result in a great change in the way of life of citizens of wealthy nations.

Singer subscribes to a strict utilitarianism that accepts some constraints on property rights for the sake of preventing great evils. Lack of food, shelter, and medical care are great evils that can be prevented.

Singer finds that many people do not think along the lines he proposes on matters of poverty relief. Some who subscribe to a community-based morality, for example, hold that one should assist members of one’s own community, but relief for strangers is not as demanding. Singer rejects this limited community-oriented view in favor of universal liberal standards. Although his own preference is for the utilitarian standard of impartiality or equal treatment, Singer notes that a Kantian standard of universalizability would also support the claim that all persons in serious need are entitled to relief regardless of their geographical proximity.

 

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