Peter Singer on our obligation to alleviate suffering

Karl Marx stated, ‘the philosophers have merely interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it’. Marx’s sentiment is, I think, shared by many; philosophy can be seen to be an abstract pursuit, and philosophers far-removed from everyday concerns. One philosopher who cannot, however, be accused of such abstraction is Peter Singer. Singer is rightly heralded as a philosopher at the forefront of Applied Ethics, the area where philosophy comes into direct contact with ‘the real world’.

In Examined Life, Astra Taylor places Singer at the heart of Manhattan, among boutiques and fast-food joints. Against this backdrop of wanton consumerism, Singer presents some of his most significant contributions to the field. In his Famine, Affluence, and Morality (1972), Singer asks us to consider the following argument:

  • Premise 1: Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad
  • Premise 2: 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
  • Premise 3: It is in our power to help prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance
  • Conclusion: Therefore, we ought to help prevent suffering and death

We cannot argue with the validity of the argument here; but, if we are to establish its soundness, we must ensure the truth of the premises, thereby guaranteeing the truth of the conclusion. Now, premise 1 seems to me to be uncontroversial. There are few who would doubt that suffering and avoidable death are bad things. In support of premise 2, Singer provides his famous pond thought-experiment:

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 will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

I think we must all agree that anyone refusing to rescue the child, on account that he would ruin his clothing, would be considered a moral monster. Yet Singer’s point is that most of us act in such a reprehensible way most of the time, by, for example, spending money on luxury clothing rather than sending the same money to help save starving children. The fact that these children are thousands of miles away, or that there are many others who could help them, makes no significant difference to Singer.

Firstly, aid agencies and NGOs have frameworks in place that can deliver aid quickly and effectively across thousands of miles. This option may not have been open to us in the past but is now. Some may state that, even though it is possible to help others in faraway places, charity should still ‘begin at home’. While this may have made sense in the past, Singer believes that we ought to have more concern for those in absolute poverty in the third world, rather than the relative poverty of those in developed countries.

Secondly, the fact that there are others who can help is irrelevant. Suppose, for example that there were other people around the aforementioned pond, equally able to help but doing nothing. Does that mean that I should not help the drowning child? As such, unless we believe that our wearing designer clothes, driving executive cars, or eating in expensive restaurants is of more moral importance that the suffering and death of millions of people around the world, it seems clear that we ought to sacrifice some of these things in order to help out. Furthermore, most of us in the developed world are fortunate enough to be in a position to make this sacrifice (premise 3), therefore, we must accept the conclusion of the argument. But what exactly would this mean for us and how we live our lives?

Giving money to the starving would no longer be an act of charity, it would be our duty. Where would our obligation stop? Would we have to give maximally, until the point that what we are sacrificing is of more moral importance that the bad we are helping prevent? Although these are indeed questions to which Singer must respond, it seems clear that the least we can do is to do more than we are already doing: a portion of our income; giving up a holiday; eating out less often; having less pairs of shoes, etc. It is likely that such sacrifice would be enough to alleviate the suffering in the world to a level where no further is needed. Peter Singer donates 25% of his salary to charity; he suggests that those of us that can afford it donate too, even if only 1% of our income. Please see Singer’s The Life You Can Save site for further details.

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