Introduction to Philosophical Problems: Peter Singer
Peter Singer is the utilitarian philosopher who analyzes the problems of allied morality. Famine, Affluence, and Morality (Singer, 1972) can be called one of the most well known essays of the author. It was published in Philosophy and Public Affairs and touches the question why some people live in extreme poverty, while the others are leading a luxurious life. According to his opinion, the Western countries where the majority of people are affluent in comparison to the countries of the third world, must give more money to the poor, because it is their moral duty.
The philosophers that support the deontic egalitarian approach to the problem of the poor from a slightly different point of view. Thus, poverty is considered to be morally unjust by its nature. In my opinion, both of the approaches are not efficient in fighting the problem of extreme poverty and extreme affluence for a number of reasons.
Deontic egalitarians do not propose the ways out to the problems, while Singer and his utilitarian approach is too naïve about the human nature. The egalitarians seem to idealize the reality and to sigh tragically whenever injustice happens. Singer, in his turn, seems to be a repenting sinner, who makes all possible attempts to give the poor food, so that his soul would be soothed and the pictures of tragedy would not bother him anymore. In my opinion, nothing of what these two approaches propose is effective to overcome the poverty.
Deontic egalitarians do not propose practical ways out of the poverty problem. They tend to state that being partially blind is much better that being absolutely blind (Temkin, 2003).That means that if we were lucky enough from our birth to live in a rich industrial country, we make this horrible world where hunger exists not that horrible only by the fact of our existence. Singer wants to the poor food that was not produced by them. It would still their hunger once or twice, but the problem of poverty would remain. Instead of giving them food, it would be much better to give them technologies, sources and organizations who are able to start the production of that food. It would give people who are now dieing from hunger work, shelter and nutrition. A stable economy is the key to overcoming poverty, but not substantial donations.
The logical frame of the discussion in the article Famine, Affluence, and Morality (Singer, 1972) starts with the affirmation that when people do not have access to medical care, shelter and enough food to support their lives, it is bad. Singer states that it depends upon the people of rich countries whether they allow it to happen or not. It is the moral duty of everyone who has more money that he/she needs to share it with the poor. The philosopher emphasizes that it does not matter who the person helps. It can be a neighbor who the helper knows in person or it can be a child in Africa who is dieing from hunger and whose name will remain unknown to the helper. The last stage of Singer’s logic argument is that is does not mater whether the person is the only one to help or he/she is among the millions of those who want to share with the poor.
Though, the main accent in the article is not on this frame and the logical connections between the conclusions are not quite direct. Perhaps, the author had made all possible attempts to make his argument drown in the ocean of words, that were written not to reach the reader’s ratio, but to strike his/her pathos. That is why this logical frame is of the argument is decorated with bright examples that might obviously persuade the majority of people. The most memorable of the examples is the one about a child drowning in the pond. The readers need to imagine an angelic looking child who sinks in the pond and it is the moral obligation of the person who passes near to save this child. Singer writes that the person has to do it even if he/she will spoil the pair of new designer shoes. In this case it is impossible to think whether there is anyone else near by to save the child and just to jump into the pond and do what is required from a morally normal person.
The example is quite good and I partially agree with it. Partially in this case means during the first reading of the article. Then I started to think why the concept of a new pair of shoes was used in it. It is doubtful that people think about their clothes when the problem is whether to save someone’s life or not. The questions they might ask themselves are whether they can really help or they will drown together with that child, because the pond is surrounded by vertical walls and they will not be able to get out of it.
Another issue for doubts is whether the person who sees a drowning child can swim by him/herself or perhaps he/she is seriously ill after pneumonia and will certainly die after swimming in the cold water in winter. Chances are that the person who sees a drowning child is a mother of three small children and she is not a hero by her nature. There is mostly always a great number of objections to such unsubstantiated claims, that is why the example can be considered as not logical. It will be more appropriate in the propagandistic literature than in the philosophical article. Though, the most interesting detail in this example is a pair of new shoes. It is used to make the readers ashamed of being greedy products of the consumerist society without soul. In fact, it is an example of a simple ethical manipulation.
Another peculiar issue in the essay Famine, Affluence, and Morality (Singer, 1972) is the idea that the entire culture of giving should be changed. Being charitable is considered to be good, moral, but still not obligatory. It the person does not give money to the poor, he/she is not perceived as a bad person in the Western society. The normal traditional morality supposes that charity is supererogatory, that means it is not a must, but it is praiseworthy. Singer wants to change this point of view so that it would be a shame not to give money to those who need it. He writes:
“People do not feel in any way ashamed or guilty about spending money on new clothes or a new car instead of giving it to famine relief. (Indeed, the alternative does not occur to them.) This way of looking at the matter cannot be justified. When we buy new clothes not to keep ourselves warm but to look ‘well-dressed’ we are not providing for any important need” (Singer, 1972).
This idea seems strange and absolutely Utopian to me. The contemporary mass media can definitely change the ideas about good and evil, but it requires several decades and millions of money to do it. In addition, the ruling elite that controls the free mass media does not seem to be interested in the popularization of such philanthropic ideas.
From the point of view of an average person, having a moral obligation to someone who is suffering from the disaster that is unknown to that particular person is very difficult to achieve. The giving person needs to be connected somehow with this problem. Perhaps, he/she have to go through famine in order to have moral obligations to help those who suffer from hunger. Otherwise the connection is not strong and the human nature is not on that high stage of development to understand it in theory (Corbett, 1995).
Another important participant of the ethical dilemma that is described in Famine, Affluence, and Morality (Singer, 1972) is the Affluent. I chose to write it from the capital letter and in the singular form because it seems to be a universal evil that is undivided and guarding its own interests. It is similar to the concept of the state as the biblical monster Leviathan, introduced by Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century. The philosopher develops his theory from the assumption that the natural state of all people can be described as the war of everyone against everyone, which is bellum omnium contra omnes in Latin. The state is the result of the social consensus that someone has to regulate their relations and thus to rule them. It is not strange that with the time the ruling elite has accumulated substantial wealth, and controls the biggest part of money and resources in the world. The question is why this evil Leviathan does not try to help the poor starving children in Africa, who are dieing from malaria and lack of drinking water. It seems that the philosophers and people who were just lucky to be born in more stable conditions that the children in the Central Africa are the only one to worry about the destiny of the dieing ones. In fact, it seems senseless to me to participate in such rat race, donating, struggling, hoping for the better outcome, and achieving nothing in the result. The power and the money that the depressive regions like the Central Africa require are in the hands of that mythical Leviathan, and no one will care about those people if the region is not perspective in economical or geopolitical sense. I understand that this thought might seem cruel, but the entire initiative of personal moral obligations seems to be hopeless.
The ideas expressed by deontic egalitarians are similar to the ones from the essay of Singer. They can be called the general conclusions for the utilitarian work of Singer. According to the egalitarian point of view, inequality is not just intrinsically and from the moral perspective it is bad. The deontic egalitarian might say that those people who were from their birth unequal to the others are just unfortunate, so there is nothing bad in it, because this inequality does not depend from the outer factors. Though, the main question in this discussion is whether being born in different places is a natural inequality or this notion refers only to genetic diseases like having no hands or brains.
The example of the egalitarian way of thinking is the following. It is assumed that a nation is struggling from hunger, morbid diseases and civil war in the country, and people from other countries need to help them. The egalitarians do not try to impose moral obligations on people like Singer proposes, but they state that the others have to give them money, because they have more of it (Frankfurt, 1997). Such explanation seems extremely simplified and vulgar to me. Having something in abundance does not necessarily mean that the part of it belongs to starving people. It is better to explain the need of helping by the idea that there is no human being that deserves such existence. Dieing from hunger is unworthy of a human, and it is even more unworthy not to help those people survive with at least minimum human dignity. Starvation is terrible for every human being regardless their place of birth, and in this everyone is equal.
In general, the problem of feeding the hungry and keeping the homeless warm is a very complicated ethical issue. There is a great number of nuances that require much attention, such as the motivation to help, the ways of help, etc. Singer, as a utilitarian philosopher, proposes to change the tradition human understanding of what is charity and to make it not only a praiseworthy activity, but an obligation for everyone. I absolutely agree with Corbett (1995) who writes that the it is impossible and even harmful to make every person become responsible for all misery of the world, because in this case the notion of personal responsibility of every individual for him/herself is annihilated. This thought is quite unreal, because it contradicts the human nature.
The egalitarians claim that all people are equal and that is why those, who have more, need to give the poor what they have. These ideas are definitely taken from the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, with a minor difference: the communists proposed to build a social state first, but not only to give humanitarian aid. In this case I support the ancient Biblical parable, that says that if you give someone a fish, it will feed him for a day. But is you teach him to fish, he will be fed for a lifetime. Helping the countries who are in ruins to build a stable economy is much better than charitable giving.
Corbett, B. (1995). Moral Obligations to Distant Others. Web. Retrieved from: <http://www2.webster.edu/~corbetre/philosophy/moral/others/distant.html>
Frankfurt, H. (1997). Equality and Respect. Social Research, Vol. 64, No. 1, 3-15.
Singer, Peter. (1972). Famine, Affluence, and Morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs. 1 (3): 229–243. Princeton University Press.
Temkin, L. (2003). Egalitarism Defended. Ethics, Vol. 113, No. 4, 764-782.