Thursday, 16 January 1986

On Peter Singer's Famine, Affluence And Morality (2008)

Peter Singer argues that we ought, morally, to prevent starvation due to famine. Singer begins by saying that assistance has been inadequate as richer countries prioritise development above preventing starvation. Singer then states that ‘suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad’ and assumes that it is uncontroversial enough to be accepted without justification. He then next raises the linked premise that we morally ought to prevent something ‘bad’ from happening as long as we have the means and it does not entail compromising on anything of ‘comparable moral significance’, using the analogy of a drowning child and hence assuming the principle of universalizability. As Singer writes, he attempts to justify why he feels that it is within our means to do so without sacrificing anything morally significant, and concludes that we hence morally ought to prevent starvation due to famine.

Singer anticipates objections and the first of which is that as the drowning child is nearer to us than the starving Bengali, the moral obligation is therefore seemingly reduced. Singer responds that this merely affects the likelihood of who receives aid first, but it still holds that we should be indiscriminate with the amount of help given to people especially when the world is becoming a ‘global village’. Singer also anticipates the objection that there other people who are standing around not doing anything anyway. He contends that there is a psychological difference but the moral implications are still the same as it is absurd to be less obliged to help the drowning child even if there were many others idling around; likewise for the starving Bengali.

However, Singer’s drowning child analogy, though inductively strong to some extent, is not cogent enough to deny the fact that the helping agent in question is exposed to differing sets of knowledge in the two different scenarios. In the drowning child case, the agent can determine with reasonable certainty that the child’s fate lies entirely in his hands. There is no issue of being affected by any bystanders or not knowing what kind of assistance to deliver, and he can be confident that there are minimal unforeseen and undesirable consequences resulting from his efforts. In donating to countries, the agent cannot say the same about the level of certainty with regards to the help he is providing. The agent doesn’t know if there are any better means of help available or if the money he donates will ever reach the ones in need. While we are entitled to morally judge inaction in the case of the drowning child, we cannot judge as harshly for the case of overseas aid as Singer attempts to do so here.

Singer also makes an assumption about the innocence of the drowning child. We cannot say for sure if the suffering of others is thoroughly undeserved. The money provided might end up in the hands of children manipulated by bad adults or the government for example. Essentially, Singer’s principle of universality fails to hold out here, as the immorality of not giving money cannot compare to the immorality of not saving a drowning child.

Singer then attempts to qualify another point. If starvation could be curbed given that everyone gave $X, there is no reason why one should give more than others and hence one should give only $X. However, it seems plausible that people should give as much as possible since not everyone will give $X and, as it is known, giving more than $X will naturally prevent more suffering. Paradoxically, if everyone does give more than $X – there will be too much money and this is a worse off outcome as people’s sacrifices will count for nothing. Singer’s response to this is that, however unlikely this outcome is, while there may be unfairness as those giving later will not be obligated to give as much once they are able to determine how much more money is needed to be contributed, it is still better than letting people starve.

In view of his points so far, Singer is aware of the fact that our moral frameworks would be affected because giving is traditionally considered a form of charity, not a form of duty. Singer attacks this by reiterating his point, based on the principle of comparable moral significance, that we ought to donate our luxury money, which is any income beyond marginal utility, as otherwise spending it on clothes to look good rather than keep warm would be preventing another person from being liberated from starvation. Ultimately, Singer points out that, although such change may seem too drastic, people should still revise their mindset that it is wrong to believe that while a charitable man deserves praise, a non-charitable man should not condemned.

Singer references an article written by Urmson that the imperatives of duty are existent as a social guide, and hence additional things that are good but not essential in social terms are merely charitable. Singer argues that this is not a justification but only an explanation as to why would we punish someone for stealing rather than not helping someone in need outside of one’s society. In response to proposed arguments from writers that morality would breakdown if the ideology suggested by Singer was adopted, he counters that it is like saying that if we tell people not to murder and help relieve famines, they will do neither; if we tell people not to murder and that it is a good thing to help relieve famines though it is not wrong not to do so, they will at least not murder. To him, this then precedes the issue that we will have difficulty in drawing the line between conduct that is required and conduct that is good although not required.

Here, Singer commits the fallacy of hasty generalisation, as he attempts to appeal to our emotions by comparing two extreme cases – murder and providing relief – and his example, biased as it is, is barely applicable in the realm of daily dealings. While he asserts consistency, it would be hard for anybody to accept that it is as easy as it seems to compare between murder and relief of famines against, say, doing community work and providing relief for famines.

Singer then states that it would seem to follow that we ought to work full time in order to maximise our output and to relieve the misery of others. He asserts that even when the implications of working full time have been taken into account, such as the unpleasantness of work overload, it still stands that we should give as much as we can.

Throughout his writing of comparable moral significances, Singer assumes that it is clearly definable in determining the value of saving a starving child as it is to determine the value of indulging in ‘unnecessary’ luxury (and hence that luxury money should be donated), for example by saying that $30 is worth much more to a starving person than a book lover, which seems sound especially when extreme cases are compared. However, this notion of value is flawed as value does not exist in the object itself but rather the amount of sacrifice one is willing to put for it. For example, I may think that spending $300 on a Nintendo Wii is worth it, but not $300 for a necklace; but my girlfriend would not pay $300 for a Nintendo Wii and instead gladly pay $300 for a necklace. As such, an object whose value is posited based on personal preference can have infinitely many values. Singer’s argument for comparable moral significance rests, once again, on a shaky rhetoric that targets the reader’s emotions. We can revisit the question, “are you really going to buy that shirt that won’t keep you warm instead of saving the life of a Bengali?” But a concrete determination of this relation in value or morality is still not substantially made.

Conclusively, Singer addresses points that challenge the idea that giving away money is the best means to such an end, the first of which is that overseas aid is the government’s responsibility, and it can also be assumed that too many private donations can discourage governmental aid. Singer retorts that the opposite seems more probable – if the citizens do not show interest in giving voluntarily, the government has no way of knowing that the people care.

The second and more serious contention is that population control takes precedence over short term monetary aid, as without population control, we are prolonging and increasing misery. Singer rebuts this by not stating what the cause of this poverty cycle is but instead says that if we believe in other outlets, then we should still donate to them. Hence, arguments against him based on the idea that donating is like giving a hungry man fish but not teaching him to fish would fail as he would maintain that we should then donate to this ‘teach them how to fish’ cause.

Lastly, if one accepts Singer’s view, then in accordance to the strong version of the principle of preventing bad outcomes one should give until he has reached the level of marginal utility, which is as good as a starving Bengali which seems undesirable. Singer, anticipatedly, puts forth a moderate version where one does only need give substantially, providing an allowance for variations in personal judgments of moral significance.

We can revisit the drowning child analogy and argue against his first and second points that it is more reasonable for a person to be cynical about overseas aid than diving straight in to save a drowning child. There is an adequate amount of food produced, but it is more often poor governmental policies that result in an inefficient allocation of resources and hence resulting in poverty. There is a correlation between poor governance and poor nations, and we can be skeptical especially when the money would go to places with poor governmental policies. It would then seem more relevant to consider overseas aid as a form of government responsibility. His final point is flawed on the account of subjectivity – as argued earlier, what counts as strong or moderate no longer holds in the light of the indefiniteness of ‘value’. Furthermore, it is still hard to imagine committing one’s excesses to the point of marginal utility. This has severe economic repercussions if everyone adopts the idea, as economies are more fragile than Singer thinks. Additionally, even if we concede that we should all donate $X to the poor, this resembles a regressive tax where the middle and lower class donates a higher proportion than the rich. On these grounds, too, Singer’s proposal cannot be considered a good one. Secondly, much of wealth is tied down in assets. An electrician’s wealth is not merely the money that he makes each year but is the small business that he owns and the ability to sustain earnings. It would hence be absurd for him to send his tools overseas hoping to alleviating poverty.

Fundamentally, Singer’s strength in his proposition is in providing a coherent and sound argument. However, his conclusion is true only insofar as his premises hold, but they lean on foundations and assumptions that lack weight other than the conviction of emotional appeal. If we reject Singer’s assumptions, which are at best idealistic and at worst absurd, his argument falls apart. While we can understand that something should be done about famines, there are however enough points to substantiate why I disagree with him as it is hard to buy Singer’s proposed solutions.

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