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International Aid in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (Essay Sample)


This essay explains Peter Singer\'s goal in his article \"Famine, Affluence, and Morality,\" provides three counterarguments to Singer\'s claims, defines his concept of \'marginal utility\', and compares the concepts of duty and charity as presented by Singer.


International Aid in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”

International Aid in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”
Peter Singer, in his 1972 influential article titled “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” offers a seemingly scourging critique of the ordinary outlook by individuals and developed nations regarding charity, famine relief, and morality. He contends that it is in the power of such nations to prevent the happening of bad things without sacrificing something of equivalent moral significance. More than four decades later, this kind of ethical reasoning appears valid, particularly in view of the deferral of foreign aid commitment by many developed nations. After all, nothing commands a moral importance equivalent to that of the very survival and, indeed, the welfare of the most vulnerable people in the world (Singer, 1972, p. 229). While Singer’s considerations reveal that people should do significantly more than is currently being done, they fail to establish his ratiocinations in their full strength. His point of view admits of a partial solution, which once suitably qualified may lead to some conviction.
Singer rationalizes his claim that developed nations have a moral obligation to assist poorer nations by providing an analogy of a person who witnesses a drowning child. He posits that the person is morally obligated to save the child from drowning. According to Singer, this duty exists because it is accepted that the site of a drowning child is not a good thing. Therefore, if an individual has a moral duty to rescue a drowning child, it is sensible to extend this moral duty to protecting poorer nations from famine and starvation. This duty exists regardless of how people choose to act (Barnett & Weiss, 2008, p. 143). There are a number of counter-arguments that could be offered to Singer’s perspective. First, while this argument may seem uncontroversial and straightforward at first glance, it fails to take into account distance or proximity. Singer assumes that no matter how far or close one is to the source of agony, the moral obligation to assuage that suffering remains the same. To address this counter-argument, Singer alludes to the concept of equality.
Based on the moral concepts of impartiality and equality, Singer argues that it is not proper to discriminate against someone based on proximity and that someone’s distance does not make their agony any less worthy of the moral duty to help. The needs of an individual in Bengal cannot be looked at based on his distance if the principles of equality and impartiality are to be considered (Singer, 1972, p. 790). Second, Singer tackles the possible counter-argument that individuals may be unable to appraise the needs of Bengal people in a proper manner because their money may be able to benefit the less fortunate in their own communities. According to Singer, globalization has rendered this argument unacceptable. He argues that aid organizations have become extremely efficient, and the plights of Bengal people have been widely publicized by news agencies across the globe.
Another possible counter-argument to Singer’s position is that Singer fails to distinguish between cases where the individual is the only entity in a position to intervene and cases where the individual is just a single entity among millions who are in a position to alleviate the agony of the less fortunate (Singer, 1972, p. 790). This means that the response of other people to this suffering has no consequence on moral duty. Put more clearly, this counter-argument suggests that if everyone gave a certain fixed contribution, then there would be enough of a desired cumulative contribution. In this manner, the moral duty of a person would not extend beyond the fixed individual contribution. However, Singer responds to this counter-argument by contending that the first section of the conditional statement assumes a hypothetical premise that every individual does contribute. In the event that not every individual contributes, then giving the specified individual contribution will not be adequate in attaining the desired cumulative contribution. Therefore, a collective moral obligation exists until the desired cumulative contribution is attained. This condition rests upon a situation in which each individual contributes, which is not possible.
Because the situation seems to be that few individuals are likely to contribute significant amounts, it follows that every individual in similar circumstances should contribute as much as possible, at least to the extent that by contributing more, one would cause serious suffering to both himself or herself, as well as their dependants. Singers defines the point of marginal utility as that at which by contributing more, one would bring as much suffering to themselves and their dependants as one would preclude suffering in Bengal. Having defended the key aspects of his principle, Singer comes out against the current moral categorization of charity and duty. According to Singer, with the current differentiation between charity and duty, charitable individuals receive praise while those who are not charitable are condemned (Singer, 1972, p. 792). This contravenes Singer’s principle. Every individual has a duty to contribute financially towards famine relief, as well as other causes or drives that are typically considered as charity.
The limit still exists that nothing that is morally significant should be sacrificed (Singer, 1972, p. 790). However, an affluent individual contributing five percent of his or her wealth towards famine relie...
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