Peter Singer's ethics suggest that helping the poor is our moral obligation. We focus the normative dimension of the problem of poverty and inequality and discuss if giving money to charity is simply our duty or a sign of generosity. Do you think charity any good?
Helping the poor as a moral obligation
Australian philosopher Peter Singer (see video below) popularized a moral argument about the extensive individual duties of aid to the global poor. For Peter Singer we ought to save the lives even of those we don't know or live very far away as soon as we can do it at very little cost to ourselves. On of the main ethical implications of Singer's reasoning is that giving money to charity is neither generous or charitable, it is simply our duty and not giving would be wrong. Thus, we have a moral obligation to help reduce poverty and prevent hunger, disease and death simply because we can. The failure of people in rich nations to make significant sacrifices to help the poorest, which usually live in developing countries, is ethically indefensible. Being charitable wouldn't make us "good", but failing to be charitable would make us "bad".
Peter Singer's is based on a moral and on an empirical premise:
- Moral: if it is in you power to prevent something bad, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, you ought to do it.
- Empirical: if you can save a life by giving a certain amount of money to charity, and giving this amount will not require you to give up anything of comparable moral importance, you ought to do it.
Singer invokes the Pond Case: if you are walking past a pond and see a child drowning in it, you ought to jump in the water and save it, although that would imply ruining your clothes and watch. The cost for you would be insignificat compared to the harm you would prevent.
We can reduce death and suffering by contributing to famine relief and development aid, we ought to do it.
However, Peter Singer's ethics is not universally accepted. These are some of the most important objections:
- Responsibility: singer makes no distinction between people who are responsible for the child (or the poor) and those who aren't. Have the citizens of all countries the same moral obligation to contribute?
- Burden sharing: what if the others are not helping or contributing? Are you still supposed to bear burden?
- Distance: Singer makes no mention to distance. People tend to care more about those close to them than about distant anonymous people they have never encounter ("out of sight, out of mind")
- Duties to those "near and dear": some argue that you should prioritize alleviating harm to those that are closer to you. Should people be concerned about the global poor or first try to solve the problem in their own town or country?
- Freedom to act: Singer's reasoning makes people to pursue always the general good rather than their own interests and projects.
- Charitable organizations' administrative costs are very high. A big share of the money given for charity does not reach the poor but is spent in salaries, trips, promotion and marketing.
- Is charity hypocritical? Some argue that charity is an "easy good" that gives us peace of mind but does not help changing the systemic problems that cause inequality and poverty. From this point of view in the long run charity could even be detrimental to global good.
- Charity may produce harm: There are also problems of poor coordination among donors, accusations of resources diverted to corrupt officers, doubts about the positive economic effects of foreign aid in local markets.
Do you agree with Peter Singer? Is helping the poor a moral obligation? Is charity necessary and good? Why? Vote and share your views on this important political, ethical and philosophical issue on the discussion forum below.
- Salomon, M. (2011) "Why should it matter that others have more? Poverty, Inequality, and the potential of international human rights law", Review of International Studies 37(5), pp. 2137-2155 (article)
- Singer, P (1972) 'Famine, Affluence, and Morality", Philosophy and Public Affairs 1(2), pp. 229-243 (article)
- Wenar, L. (2010) "Poverty is No Pond": Challenges for the Affluent", in Giving Well: The Ethics of Philanthropy, Illingworth, P., T. Pogge and L. Wenar (eds) Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Test yourself and find out how rich you are compared to the rest of the world population (click here)
Watch these very interesting videos with the contrasting views of two great contemporary philosophers: Peter Singer and Slavoj Žižek.
If you change your mind, you can change your vote simply by clicking on another option.
Helping the poor: do we have a moral obligation to give money to charity?
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