Response to Famine, Affluence and Morality by Peter Singer
Singer’s argument in Famine, Affluence and Morality brings about a series of objections, some of which he addresses, along with some he does not mention. I will be making the claim that there are, at least, two objections that Singer does not acknowledge in writing his argumentative essay. I will be describing Singer’s argument briefly, following this, I will detail the objections that he does not examine along with the possible responses to each. These responses will be from both my perspective and what I presume to be Singer’s perspective after analyzing his argument.
Singer’s argument can be summarized as a principle of preventing “bad” occurrences. If a government or an individual can prevent something negative from happening, without either (a) causing something equally bad to happen or (b) giving up something good enough to completely offset the “bad”, then that person or government entity ought to do so. With this claim, it is therefore bad for anyone to suffer or die from destitution, for example. Additionally, governments and people ought to help as many destitute individuals as possible, as efficiently as possible and to the fullest extent, without creating an “offsetting bad” or forgoing a “compensating good”. If governments and residents of more developed nations were to sacrifice most of the things on which they spend their resources, and instead were to direct those resources to helping as many destitute people as possible, as efficiently as possible, then that redirection would not create any offsetting negative occurrences or forgo a compensating good . As it is the case that this redirection would not create any offsetting negative occurrences or forgo a compensating good, Singer’s argument is that the governments and citizens of more developed nations ought to sacrifice many of the things on which they spend their resources on in order to help those who find themselves impoverished and without the means to live with even a minimal level of well-being. Singer believes that the most efficient way for governments and citizens of developed nations to help as many of the destitute as possible over the long term is to greatly increase the amount they give to foreign aid and to foreign disaster relief. As this is the most efficient way to lend a helping hand, so to speak, Singer makes the claim that the governments and citizens of these more developed nations ought to significantly increase the amount that they give to foreign disaster relief efforts and foreign aid.
Although Singer addresses a fair amount of objections in his piece, I am making the claim that Singer does not acknowledge at least two objections that are crucial to provide further support with regard to his argument. The first objection is as follows: “What if the money I do send to foreign aid or disaster relief, does not get properly dispersed to those who need it most? Should we still send monetary resources, knowing they could be misdirected?” Meaning, money that is sent may end up in the hands of those that are already affluent and not those who are destitute and require it. These individuals who are in charge of non-governmental foreign aid relief organizations or even those who may be in the government sectors could claim that they are more than willing to deliver the funds or resources to those in need, yet, in actuality, intend to “pocket” that money to maintain their own sense of flourishing. It could also be the case that donated money is simply lost, to either general mismanagement or outright theft and corruption.
A possible response from Singer’s perspective in regards to the objection formed: If you have the power to help anyone, anywhere, by sacrificing less than they would gain, then you are morally obligated to provide this type of aid. If it is the case that you have tried to donate to what you perceive to be a worthy cause and the funds do not make it to where they ought to, then the moral virtue lies in the attempt to prevent negative occurrences/suffering, as the most efficient way to provide aid in the modern world is through monetary transactions to charitable organizations.
My response: Although it could be the case that the moral virtue lies in the mere attempt of donating funds, I will suggest that there is more that could be done than to simply donate funds to charitable organizations, of which, some may find those funds misdirected. One action that could be taken in the case that you are worried that funds you send will get misdirected, or if it is the case that you do not have much money of your own, is to prevent suffering in a different manner. A couple of these charitable actions include but are not limited to: volunteering your time and labor instead of money to help those in need as well as donating homemade items or used belongings. Another action that one could take would be to thoroughly research charities prior to donating money to them. As an example, there are numerous sources detailing which charities to not donate to and the reasons why the funds may get directed away from those who need it most. Knowing how a charitable organization operates and disperses funds would be crucial to recognizing if it would be worthwhile and truly helpful to send the monetary means to these organizations.
The second objection: “‘Suffering’ may not be the same for everyone, it is a subjective term. If this is the case, how do we know the ‘type’ of suffering we should direct our focus towards? How do we know who to send money to if a myriad of people claim to be suffering and need assistance/help?”
A possible response from Singer’s perspective: Suffering is caused most simply and directly by a lack of the most basic resources, as is the case, anyone who is lacking basic resources such as, clean water/air, enough food to survive, adequate shelter and so on, is in a position of suffering. If we have or are able to gain access to the most basic of these resources easily, then we ought to help those that do not live by the same means.
My response: Without delving into the validity of individual suffering, it is important to be critical of the degree of our own suffering and to ask important questions. I think it is very accurate in that there are multiple ways to suffer, but speaking purely towards physical suffering, meaning the lacking of basic resources, we must ask if we have the basic means to survive and thrive. If we have adequate shelter, food, water and so forth, then we must acknowledge that we are privileged in this way. To acknowledge privilege is, in some sense, to acknowledge that you are not suffering to the same degree that others are. If you have privilege in a certain aspect of your life, I believe it is then necessary for you to do what is in your power to help those get the privileges you have. For instance, if it is the case that you have clean water, clean air, a safe place to sleep at night, enough food to survive and so on, then it is crucial for you to help those who are suffering in the way that you are not, so that they may not suffer any longer.
Singer, Peter. Famine, Affluence, and Morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 1,
No. 3 (Spring 1972) 229-243.