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Famine, Affluence, Morality

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  • Pages: 5
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  • Category: Ethics

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Based on the article by Peter Singer entitled Famine, Affluence, and Morality, he attempts to move us to do more for charities and gives one astounding example. He uses starving children in Bengali and a drowning child. He argues that people have many different reasons to [delete] why they do not donate. His vision is that the people and the government should take care of the problem. He uses a great illustrative imaginative scenario. Basically, let’s say you are walking down the path by the local pond. You have just purchased a brand new pair of running pants worth $100. You see a young child drowning and screaming for help. You have a moral obligation to save that childs[‘s] life and you will sacrifice your brand new pants without question. The child’s life is worth more than your new pair of pants and you do not hesitate to ruin them for the child. Singer says it best, “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything else morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.” (Singer, 1972)

He is basically saying that if by saving that child you do not sacrifice anything, in this case the rescuer’s life, of equal moral importance you should do it. This is where it gets interesting. He presents the idea that by the same token if you could give up the value of the clothes you were wearing to save that child’s life, you should be willing to donate that same value to a child who needs that as well. In his article he uses the Bengali children as an example. Singer states, “For the principle takes, firstly, no account of proximity or distance. It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away.” (Singer, 1972). For Singer to say that, he is stating that no matter if you know the child or if you never will know the child, it makes no difference. You have that moral obligation to help that child in need. We cannot all agree on that can we?

Let’s expand on his theory. Obviously, the drowning child next to you makes it easier to judge what needs to be done to solve the situation. What about the Bengali starving child. Is that child just as in need as it has a strong chance of dying? Is it because we are not next to that starving child that we do not provide the necessary care that he or she deserves?

Peter also understands that it is only one child that is drowning and you can say to yourself, “Well, I do not have enough resources to help the thousands of dying children from Bengali. I am only one person!” He explains that in the world we live in now, those excuses are not valid. I believe he is saying that we have the ability now with modern technology and transportation to help these people just as easily as you can help the drowning child in front of you. What used to be near impossible for the average person to do, in regards to traveling to Africa or donating to a charity online, is now as easy as checking your email. Of course, at the time of him writing this article there was no such thing as the internet, but it only helps to prove his point. There really is no moral excuse to why you cannot help the starving children if you can help the drowning child.

One can also argue that, if there was more people than you around at the time the child was drowning, would you feel less obligated to help. By the same thinking, do you feel less guilty about not helping the starving children in Bengali if your neighbor or co-workers do not either?

He states that in this situation, if everyone paid 5 pound sterling to the Bengali Relief Fund, it would provide enough for all of the refugees to have food and shelter. It brings up the point that not everyone is going to donate. So, should you feel obligated to donate more? Should you be obligated to not donate at all? After all, your friends are not donating either. Singer understands that this is unlikely that it will happen, and not everyone will donate. He believes that by him donating more than the 5 pound sterling, he will aid more. But of course, you already knew that would be the result.

Singer, in this entire article, is trying to get one thing across and it is perfectly clear. He sums it up midway through his article. Singer says, “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything else morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it” (Singer, 1972) Singer is educating the masses into believing that there is not a difference between duty and charity as once thought. Perhaps “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of moral importance, we ought, morally, to do so” is a better way to think. (Peterson, 2004) If you had the means to dispose of your nice clothes to save that drowning child (duty) then you have the money to donate that same sum to the Bengali Relief Fund (charity). Singer says it is the same when you look at it.

I agree with most of what Peter Singer was trying to convey in this article. If the baby is ugly you have to call it ugly. There is no way, in my opinion, that he is incorrect. If you have the means to help the problem in front of you, and it will cause you no moral sacrifice in doing so, then you have an obligation to help others in need. It also means that you should help those in need even if you will never see that person that you helped. The only issue I have is in donating to a fund that actually uses all of the money to help what it is intended to help, minus the costs of operating the relief effort. In my own life, before reading this in its entirety, would not have donated to the Bengali children but would have saved the drowning child. After reading his article, I can see the errors in my reasoning before.


Peterson, M. (2004). Foreign Aid and the Moral Value of Freedom. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 7(3), 293-307.

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