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Moral Obligations

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Singer’s goal in this article is “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing ourselves or dependents than we ought to morally do it” (Singer, 1972, p. 231). This means that if a person can help another person without sacrificing themselves in helping that person, than that person should help. Singer also argues that if people did act upon principle our lives, our society, and our world would fundamentally change.

Singer first argues that distance and proximity shouldn’t be taken into account when it comes to helping. He argues that it makes no moral difference whether the person you help is a neighbor ten yards away or a person in another country (Singer, 1972, p. 231-232). Singer also wants you to take into consideration that the principles don’t make a distinction between people. It doesn’t matter that it is just you or you and a million others in the same position. If someone is doing nothing, in moral terms, it is no different than the absence of people doing something (Singer, 1972).

Singer defends his second principle with our “moral obligation” a drowning child is used as an example. “Should one feel less obligated to pull a drowning child out of a pond, if on looking around you see other people, no further away than you, who are doing nothing?” (Singer, 1972, p. 233). This is a good example of, why should I do something, if they aren’t doing anything? This is what Singer means by moral obligation.

Singer’s argument for this is that everyone should donate a small amount. He uses a hypothetical example that if everyone where obligated to donate five dollars to the relief fund there would be enough to provide food, shelter, and medical care to the refugees. Singer also argues that as long as you are giving as much as you can without sacrificing yourself or your dependents than you should give as much as you can. Marginal utility is the more you have of something, the less beneficial that something is. So if someone is suffering and it’s not going to hurt you to help the suffering, therefore one should help.

Singer’s first objection is the difference between duty and charity.
Donating money is regarded as charity. A person who donates to charity is praised while the person who doesn’t donate is not condemned. It is also stated that people don’t feel ashamed or guilty for spending money on themselves. Singer is trying to point out that if a person can buy an outfit not to keep themselves warm but to look good or well dressed it is no important need. A person is not sacrificing anything bad or good by wearing old clothes. Singer’s point here is that it should be our duty as moral people to do the right thing no matter if it is an act of duty or an act of charity. An example of this distinction between act of duty and act of charity is in a particular society it is an act of duty to prevent people from killing and stealing so why isn’t it an act of duty when it comes to preventing people from malnutrition and shelter. When it comes to helping people less fortunate it is an act of charity when it should be an act of duty. Charity is supererogatory example is going beyond duty and beyond what is obligated. The point here is that people need to rethink their views on charity and realize that it should be our duty to help those that are in need of food, shelter, and medical care.

The moral point of view is stated, “the prevention of the starvation of millions of people outside our society must be considered at least as pressing as the upholding of property norms within our society” (Singer, 1972, p. 237). Morality requires us to look past our own society because the needs for those starving in other societies are just as pressing as our own, if not more so. Sedgwick and Urmson say that people need to have a “basic moral code” (Singer, 1972, p. 237). The moral codes shouldn’t require too much beyond what people are able to do. If they do, people will stop obeying the moral codes. Singer says that if people fail to do their duty by donating they wouldn’t go around killing people, and what people are able to do varies with different circumstances and is influenced by what others do as well as by what others expect of them to do.

Another objection of Singer’s is that direct relief is just a short term solution, and it will only delay additional problems. He puts forth an argument drawing on a conclusion of population control. If one is obligated to do as much as possible, than one should be obligated to prevent lack of food, shelter, and medical care, and promote population control, therefore preventing famine.

Singer favors the general principle that if it is in our power to preventing something bad from happening, without thereby causing something worse to occur, we ought, morally, to do it (Singer, 1972, p. 241). I can’t say that I agree with everything Singer says, I agree that if a person can help another person, without sacrificing themselves or dependents than that person should help. As a country I believe rich nations should help out the underprivileged countries, to a point, as long as those nations aren’t sacrificing their citizens. Singer goes on to say that if everyone reached the level of marginal utility would “prevent bad things from happening unless in doing so we would sacrifice something comparably moral significance” (Singer, 1972, p. 241).

I believe Singer makes some valid points on helping out with famine. Not all people can help and they shouldn’t be condemned for not helping. Like Singer says all circumstances are different. If I had more than what I needed and my dependents needed, I would help and donate. My objection to that is that all people have different standards of living, and for circumstances to be the same, everybody has to be willing to live at a lower standard. Then maybe the prevention of famine and population control can be taken care of.

Singer, P. (1972). Famine, affluence, and morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1(3), 229-243).

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