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Based on the attached reading, students are to carefully read the work in question, and to critically assess it
through a presentation of the author’s main idea(s), strengths and weaknesses of the argument, historical and
literary contexts, contemporary applications, and other salient themes. Outside research welcome to help
sustain key points, but analysis and reflection is the top priority.
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Famine, Affluence, and Morality: Poverty Article Essay
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Famine, Affluence, and Morality, by Peter Singer
http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/1972—-.htm
Famine, Affluence, and Morality
PETER SINGER
Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring 1972), pp. 229-243 [revised edition]
As I write this, in November 1971, people are dying in East Bengal from lack of food, shelter, and medical
care. The suffering and death that are occurring there now are not inevitable, not unavoidable in any
fatalistic sense of the term. Constant poverty, a cyclone, and a civil war have turned at least nine million
people into destitute refugees; nevertheless, it is not beyond the capacity of the richer nations to give
enough assistance to reduce any further suffering to very small proportions. The decisions and actions of
human beings can prevent this kind of suffering. Unfortunately, human beings have not made the
necessary decisions. At the individual level, people have, with very few exceptions, not responded to the
situation in any significant way. Generally speaking, people have not given large sums to relief funds;
they have not written to their parliamentary representatives demanding increased government assistance;
they have not demonstrated in the streets, held symbolic fasts, or done anything else directed toward
providing the refugees with the means to satisfy their essential needs. At the government level, no
government has given the sort of massive aid that would enable the refugees to survive for more than a
few days. Britain, for instance, has given rather more than most countries. It has, to date, given
£14,750,000. For comparative purposes, Britain’s share of the nonrecoverable development costs of the
Anglo-French Concorde project is already in excess of £275,000,000, and on present estimates will reach
£440,000,000. The implication is that the British government values a supersonic transport more than
thirty times as highly as it values the lives of the nine million refugees. Australia is another country
which, on a per capita basis, is well up in the “aid to Bengal” table. Australia’s aid, however, amounts to
less than one-twelfth of the cost of Sydney’s new opera house. The total amount given, from all sources,
now stands at about £65,000,000. The estimated cost of keeping the refugees alive for one year is
£464,000,000. Most of the refugees have now been in the camps for more than six months. The World
Bank has said that India needs a minimum of £300,000,000 in assistance from other countries before the
end of the year. It seems obvious that assistance on this scale will not be forthcoming. India will be
forced to choose between letting the refugees starve or diverting funds from her own development
program, which will mean that more of her own people will starve in the future. [1]
These are the essential facts about the present situation in Bengal. So far as it concerns us here, there is
nothing unique about this situation except its magnitude. The Bengal emergency is just the latest and
most acute of a series of major emergencies in various parts of the world, arising both from natural and
from manmade causes. There are also many parts of the world in which people die from malnutrition and
lack of food independent of any special emergency. I take Bengal as my example only because it is the
present concern, and because the size of the problem has ensured that it has been given adequate
publicity. Neither individuals nor governments can claim to be unaware of what is happening there.
What are the moral implications of a situation like this? In what follows, I shall argue that the way
people in relatively affluent countries react to a situation like that in Bengal cannot be justified;
indeed, the whole way we look at moral issues – our moral conceptual scheme – needs to be altered, and
with it, the way of life that has come to be taken for granted in our society.
In arguing for this conclusion I will not, of course, claim to be morally neutral. I shall, however, try to
argue for the moral position that I take, so that anyone who accepts certain assumptions, to be made
explicit, will, I hope, accept my conclusion.
I begin with the assumption that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are
bad. I think most people will agree about this, although one may reach the same view by different
routes. I shall not argue for this view. People can hold all sorts of eccentric positions, and perhaps from
some of them it would not follow that death by starvation is in itself bad. It is difficult, perhaps
impossible, to refute such positions, and so for brevity I will henceforth take this assumption as
accepted. Those who disagree need read no further.
My next point is this: if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby
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Famine, Affluence, and Morality, by Peter Singer
http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/1972—-.htm
sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. By “without sacrificing
anything of comparable moral importance” I mean without causing anything else comparably bad to
happen, or doing something that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good, comparable in
significance to the bad thing that we can prevent. This principle seems almost as uncontroversial as the
last one. It requires us only to prevent what is bad, and to promote what is good, and it requires this of
us only when we can do it without sacrificing anything that is, from the moral point of view, comparably
important. I could even, as far as the application of my argument to the Bengal emergency is concerned,
qualify the point so as to make it: if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening,
without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it. An application of
this principle would be as follows: if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I
ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is
insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.
The uncontroversial appearance of the principle just stated is deceptive. If it were acted upon, even in
its qualified form, our lives, our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed. 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. Secondly, the principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person
who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position.
I do not think I need to say much in defense of the refusal to take proximity and distance into account.
The fact that a person is physically near to us, so that we have personal contact with him, may make it
more likely that we shall assist him, but this does not show that we ought to help him rather than
another who happens to be further away. If we accept any principle of impartiality, universalizability,
equality, or whatever, we cannot discriminate against someone merely because he is far away from us (or
we are far away from him). Admittedly, it is possible that we are in a better position to judge what
needs to be done to help a person near to us than one far away, and perhaps also to provide the
assistance we judge to be necessary. If this were the case, it would be a reason for helping those near to
us first. This may once have been a justification for being more concerned with the poor in one’s town
than with famine victims in India. Unfortunately for those who like to keep their moral responsibilities
limited, instant communication and swift transportation have changed the situation. From the moral
point of view, the development of the world into a “global village” has made an important, though still
unrecognized, difference to our moral situation. Expert observers and supervisors, sent out by famine
relief organizations or permanently stationed in famine-prone areas, can direct our aid to a refugee in
Bengal almost as effectively as we could get it to someone in our own block. There would seem,
therefore, to be no possible justification for discriminating on geographical grounds.
There may be a greater need to defend the second implication of my principle – that the fact that there
are millions of other people in the same position, in respect to the Bengali refugees, as I am, does not
make the situation significantly different from a situation in which I am the only person who can prevent
something very bad from occurring. Again, of course, I admit that there is a psychological difference
between the cases; one feels less guilty about doing nothing if one can point to others, similarly placed,
who have also done nothing. Yet this can make no real difference to our moral obligations. [2] Should I
consider that I am less obliged to pull the drowning child out of the pond if on looking around I see
other people, no further away than I am, who have also noticed the child but are doing nothing? One has
only to ask this question to see the absurdity of the view that numbers lessen obligation. It is a view
that is an ideal excuse for inactivity; unfortunately most of the major evils – poverty, overpopulation,
pollution – are problems in which everyone is almost equally involved.
The view that numbers do make a difference can be made plausible if stated in this way: if everyone in
circumstances like mine gave £5 to the Bengal Relief Fund, there would be enough to provide food,
shelter, and medical care for the refugees; there is no reason why I should give more than anyone else in
the same circumstances as I am; therefore I have no obligation to give more than £5. Each premise in this
argument is true, and the argument looks sound. It may convince us, unless we notice that it is based on
a hypothetical premise, although the conclusion is not stated hypothetically. The argument would be
sound if the conclusion were: if everyone in circumstances like mine were to give £5, I would have no
obligation to give more than £5. If the conclusion were so stated, however, it would be obvious that the
argument has no bearing on a situation in which it is not the case that everyone else gives £5. This, of
course, is the actual situation. It is more or less certain that not everyone in circumstances like mine will
give £5. So there will not be enough to provide the needed food, shelter, and medical care. Therefore by
giving more than £5 I will prevent more suffering than I would if I gave just £5.
It might be thought that this argument has an absurd consequence. Since the situation appears to be
that very few people are likely to give substantial amounts, it follows that I and everyone else in similar
circumstances ought to give as much as possible, that is, at least up to the point at which by giving more
one would begin to cause serious suffering for oneself and one’s dependents – perhaps even beyond this
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point to the point of marginal utility, at which by giving more one would cause oneself and one’s
dependents as much suffering as one would prevent in Bengal. If everyone does this, however, there will
be more than can be used for the benefit of the refugees, and some of the sacrifice will have been
unnecessary. Thus, if everyone does what he ought to do, the result will not be as good as it would be if
everyone did a little less than he ought to do, or if only some do all that they ought to do.
The paradox here arises only if we assume that the actions in question – sending money to the relief
funds – are performed more or less simultaneously, and are also unexpected. For if it is to be expected
that everyone is going to contribute something, then clearly each is not obliged to give as much as he
would have been obliged to had others not been giving too. And if everyone is not acting more or less
simultaneously, then those giving later will know how much more is needed, and will have no obligation
to give more than is necessary to reach this amount. To say this is not to deny the principle that people
in the same circumstances have the same obligations, but to point out that the fact that others have
given, or may be expected to give, is a relevant circumstance: those giving after it has become known
that many others are giving and those giving before are not in the same circumstances. So the seemingly
absurd consequence of the principle I have put forward can occur only if people are in error about the
actual circumstances – that is, if they think they are giving when others are not, but in fact they are
giving when others are. The result of everyone doing what he really ought to do cannot be worse than
the result of everyone doing less than he ought to do, although the result of everyone doing what he
reasonably believes he ought to do could be.
If my argument so far has been sound, neither our distance from a preventable evil nor the number of
other people who, in respect to that evil, are in the same situation as we are, lessens our obligation to
mitigate or prevent that evil. I shall therefore take as established the principle I asserted earlier. As I
have already said, I need to assert it only in its qualified form: 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.
The outcome of this argument is that our traditional moral categories are upset. The traditional
distinction between duty and charity cannot be drawn, or at least, not in the place we normally draw it.
Giving money to the Bengal Relief Fund is regarded as an act of charity in our society. The bodies which
collect money are known as “charities.” These organizations see themselves in this way – if you send them
a check, you will be thanked for your “generosity.” Because giving money is regarded as an act of charity,
it is not thought that there is anything wrong with not giving. The charitable man may be praised, but
the man who is not charitable is not condemned. People do not feel in any way ashamed or guilty about
spending money on new clothes or a new car instead of giving it to famine relief. (Indeed, the alternative
does not occur to them.) This way of looking at the matter cannot be justified. When we buy new clothes
not to keep ourselves warm but to look “well-dressed” we are not providing for any important need. We
would not be sacrificing anything significant if we were to continue to wear our old clothes, and give the
money to famine relief. By doing so, we would be preventing another person from starving. It follows from
what I have said earlier that we ought to give money away, rather than spend it on clothes which we do
not need to keep us warm. To do so is not charitable, or generous. Nor is it the kind of act which
philosophers and theologians have called “supererogatory” – an act which it would be good to do, but not
wrong not to do. On the contrary, we ought to give the money away, and it is wrong not to do so.
I am not maintaining that there are no acts which are charitable, or that there are no acts which it
would be good to do but not wrong not to do. It may be possible to redraw the distinction between duty
and charity in some other place. All I am arguing here is that the present way of drawing the distinction,
which makes it an act of charity for a man living at the level of affluence which most people in the
“developed nations” enjoy to give money to save someone else from starvation, cannot be supported. It is
beyond the scope of my argument to consider whether the distinction should be redrawn or abolished
altogether. There would be many other possible ways of drawing the distinction – for instance, one might
decide that it is good to make other people as happy as possible, but not wrong not to do so.
Despite the limited nature of the revision in our moral conceptual scheme which I am proposing, the
revision would, given the extent of both affluence and famine in the world today, have radical
implications. These implications may lead to further objections, distinct from those I have already
considered. I shall discuss two of these.
One objection to the position I have taken might be simply that it is too drastic a revision of our moral
scheme. People do not ordinarily judge in the way I have suggested they should. Most people reserve
their moral condemnation for those who violate some moral norm, such as the norm against taking
another person’s property. They do not condemn those who indulge in luxury instead of giving to famine
relief. But given that I did not set out to present a morally neutral description of the way people make
moral judgments, the way people do in fact judge has nothing to do with the validity of my conclusion.
My conclusion follows from the principle which I advanced earlier, and unless that principle is rejected, or
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the arguments are shown to be unsound, I think the conclusion must stand, however strange it appears.
It might, nevertheless, be interesting to consider why our society, and most other societies, do judge
differently from the way I have suggested they should. In a wellknown article, J. O. Urmson suggests that
the imperatives of duty, which tell us what we must do, as distinct from what it would be good to do but
not wrong not to do, function so as to prohibit behavior that is intolerable if men are to live together in
society. [3] This may explain the origin and continued existence of the present division between acts of
duty and acts of charity. Moral attitudes are shaped by the needs of society, and no doubt society needs
people who will observe the rules that make social existence tolerable. From the point of view of a
particular society, it is essential to prevent violations of norms against killing, stealing, and so on. It is
quite inessential, however, to help people outside one’s own society.
If this is an explanation of our common distinction between duty and supererogation, however, it is not a
justification of it. The moral point of view requires us to look beyond the interests of our own society.
Previously, as I have already mentioned, this may hardly have been feasible, but it is quite feasible now.
From the moral point of view, 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.
It has been argued by some writers, among them Sidgwick and Urmson, that we need to have a basic
moral code which is not too far beyond the capacities of the ordinary man, for otherwise there will be a
general breakdown of compliance with the moral code. Crudely stated, this argument suggests that if we
tell people that they ought to refrain from murder and give everything they do not really need to famine
relief, they will do neither, whereas if we tell them that they ought to refrain from murder and that it is
good to give to famine relief but not wrong not to do so, they will at least refrain from murder. The issue
here is: Where should we draw the line between conduct that is required and conduct that is good
although not required, so as to get the best possible result? This would seem to be an empirical
question, although a very difficult one. One objection to the Sidgwick-Urmson line of argument is that it
takes insufficient account of the effect that moral standards can have on the decisions we make. Given a
society in which a wealthy man who gives 5 percent of his …
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