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Duty Versus Charity: Why A Distinction Is Essential

1552 words - 7 pages

In the late 1960’s and into the 1970’s, the South Asian region of East Bengal (then East Pakistan, now the country of Bangladesh) was undergoing a severe famine, due to rampant poverty, a civil war and frequent cyclones. The lack of overseas help to this impoverished region was probably what triggered Peter Singer to write the article Famine, Affluence and Morality, wherein he claims that world hunger and famine can be prevented and possibly eradicated if everyone in the wealthy nations did their bit to help the sufferers monetarily. Singer further claims that duty and charity should not be as distinct as they are now, and hints at uniting the two. Upon careful analysis of Singer’s paper, one can find multiple loopholes in this proposal, and can conclude that Singer’s idea, while crafted out of good intentions, is neither feasible nor correct.
Before anything else though, it is essential to understand Singer’s argument. He starts his paper by talking about the situation in East Bengal and how there was a dearth of foreign aid to help alleviate the suffering of the victims of the famine there. He then broadens the scope of his article to talk about people suffering on a global level. Singer’s argument is founded on the fact that people starving, suffering and dying is something bad, and that prevention of any suffering is something we ought to do, provided we are not forgoing something of “comparable moral significance” (Singer 24). He also gives a weak version of this theory, which is that we must prevent suffering as long as we are not “sacrificing anything morally significant” (Singer 24). However, he later goes on to say that he personally favors the first, stronger principle.
Singer’s principle does not take into account geographical distance, that is, it says helping your neighbor and helping someone unknown in a faraway country are of equal moral significance. It also makes no distinction between cases where a specific person is the only one in a position to help, and cases where there might be millions of others in the same position. He then highlights the difference between duty and charity. A duty is any action which is not only correct in when it is performed, but wrong when flouted. Charity, on the other hand, is an act of giving that is upright to do, but not wrong when not done. Here lies the major difference between the two – a duty is something that must be done in order for the existence of society, whereas charity is voluntary and uncompelled. It is this distinction that Singer wishes to erase, or at least blur. He wants to make monetary help to the distant needy a dutiable action rather than charity on a moral level.
In fact, Singer proposes that everyone who possesses a reasonable amount of resources must donate a significant portion of their wealth and assets, reducing their self to “the level of marginal utility” (Singer 32). If not that, he suggests one ought to donate enough to make the “consumer society… slow down...

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