This paper explores Peter Singer’s argument, in Famine, Affluence, and Morality, that we have morally required obligations to those in need. The explanation of his argument and conclusion, if accepted, would dictate changes to our lifestyle as well as our conceptions of duty and charity, and would be particularly demanding of the affluent. In response to the central case presented by Singer, John Kekes offers his version, which he labels the and points out some objections. Revisions of the principle provide some response to the objections, but raise additional problems. Yet, in the end, the revisions provide support for Singer’s basic argument that, in some way, we ought to help those in need.
Singer presents his argument specifically in terms of famine relief and, although it has broader applicability, the discussion mostly falls under this specific topic. Thus, he conforms his argument around aspects relevant to famine and/or poverty when laying out his three core premises.
The first premise of his argument (P1) states Most people would agree with this premise, regardless of their specific reasoning. Connecting suffering and death to a lack of basic needs seems clear and its characterization as bad seems to be in alignment with our common sense. However, some might still object for reasons that would be challenging or impossible to refute. In spite of any such objections, the premise can be accepted and those who disagree should step away at this point.
The second premise (P2) states The challenge here does not lie in the prevention of something bad since this would seem rather uncontroversial given our acceptance of P1. But, the sacrifice clause requires clarification before proceeding. It means, from a moral point of view, causing any comparably bad outcome or something intrinsically wrong or even the failure to achieve some good that is equal to or better than the bad to be prevented.
The concern for P2 is that the sacrifice clause involves some type of moral calculus to determine the relative good or bad to be sacrificed and it’s comparability to the bad to be prevented. The amount of sacrifice required would drive us toward a level of marginal utility, so Singer proposes a more moderate version of the second premise (P2’) –In this version, the sacrifice clause would create an obligation to act in cases where we would give up something insignificant.
Consider an example: After a heavy rain, I am walking through the park and I notice a child in the retention pond, struggling to avoid being sucked into a drainage pipe. In this circumstance, by P2’, I ought to jump in and save the child’s life. The motivation is my duty to prevent her death, which would be very bad, in spite of the insignificant sacrifice of wet clothing or damaged phone.
It would seem plausible this is something we should readily accept, but it radically changes how we view our moral obligation to help others. For one thing, nearness is unimportant so obligations would not...