Singer’s Choice: On the Significance of Our Moral Poverty in Global Aid

Victor Ma

man standing on top of a hill

Photograph by Sydney Ngo

The Australian philosopher Peter Singer claims that most Americans are bad people because we do not do enough for people in need. In his essay "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," Singer argues that we should help people as long as we do not sacrifice anything "morally significant", but this phrase does not influence people the way he wants it to. Singer's phrase "moral significance" is impractical because it draws attention away from the kind of aid that is useful. His standard of "moral significance" does not change our actions because it asks for too much, relies on an incomplete analogy, and does not fully address proximate moral concerns.

Singer adduces two simple yet self-admittedly tricky premises to support his conclusion that we ought to do more to help people suffering and dying from certain conditions of poverty. The premises are as follows: 1) People dying from lack of food, shelter, and medical care (Singer's specific examples of these are what I call "conditions of poverty")( Singer, 231), and 2) "If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it." (231). He concludes that it is wrong to buy trivial things when we can use the money to ameliorate conditions of poverty. If given the truth of the premises, then the conclusion, I think, will necessarily follow. The first premise is a fair assumption, but I am not ready to accept the second premise because the phrase "anything of comparable moral importance" asks for more than we may initially think, and this will make people hesitate. Mere hesitation or unwillingness to act on the conclusion does not mean that Singer is wrong. But since his goal is to get people to do something about global poverty, then the soundness of argument will not alone carry the weight, he will have failed nonetheless. To motivate applied ethics, then, suggests that we should care how practical its conclusions are. Singer understands the impracticality of premise 2, so he weakens "comparable moral importance" to say "something morally significant" (241).

Both suggest that we make significant sacrifices; however, the former suggests a spectrum where everything has some amount of significance and insignificance, whereas the latter scale determines only whether something is significant or not. The spectrum will require us to reduce our standard of living until giving more would cause us enough pain to equal that of those whom we donate to. If I qualify as a kidney donor, and giving it will not kill me—even though it might cause me great pain—then I am morally required to give it to someone that would die without it: losing a kidney is not comparable to losing a life. But if me keeping my kidney was in itself morally significant, then under the scale, I would not have to give up my kidney even if it was good of me to do so. So saying "moral significance" asks for less, but I think both ideas ask us for more than is useful. In this essay, I will refer to the claim in the weaker form to speak to those that may not want people to reduce themselves to poverty, but think it reasonable to urge the weaker form of the argument. I will argue instead that it still demands too much for most people to act on the conclusions, and that we should consider some luxuries as acceptable if we want to motivate change on a larger scale.

We do not have enough to satisfy Singer's demands. I do not mean that collectively our resources could not end the suffering; indeed, I think it is possible, and this is what Singer appeals to. Bad things happen ubiquitously—granted in varying degrees, which will be discussed later—but each deserve the same moral attention given its moral significance. We can help as many people as possible, but we cannot, at least with current physical and technological limitations, prevent each bad thing from happening. Since our decision to prevent some bad things ties our resources so that we cannot prevent some other bad things, we have sacrificed something morally significant. Being overextended like this shows that Singer's criteria asks too much. Suppose we establish criteria for moral significance, and at least two groups meet the criteria: one group (MS1) is the totality of Americans suffering and dying from conditions of poverty; another (MS2) is the totality of people in Third World countries suffering and dying from conditions of poverty. We also have the group of extra resources that could be donated by people who are relatively affluent, or things that are not morally significant (nMS). If we chose between keeping nMS, and saving the lives of people in sets MS1 and MS2, then most people would say it is morally better, albeit not necessarily morally required, to sacrifice nMS for the latter. Singer paints a picture of this decision for us. Imagine walking by a pond and noticing a drowning child in it. We do not want to get our clothes wet, but that is not morally significant. Therefore, we ought to save the child even if our clothes get wet (231). Leaving the child to drown is supposed to represent what happens when we do not give spare money to charity: we rather let people die than give up our clothes. This would suggest that we can do something about the conditions of poverty here. Although when he judges charity by moral significance, it requires us to solve all problems at once because not doing so results in sacrificing some things that may be morally significant. His chastising us for not doing enough may be justified, but we cannot fulfill the scale of action he calls for.

Singer's thought experiment presents a false dichotomy: that is, he forces upon us an obvious but unrealistic choice between two options. How do we distribute nMS when we must decide between MS1 and MS2? Singer's scale considers every case of suffering so long as it is morally significant. If it is silly to think that simultaneous suffering reduces the significance of either life involved, then it is equally silly to assume that deciding what is and is not morally significant is sufficient for action. Imagine again walking by a pond with a drowning child. The pond is extended 600 yards, and on the other end of it there is also a drowning child. We cannot reach the second drowning child if we want to save the first one. This illustrates that if we have limited resources, we must sacrifice something morally significant to take any action. The phrase "moral significance" puts unrealistic expectations on what kind of choice we are making, and is not perfectly analogous to a drowning child.

Distance is also a factor when we consider the morality of global aid in the presence of domestic poverty. "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…[there is] no possible justification for discriminating on geographical grounds" (232). This means that how much a person gets help should not depend on where he lives. He sets up the case that we have just as much obligation to help reduce the conditions of poverty in MS2 as we do in MS1. If we take Singer's line of argument, I think we are also wrong if we donate to MS2 without proper regard to the members of MS1. Helping someone far away is a discrimination against those that are close, if both people suffer from the lack of food, shelter, and medical care. Even though some Americans suffer from these bad things, I think Singer, as a utilitarian, would argue that others should get the aid first.

Some respond that degrees of suffering might help us choose who to help. It costs more to help the members of MS1, so we will save more people if we save the members of MS2 first. A utilitarian thinks that we should do what produces the best consequences by making the most amount of people happy, which will be the most useful (utility) approach. In the context of global aid, this means we should try to alleviate the most suffering and dying. So if we want to maximize utility, assuming we cannot help all members of MS1 and MS2 simultaneously we should help members of MS2 first because we can help more of them. This reasoning is circular in that it is self-referential to utilitarianism. That degrees of suffering should matter among two dying peoples presuppose the principle of utility. I should choose members of MS2 over members of MS1 so I can make more people happy. Why does it matter that we make more people happy? It happens that the justification for this is the principle of utility itself, using as the end of all means the strategy of producing the most amount of happiness and mitigating the most amount of unhappiness. This overextension does not mean I should not help, but that I need to set a less problematic distinction of who to help.

If I ought to help, then I need to determine how much help to ask for without scaring people from actually doing so. My purpose is to draw from nMS without disturbing my standard of living. A person gets used to an amount of comfort that leads to a certain standard of living. Let us call that standard of living, N. Singer requires a person to reduce our standard of living to N-(X+c)=Y. X is the sum of excess luxuries; c, the sum of fixed luxuries that have made a significant alteration to my lifestyle; Y, the net standard of living. By excess luxury I mean something that does not significantly change my standard of living if I live without it. An example of a member of X is a candy bar that I felt like picking up at a gas station when I filled up the tank, or when I hear about a book from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and I impulsively buy it on Amazon. These are out of my ordinary routine and not things I need, hence they do not affect my lifestyle significantly. I can see myself taking the money that I would have spent on the candy or the book, and sending it to Oxfam without creating too much havoc in my life. With these luxuries, Y would equal exactly N, or our ordinary standard of living is equivalent to our net standard of living. To reach Y such that it equals N-(X+c), one would probably have to give up coffee. I do not need it to survive, and the $2 or $3 for a coffee can feed someone in a third world country. If I bought coffee five times a week that is potentially $10-$15 every week I can use to help people suffering from bad things. Without coffee though, I will have to make a significant lifestyle change (coffee is a member in the set of c) because I will no longer be running on caffeine in the morning and I may be addicted to it. This would then be considered an allowed luxury if we consider the idea that Y should equal N-c. Examples of these luxuries are relative, it can be tweaked to each person or culture, but the distinction is important if we want to encourage action.

I can hardly expect most people to give anything away if I formulate it this way. It seems as if any luxury can potentially be in set c. Since Singer is trying to revolutionize global aid, his biggest problem with my solution is that it is not enough. Certainly, people will continue to die from conditions of poverty, namely lack of food, shelter, and medical care and less people will die if they listen to his advice rather than mine. My point is that people will not listen to his advice, and so we should take a slower approach to set the stage for more change later on. I think we should encourage the donator to give without feeling they lost anything important, and do not also feel like it was above their duty to do so. By maintaining the same standard of living and donating anything superfluous to that, we can help people without scaring ourselves into climbing above our moral scales.

Singer thinks we ought to donate money if doing so does not let or cause anything else bad to happen. This last proposition, however, that qualifies the way that we can help someone prevents us from doing anything at all. Singer attempts to motivate ubiquitous aid because the phrase "moral significance" inconveniently calls for it. But too many people are suffering for us to help one without neglecting another. The principle of utility would prescribe the kind of action that Singer asks for, but that does not get people motivated. I accept that we should do more to help other people, but Singer's suggestion requires a revolution of our moral scheme. He wants us to climb out of our moral slumber, and awaken to the epidemic. He wants us to realize that our wrong actions, our moral poverty, hurts the parts of the world that need the help of global aid from affluent countries like ours. I think it is more helpful to leave lifestyles intact and make an evolutionary trimming of excess luxuries, which means the hope of a slippery slope towards more aid. Singer's choice to do more is commendable, and maybe it should not be, maybe it should be the rule and not the exception, but he should worry about the consequence and not the noble intent. Let us take small steps first.

Work Cited

  • Singer, Peter. "Famine, Affluence, and Morality." Philosophy and Public Affairs 1.3 (1972): 229-243.